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DIANNE KLEIN

Baby-Sitter's Sudden Departure Leaves Family in Crisis of Trust

June 27, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN | Klein's column appears Sunday

Way back when, telegrams brought the surest signal of personal calamity; after that, disaster started introducing itself with the shrill ring of the telephone in the middle of the night.

You knew the news would be bad. You paused briefly, holding your breath, before falling off a cliff.

Then came the advent of direct-mail marketing gimmicks--"Western Union. Urgent."--and all those late-night wrong numbers, and suddenly it seemed the traditional omens of misfortune couldn't be counted on any more.

Today, the sky just falls. It nearly crushed me the other day.

I picked up the phone in my office, sitting here among all the trappings of routine, and my world went black.

It was my daughters' baby-sitter, the woman who shares our home and cooks our meals, the one included in the first-grader's crayon portraits of her family, the one the 2-year-old likes to curl up with at night.

She told me that she'd be leaving that evening and might never come back.

Her own calamity was calling her now. The telephone had borne the news only moments before. Her Mexican grandmother, the woman who had raised her and confided in her, the one who everybody always thought was an older version of herself, was near death.

She had to go.

I understood. Or at least part of me did, the part that asked the right questions, and said that I was sorry and offered her job back any time. The other part of me wanted to cry, for my daughters and for myself.

If you are not a working parent, you might not understand this. You might think that I am being overly dramatic, that the situation could not possibly be this bad.

Or maybe you are thinking that I am getting what I deserve. Or is this my own guilt talking? In other words, did I bring this on my daughters myself? Aren't mothers supposed to be at home?

Well, I can't get into all that now. I don't have the time. A child-care crisis, once again, is consuming my life.

The first thing I did upon getting that call was to take a "vacation" from my job. My husband lined up his own for the next week. We placed advertisements in four newspapers, we found some temporary help and we wrung our hands.

Friends told me their own child-care horror stories, others crossed their fingers and said they pray often that such doesn't happen to them. But my bet is that it will.

Any working parent who has not arrived at day care too late in the evening or too early in the morning, anyone who has not had a baby-sitter simply disappear, anyone who hasn't "settled" on a child-care situation even though they were nagged by doubt, is somebody who is extraordinarily blessed.

Obviously a genie has granted them a wish: Unlimited wealth, wonderful grandparents nearby or an employer who doesn't really care if they show up for work.

The night that their baby-sitter left, my daughters and I slept in the same bed--or we tried to sleep, that is. They cried, I hugged and nobody quite understood. I felt like I needed my mother then.

I just wanted somebody to make everything all right.

But it is getting better. The temporary helper has not turned out to be an ax murderer, my daughters are crying less and their beloved baby-sitter called from Mexico the other night.

She said that she misses us and wants to come back. Her grandmother, she said, appears to be on the mend.

But now. . . .

Things are different. I don't know if I can trust her any more. Will she break our hearts again?

My daughters, of course, don't see the dilemma this way. They love their baby-sitter. Period. They want her back. They never believed that she was out of their lives. If she were to walk through our door, whether tomorrow or months from now, I am sure they would hug her so tightly that she would be unable to move.

But my husband and I are more practical, or maybe cynical, types. We were the ones who placed the newspaper ads right away. We announced that we were looking for a nanny/housekeeper. We did not say "someone to love."

Even though, still, I think that we are.

So when I talk to the people responding to our ads--there have been so many that I've lost count--I run through a basic checklist and then, if they pass, I let them talk a bit. I listen to their voices, their tone, their choice of words. I wonder if my 2-year-old would curl up with them, or if my older daughter would declare her love out loud.

And then, if they pass muster here, I will tell them the whole truth. I will tell them about the baby-sitter who left but might come back. I tell them that we are in limbo. Like a suitor, I ask them if I can call again.

Because none of this is just about offering or finding a job. Sometimes it's about adding a new person to your family, or joining one, to the benefit of all.

But when it doesn't, it's like trafficking in human lives.

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