If you were to meet our babysitter, C., junkie would be about the last word to come to mind—down there with slob, bigot, Nazi. A recent graduate of the University of Washington here in Seattle, C. is among the kindest, most dependable babysitters we’ve known. She never tires of playing Candy Land, folds laundry with Gap-like precision and exudes a loving calmness that inspired my children to sleep though the night, long before they ever performed such a feat for me.
So you can imagine my horror the other day when my 3-year-old watched her dad inject himself in the leg with an anticoagulant before an airplane trip (to prevent a blood clot following recent knee surgery) and declared in that matter-of-fact tone preschoolers are famous for, “C. has one of those. But she does it in her arm.”
We met C. when the 3-year-old was a newborn. She stood out from the pack of potential hires by using full sentences in her correspondence and avoiding phrases like “cutiepatutie” in her email address. She was a seasoned babysitter and nursing student who had logged many hours in the infant room of her local daycare and knew far more about swaddling, bouncing and making womb-simulating shuuuuush-ing noises than I did. In person she exuded that perfect and rare combination of liveliness and sweet serenity—energizing and palliative at the same time, a Vodka Red Bull in polite, responsible human form. She had glowing references, a beyond-trustworthy smile, and charged a bit less than the going rate.
For years we have loved C., loved having her take such exquisite care of our two girls but also loved her in her own right as she transitioned from a major in nursing to one in communications and moved from the dorms to an apartment and graduated this past spring and got a “real” job here in Seattle. Happily she’d still be able to come over for the occasional date night and continue to be a gentle, affectionate presence in our daughters’ lives.
But what, really, did we know about this young woman we’d entrusted our children to hundreds of times? Had we ever seen where she lived? Who her friends were off Facebook? How she spent her time when she wasn’t studying, babysitting or (reportedly) traveling back to her parents’ suburban house to cheer her little brother’s football games? Everything we knew about her was from what she’d told us, virtually none of it corroborated. We trusted her completely—but why?
We pretended to know C., declared her “one of the family,” that clichéd expression many an employer tells herself to feel better about farming out some of the more tedious aspects and hours of childrearing. (It’s acceptable—normal, even—to ask a family member to fold your undies, wipe your children’s bottoms, expose herself to your colds and stomach viruses and mysterious rashes.) If C. is family, she’s a member whose middle name we don’t know, whose birthday we can never quite remember, whose favorite meals and activities and bands and books and travel destinations and dreams are a mystery—not because they’re so enigmatic but because we’ve never bothered to ask. We hired C., left her with our most precious cargo, paid her a bit above minimum wage, and made sure the exterior light was working so she could (presumably) find her way back to her car without falling on our precariously mossy steps. At best she was like a third cousin once or twice removed.
Maybe it was dicey, hiring someone because she had a straightforward email address and folded laundry neatly. On the other hand, if I couldn’t rely on my instincts when it came to hiring a sitter, I wouldn’t get a moment to myself—let alone get any work done—for the next four years. And when both girls are finally enrolled in school, how will I be able to trust their teachers? What about date nights and summer vacations and deadlines and the occasional pressing need for an adults-only weekend getaway? Would we have to sacrifice our sanity and invite one of our mothers to move across the country to live with us? Is it even advisable to leave a 70-year-old alone with two small kids for more than an hour or two?
It’s terrifying to leave a child with a babysitter—even the beloved, experienced kind. It’s difficult to quantify the fear for the uninitiated without sounding hyperbolic and paranoid, but picture your favorite part of your body—your heart or brain or hands or stomach or whatever—and then imagine leaving it in the care of some 18-year-old you’ve never met before while you go off and try to get some work done or have a nice relaxing evening reconnecting with your spouse over overpriced tapas. It’s a miracle you’re able to continue to breathe, let alone drive a car or digest food or type emails. If anything bad happens to that part of you while you’re away, you will probably literally die.
These feelings are overwhelming without the added fuel of sensationalized news stories about nannies who drink, nannies who rape, nannies who kill. Presumably all those women had glowing references once upon a time, too.
It seemed impossible—truly impossible—that C. would not only shoot heroin but do it in front of our kid, explaining it as she went. But it also was not possible that my observant, curious-about-all-things-medical daughter was fabricating the use of a needle from thin, damp Seattle air.
I struggled to keep my voice as calm and even as possible as my stomach dropped to the floor, so as not to scare my daughter into stubborn silence. “Oh? She does?”
“Yeah. She taps out the bubbles and then puts it in. Just sometimes, though.”
“Puts it in where?”
“In her arm. I already told you,” she said, her face tightening into an impatient scowl. “I don’t want to talk about it any more.”
We were on the East Coast, up at 6:15 a.m. to catch a flight—3:15 a.m. in Seattle—too early to call C. and find out what the hell was going on. I raised my eyebrows at my husband who, as an emergency room doctor at Seattle’s public hospital has already seen more than enough heroin use for one lifetime. “I can’t think about this right now,” he said, stuffing his clothes into his duffel and scanning the room for something he’d apparently misplaced—perhaps his faith in humanity?
C. has one of those, but she does it in her arm. My mind struggled to come up with a plausible explanation. Diabetes, maybe? No, she definitely would have mentioned that. “Maybe she carries an EpiPen in her purse?” I suggested lamely.
Temporary relief washed over my husband’s face. “Allergies. Of course. An EpiPen. Yeah.” All communications majors carry EpiPens in their purses, right? Just in case?
We pretended to buy this for the duration of the first leg of our trip home, but by the time we landed in Detroit for a layover, skepticism triumphed. In the nearly four years we’ve known her, C. has never once mentioned an allergy or had so much as a sniffly nose. “Honey,” I tried again. “You know that syringe daddy used this morning on his leg?”
“Yeah—the one like C. uses on her arm.”
“Yeah, about that …” I tried going for random specifics—a veteran’s technique for separating the truth from the chaff with young kids because it turns out preschoolers lie all the time about absolutely everything, and it takes the finesse of a federal judge to figure out when they’re full of it and when they actually need you to step up and intervene. “What color is the one she uses?
“Greyish. Clearish and grey-ish. With purple on the part you press in.”
“A grey needle?” She taps out the bubbles…
“Yeah. A pokey thing. But purple, too.” And then puts it in…
“And where did she put it?” I held my breath as the 3-year-old slowly moved her left hand over her right arm, let it hover, and set it down on the inside of her elbow. Then she scooted it a smidge to the side. “Here.”
“Do you know why she has it? Is it for, like, if she gets a bee sting?” I’m no doctor, but even I know EpiPens don’t get injected directly into an arm vein.
“No! Not for bees! I told you! I don’t know why she had it. She’s not sick. She said she’s not sick. She just does it sometimes. Most times.”
“Did she do it when we were at her graduation party?” I asked, in an attempt at a trick question that might unveil the holes in my daughter’s version of events and magically help the story make sense. No one would shoot smack at her graduation party at her parents’ house, with her grandparents in the next room and parents and employer on the back deck.
The 3-year-old laughed. “No, Mama. That would inter-pupt.” She continued to giggle at the absurdity of it, her favorite babysitter causing a scene at her own party by injecting “medicine” into her arm. She’s not sick. She just does it sometimes.
The second we returned home, I called C.. I felt sheepish, ashamed, horrible—and as single-minded and indomitable as a mama grizzly. I asked if she carries an EpiPen in her purse. I asked if she’s diabetic and never mentioned it. I asked if she could imagine why the 3-year-old would have said what she did.
C. got very quiet.
I got very quiet.
“No. I have no idea. That’s really weird. Huh.”
In that split second, I questioned everything I thought I knew and believed. I shouldn’t trust anyone, least of all myself. I’m a terrible mother and I’ve given C.’s number to other moms. Why bother with the sun hats and toxin-free sunscreens and electrical socket covers and organic produce and top-of-the-line car seats if I was going to leave my children in the care of a heroin addict for nearly four years without ever suspecting a thing? What was wrong with me?
Even though I’ve always wanted children and love my kids more than anyone else on the planet and adore being a mom, I find the effort of trying to be a good (or, ideally, really good) mom exhausting, oftentimes debilitatingly so, particularly when judgment calls are involved—which is, like, always. Unlike in, say, France where supposedly there’s a fairly standardized way to bring up bébé, the choose-your-own-adventure approach popular in America is a recipe for self-reproach and doubt—at least for those of us who tend toward that sort of thing to begin with.
The particulars of this moment were novel (favorite babysitter/heroin suspicions), but the feeling was excruciatingly familiar. I felt it when I was fighting the urge to rescue my first daughter from her 45th minute of “crying it out” and I felt it when I let an X-ray technician twist my screaming baby’s arm around to get a clearer image of what I knew was nursemaid’s elbow, not a broken bone. Was I scarring my daughter by leaving her alone in her crib or setting her up to become a spoiled, overly entitled Veruca Salt by going to her? Was I doing right in making absolutely positively sure the arm wasn’t broken, or was I betraying myself and my baby for not preventing a painful and seemingly unnecessary medical procedure? The emotional limbo paralyzes me every time and makes me feel entirely unfit.
You’d think if there’s no one way everyone does this childrearing thing, parents would feel free to plow ahead without hesitation. Instead it feels like there is a right way—it just happens to be whatever way I’m not doing it, whatever way would never even cross my mind. Somehow everyone else manages to avoid hiring a flagrant junkie as their babysitter—where exactly had I gone wrong?
Suddenly I remembered M., another young woman who babysat the girls for a few weeks this summer, a friend of a friend. M. is diabetic. And not shy about it.
She returned my pseudo-casual voicemail message right away. “Oh, yeah, I showed her how I give myself insulin a few times.”
“This is going to seem really random, but what color is the syringe?
“Kind of clear, I guess.” She paused. “With a purple plunger thing.”
“And where do you inject it?” Again I held my breath.
“Oh, I do it in the fatty tissue in my arm. Sort of above and behind my elbow.”
Oh, thank god. I was too relieved to question M.’s decision to inject herself with insulin in front of my kids without running it by me—or at least mentioning it afterward. She had filled in for a few weeks when we were in a pinch, and I was grateful. I said a hasty thanks, hung up the phone, and held my daughters tight until they squirmed and insisted I let them go.
How will I make it up to C.? How do you apologize for suspecting something terrible about someone even as you know it’s completely, entirely, 100% impossible?
I told the 3-year-old that it wasn’t C. with the syringes but M. “Because of her diabetes, remember?”
“Yeah, M. has one.” She thought this over for a minute. “But so does C. She really, really does.”
I didn’t believe her for a second. I breathed easy in the knowledge that this was one detail my kid was making up and set my daughters free so they could continue their game of doctor’s office with their vintage Fisher Price kit and stash of stuffed cats and band-aids made out of felt and velcro and idly hoped they wouldn’t decide to play “diabetes.” It was still a little too soon