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The Childcare Trapeze Act

05/01/2011 21:02 ● Published by Anonymous

It was 7 o’clock on a Wednesday morning about six years ago. As I lay waking up in bed, my wife, all dressed for work, gave me my orders. “Now listen carefully,” she said, “Drop Marie off at school, take Sally to Brittany’s house and take Wendy to Gayla’s.  Now, repeat that back to me.” I did, then asked, “And what happens tonight?” “Just come home. Rachel will be here with them until then,” she said. “Rachel the sixth-grader?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, and hurried off to work.

By distributing the children to the places designated by Betsy, I’d be setting into motion a fragile chain of events that would provide some level of supervision for each child while my wife and I were at work. At noon Brittany’s mother would take Brittany and Sally to kindergarten. At 3 p.m. Rachel, who attends the same K-8 school as our two older children, would rendezvous with them at the school’s flag pole and walk them home and babysit them. At 4 p.m. Gayla, a woman who watches a half-dozen kids in her apartment all day, would deliver Wendy, age 2, into the youthful custody of Rachel at our house. Around 6, Betsy or I would come home, pay the necessary ransom, and take over. Whew!

When we decided to have kids, it never occurred to me that we’d have to know where each kid is and what she’s up to 24 hours a day for the first 17 years of her life. (It’s a job even the FBI wouldn't undertake without lots of unmarked sedans, plenty of guys in suits and gallons of black coffee in Styrofoam cups.)

So Betsy pieces together the arrangements, with me her willing stooge. But at any time, the sudden illness of a babysitter could send Betsy’s daily plan plunging toward the sawdust like a trapeze artist who suddenly finds herself all alone in midair.

Another time that carefully wrought plans come apart is when a child says the magic words: “I’m sick.” Our kids are now 8, 12 and 15, and only the youngest – Wendy – needs an attendant at home when she’s sick. The other two are OK alone, and are, in fact, professional babysitters themselves. Unfortunately little Wendy doesn’t like school and attempts to miss as much of it as possible. She is aided in that effort by an imagination that can exaggerate minor discomfort into something that calls for a medevac helicopter. “My throat feels like it’s crammed full of knives!” she’ll say.

(If I stayed home from work every time there were knives in MY throat, or icy hands squeezing my heart, or sulfuric acid burning out my stomach, or iron bands tightening around my skull, my boss would seldom get to see my brave little smile.)

But children deserve special consideration, even ones who can’t be trusted. One Monday morning last month Wendy, now a second-grader, seemed to be running a fever of 120 degrees. I’m no doctor, but she didn’t look THAT sick. It turns out she’d been holding the thermometer against a light bulb.

To test her sincerity, I’ll say, “You know, if you stay home from school, it means you’ll have to do nothing but lie moaning in your bed all day with only tea and chicken broth to eat.”

If she can accept that, Betsy and I try to decide which of us would be less damaged professionally by taking a day off from work. I’m on a razor’s edge here. My boss must believe that I take my job seriously, and my wife must believe that I take HER job seriously. And somewhere, nearly lost in all these practical considerations, is our desire to give a sick child every possible comfort.

The extent of our confusion was dramatized last Tuesday. Wendy came down to the breakfast table and claimed that her tummy contained red-hot harpoons (or something). My wife and I were exchanging dubious looks prefatory to deciding whose boss we would disappoint, when our sixth-grader Sally staggered downstairs. She blew her nose, coughed wetly into a tissue, and said, “I feel terrible. Can I stay home with Wendy?”

Betsy and I looked at each other with happy surprise and said, “YES!” (It was not a great moment in parenting, but on a strictly tactical level, the toast had indeed landed butter-side up.)

Rick can be reached at rickepstein@yahoo.com.

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