I'm starting to dread the sound my phone makes when I get a text. Last week, no fewer than three neighborhood parents, none of whom I know particularly well, pinged me with the same request: Could I possibly watch their kids? School was out two days last week and one day this week in NYC, so the city's working moms and dads are, understandably, in a phenomenal flap. The thing is, I'm a working parent, too. I actually have two jobs — writing, and parenting my three- and six-year-old children — both of which I do from home. Yet, when I tell people this, all they seem to hear is: "stay-at-home-mom." And from this they infer that I spend my days flitting between nail salons and coffee shops, not with my best scrubbing hand shoved down a toilet bowl while the other furiously types up an article I promised to hand in two days ago.
Because of this assumption, when parents who work outside the home need extra, last-minute childcare, they quite often call me. This started in earnest when my daughter, now six, began pre-k. At first, I was flattered when other moms I barely knew emailed to say how much their kid loved mine and would she be down for a playdate. Sure, I said.
"Great! Any chance you could pick him up on Tuesday as the nanny has the day off? I can grab him by 6:30." Yikes. A four-hour playdate with a child who's never been to our house and who I hardly know. That's ... a lot. But sure, I said, not quite comprehending how thoroughly I'd been hoodwinked. And of course, these epic after school playdates I'd find myself hosting again and again, which often resulted in tantrums and me cleaning up my temporary charge's anxiety-induced bathroom accidents, were rarely reciprocated.
As one of a few parents who almost always picks up her kids from school, I had been marked out. This person is fair game, they thought, and can be tapped up for freebie babysitting. Clearly, she has nothing better to do than provide pro bono community support to parents who are wealthy enough to afford a nanny, tropical vacations, and an entire house in an area of New York City where 1,000-square-foot apartments start at a cool million.
Now, it's only getting worse. Once word gets around that you're at home, everyone wants you as their child's emergency contact. And when you agree, because you're essentially a nice person who believes in helping thy neighbor, even if thy neighbor makes three times what you do and drives a Porsche, they take this as a tacit agreement that you're their mommy mensch who'll be on deck if they get called into an unscheduled meeting at 5 p.m. and can't get home to relieve the nanny.
To be clear, I have no problem whatsoever taking care of the kids of my parent friends on an ad hoc, reciprocal basis, but I'm no longer willing to make up the childcare shortfalls for anyone who thinks they can dodge paying out for babysitters when they're in a fix. I'm no longer giving in when I get requests from someone I barely know asking me to watch their two kids (not to mention picking them up from different venues) without ever using the words "please," "grateful," or "massive favor."
A quick poll of other stay-at-home-parents I know revealed they all receive similar treatment. One mom friend I chatted with said that she's often asked to pick up her two daughters' classmates. She's even had a dad acquaintance try to walk away and leave his kids in her front yard after they'd invited themselves over the railings to play. "Well, I need to get home and make dinner," he said, taking off. "Are you taking your children?" asked my baffled friend. "We're heading inside soon."
Another friend raising her child in a different part of New York told me that after she agreed to take a neighbor's children to the school bus stop a couple of times, the dad just continued to show up early at her house and drop his kids before school. She had to ask him to stop.
So this is my request to outside-the-home working parents: Unless it's an absolute crisis and you have no option but to ask for help, please refrain from treating stay-at-home parents like they don't have anything better to do than to watch your kids for free. If you wouldn't ask your CEO mom friend to take time out of her working day to pick up your child, don't ask the stay-at-home-mom, either.
And to the stay-at-home-parents who are sick of having to dodge requests and invent excuses, I think you have every right to be honest. Yes, you are home with your kids, but that does not mean your time is any less valuable than that of someone whose days are spent in an office.
While I love the "it takes a village" mentality — it is genuinely lovely to live somewhere you can build a network of local parents who you can call on if you're in a pinch — that village needs to be made up of a select, solid crew who you trust. People who can provide just as much help to you as you do to them.
So what did I say to the parents who texted me last week for free childcare? I summoned that hard-ass mom part of my personality, the bit I use to tell my kids they can't have another cookie, even when giving in would be easier, and I said "no."