“When I held Sam alone for the first time..., I was nursing him and feeling really spiritual, thinking, please, please God, help him be someone who feels compassion, who feels God’s presence loose in the world, who doesn’t give up on peace and justice and mercy for everyone. And then a second later I was begging. Okay, skip all that shit, forget it—just please let him outlive me.” - Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions Anchor Books, 1995
Every mother’s worst fear is to outlive her child. Upon seeing her child for the first time, her first thought is, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you….” Her second thought is, “please don’t die!”
A mother’s second worst fear is that her child will suffer harm in some way: Disfigurement, paralysis, chronic or life-threatening illness, physical or sexual abuse, and more. We know there are a host of horrible things that can happen to our kids and we have no control over most of them. All we can do is try our best to minimize the risks when we can.
As working moms, we have even less control over our childrens’ safety. Leaving our children in the care of a nanny or day care center or after-school program requires a tremendous amount of faith. No matter how many instructions, requests, directions, or demands we may give, a caretaker is never going to care for our kids exactly the same way we would if we were with them full-time. We can choose caregivers who exhibit the values and character traits most important to us, but we can’t control how those values play out around our children day in and day out.
For eleven wonderful years, Lucia* took care of our three children. She was young, pretty, active, and loving. She was smart and funny and thoughtful. She had a wide network of other nannies she would socialize with and some of those nannies’ charges are still my kids’ closest friends. She stayed with us through job changes, moves, remodels, and family deaths. And we supported her through numerous life events, as well: Her divorce and new marriage, the birth of her grandson, her occasional financial crises, and more. Lucia was so much more than a nanny; she was a co-parent, a beloved auntie, a trusted friend.
In December of last year, however, Lucia relayed the news my husband and I had been preparing to hear since our youngest child started kindergarten, cutting our childcare needs in half: She had found a new job as a full-time nanny for a professional couple with a single, newborn infant. It was the Holy Grail of caregiver jobs and while we were devastated to be losing her, we were happy to be losing her to a kind, generous family that would treat her with the respect she deserves.
When the time came to make new, part-time childcare arrangements for my kids, I happily followed up on Lucia’s recommendation to hire Gabriela*: a 20-something community college student with a beautiful smile, a gentle demeanor, and an enviable mane of thick, dark locks.
Gabi is the poster child for the American Dream; the sort of young woman I root for heartily. The daughter of Salvadorian immigrants, she is putting herself through college with the money she makes performing odd jobs, babysitting, and helping her mom, who is also a full-time nanny. She is sweet, hard-working, responsible, and friendly. My kids, who already knew Gabi through her mom, were thrilled to have her with us, even if she could only help us for three weeks while I looked for something more permanent.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that Gabi would not be a good fit for our family, long-term. My kids are good kids, but they need a firm hand and she struggled with disciplining them. Despite her best efforts to enforce our house rules and complete her assigned tasks, I came home each day to a messy house, unfinished homework, and kids who looked like kittens who’d just eaten a couple of canaries. But they were happy and unharmed, and she was grateful for the money, so I figured we could manage for two more weeks.
Then, one night in the third week of her tenure, after Gabi had left for the night, my five-year old son casually mentioned that Gabi had bit him. I was shocked. Where had she bit him? (“The arm.”) Was she being playful at the time or was she angry? (“Angry.”) Did it hurt? (Yes.) When did this occur? (“Last Wednesday.”) Why didn’t you tell me sooner? (“I thought I’d get in trouble.”)
Very calmly and without fanfare, my son told me what had occurred. He, Gabi, and my eight-year old daughter sat in Gabi’s parked car at a nearby McDonald’s, waiting for my son’s playmate to finish school so that the boys’ playdate could begin, as scheduled. From the backseat of her car, my son repeatedly reached into the front seat to play with the car radio, ignoring her requests to stop. This continued until, finally, she turned her face toward him, opened her mouth, and bit down hard on his outstretched arm.
The entire retelling of the episode took less than five minutes. My son was not upset as he spoke - he was merely reporting the incident - and if there’d been a bruise, it was gone by the time he told me. My daughter, the only possible witness, had been nose-deep in a Harry Potter book at the time and could not corroborate his story. (“I remember him sitting down like something had happened, but that’s all.”)
For at least thirty minutes, I sat and listened, completely stunned and unable to make sense of what I was hearing. I was quite confident my son wouldn’t make up such a story. For one thing, he had waited to tell me for as long as he did because he was sure I would scold him for disobeying her. Moreover, he liked Gabi - even after she bit him - and wanted her to stay with us. He had nothing to gain from a lie that might get him in trouble and send Gabi away.
I’ve read dozens of articles and heard handfuls of parenting experts talk about the importance of listening to our kids’ reports of abuse and, most importantly, believing them. I am a staunch supporter of the “no means no” policy when it comes to respecting one another’s bodies. Barring the presence of solid evidence to the contrary, I nearly always come down on the side of the victim in highly-publicized stories of abuse, believing that anyone with the guts and fortitude to endure the mortifying and undignified process of reporting abuse and pressing charges must be telling the truth. From the time my kids have been toddlers I’ve told them that if anyone touches them in a way they don’t like, they can come to me. “I will always believe you,” I’ve said, over and over again.
Now, here I was, sitting in my living room, hearing my son tell me the woman I hired to take care of him had bit him on the arm, and I wasn’t sure I believed him. I was having a hard time reconciling the story I was hearing with the bright, promising young woman I believed Gabi to be.
I never let on that I had doubts about his story. I did and said all the things I’ve been told to do in a situation like this. But the situations and hypothetical scenarios I’ve imagined in the past included evidence, witnesses, tears, and other obvious signs of physical or emotional harm. They were always black and white, but this wasn’t. My son was not physically hurt or emotionally traumatized. No one had witnessed the occurrence and my son wanted Gabi to continue babysitting him. Things couldn’t have looked more grey to me.
I decided to give Gabi the benefit of the doubt and a chance to tell her side of the story. I excused myself and called her privately from my bedroom, out of earshot of my kids. I explained what I’d heard and asked her if she had any idea why my son might say she had bit him. I was practically begging her to provide me some reasonable excuse for how my son’s arm ended up in her mouth and between her teeth. But she had none. Instead, she became defensive. She said my son was a liar, that he was retaliating against her for making him pick up his toys, and suggested the three of us discuss it together the following morning and “see if he says it to my face,” she said, bitterly. It was far from the response I was hoping for. Even if she’d been innocent, it was clear that she disliked my son - especially now - and was unfit to care for him. I thanked her for her time and told her I thought it best that she not return.
In the nine months that have passed since then, I’ve become more and more convinced of her guilt. It’s the only logical explanation. That said, I have no regrets about how I handled the situation, including the fact that I didn’t report Gabi. We didn’t have enough evidence to file a police report, let alone win any sort of legal battle. Statistics will tell you Gabi is probably a victim of abuse herself and is likely to repeat the offense; that she is a danger to any children under her care. But it’s also possible she won’t and that this was a one-time occurrence. Perhaps she was simply pushed beyond the limits of her patience and made a really stupid, thoughtless decision. Most importantly, my son was relatively unharmed. The damage seemed minimal.
I’m not excusing her behavior - what she did was absolutely, unequivocally wrong. I wish she’d never entered our lives and I hope I never see her again. But reporting her would have been potentially horrible for my family. Furthermore, an accusation of child abuse could conceivably have been catastrophic for Gabi’s future. That was a punishment I was unwilling to unleash upon her under the circumstances. Weighing it all in the balance, going public and holding her accountable for her actions simply wasn’t worth it.
As regrettable as the experience was, it exposed some weaknesses in my parenting and taught my family and me some important and valuable lessons.
For starters, I now understand that abuse might not look like I expect it to look. For a variety of reasons, a report of abuse may not be black and white; it may in fact be very grey. I hope I never have another opportunity to test this understanding, but if I do, I will be more prepared.
I learned that my kids didn’t know Gabi’s actions were wrong, which is concerning. I thought the line between appropriate touch and violating touch was crystal clear to them, but it wasn’t. My youngest son felt no sense of urgency to tell me what had happened. He has been bitten by other children three times in the past - twice in preschool and once in kindergarten - and each time his teachers, administrators, and I all told him the behavior was unacceptable, that it’s never okay to bite another person. And yet he did not automatically see Gabi’s behavior as wrong. I had to explain again that no child - no matter how naughty or disobedient - should ever be bitten.
My other two children showed a similar lack of clarity about biting as an abusive act. When my five-year old finally shared his story, my other two kids were suspicious. “Are you sure she bit you?”, they asked. “Maybe you misunderstood.” I’m glad I was able to set the record straight and demonstrate my commitment to always believe my kids, but I’m not sure how powerful my message was. After all, two out of the three family members my son shared the abuse with echoed his own self-doubt about whether or not he deserved to be bitten.
I want to raise my children to have a strong sense of justice, to stand up for the powerless, and to bravely speak out in defense of the weak. For them to do this, my kids need to be able to identify abuse, whether it’s against them personally or they witness abuse against another person. Clearly, this is a work in progress.
As for any future childcare workers we hire, I will be sure to conduct a more thorough investigation into the history and character of potential candidates. But to be honest, unless someone has a criminal record or a worrisome reference, there are limits to what we can learn about a person. I doubt I would have seen any red flags if I’d investigated Gabi more thoroughly. At the end of the day, all I can do is make the best choice possible with the information I have and empower my kids to identify mistreatment and speak up if it occurs.
No one said parenting would be easy. Having children is like entering an eighteen-plus year obstacle course, filled with seemingly endless judgement calls and difficult decisions. As hard as I try to avoid failing my kids, I will fail them. Bad things will happen to them. The best I can do is try my best to turn failures into positive learning experiences and pray, pray, pray they outlive me.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of persons mentioned.