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Canada Amplify: When a babysitter becomes part of the family

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The first trick-or-treaters were starting to arrive when my son began the process of getting into his own costume. For weeks, his dad had lovingly and painstakingly constructed a giant hamburger head so our son could dress up as Durr Burger, a character from the video game Fortnite. Sure, people over a certain age mistook it for Mayor McCheese, but there was no denying its awesomeness. This thing was a work of art.

At age 10, my kid was going trick-or-treating with friends – sans parents – for the first time (although there were scheduled check-ins). Off he went into the night with his buddies.

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I’m Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail’s Western Arts Correspondent, based in Vancouver. I’m also an often exhausted, overworked and overwhelmed mother. Halloween or not, parenting can be terrifying. Today I want to write about some vital help I have been so fortunate to receive.

Not even half-an-hour after my kid left the house, he barged back in through the front door. It was a Durr Burger disaster; the costume was so cumbersome, it made trick or treating impossible. He was devastated.

Enter Hannah, my son’s after-school babysitter. She had stuck around to help me hand out candy. But here was a real crisis. She jumped into action, creating costumes for the two of them out of a couple of blankets, some quick crafting and her gigantic imagination. “We’re alien tourists from space,” she pronounced. Off they went together.

Hannah saved Halloween.

It’s not the first time – and certainly won’t be the last – that Hannah has stepped in to rescue us. “Babysitter” doesn’t seem like the right word for her. Neither does “nanny.” She has been looking after Jacob full- or part-time since he was four months old. She is family.

I’ve written before about the need for support for new moms. I remember the experience all too well from when my own son was born. I was new to Vancouver, and there wasn’t a single person here I knew well enough to call up and ask to come over and hold my baby so I could take a nap.

Hannah did that for me.

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She stuck with us through colic, bedbugs and personal disasters on both ends. She is not a housekeeper; playing is her priority. She has helped shape my child into the person he is, and she is a wonder to watch.

When moments like Halloween happen, I’m struck to the core by how much my son’s experience of childhood – and my own experience of motherhood – has been enhanced by Hannah’s presence. For so many parents, desperately trying to do it all, someone like Hannah helping us hold it together can make a world of difference for every member of the family. I also recognize that I am writing this with the privilege of a full-time job and relative security. I’ve been in a position to afford to pay Hannah, but not everyone can do so. And, as Beth Berry observes in this insightful piece, many mothers who have no friends and family around struggle immeasurably without a “village."

Last week, I saw Alfonso Cuaron’s magnificent film Roma, which sent me into deep reflection about the vital role caregivers play in our children’s lives – and ours. The caregiver in this story, based on Cuaron’s own childhood nanny, is there for the children but also for their mother, who needs some care herself. This is not a good-versus-evil portrayal of a loving nanny and an absent biological parent; this is an authentic examination of how a person who is paid to help the family becomes part of it and strengthens it.

In the crazy daily marathon that is life, it’s easy to forget to tell the people who care for our children how much they mean to us – even if most of us can’t pull a Cuaron and make a cinematic masterpiece out of their inspiration.

While everyone wants a safe, responsible caregiver – and some will even turn to artificial intelligence to find one, as the Washington Post reports – a babysitter is not just someone who changes diapers and administers meals while you’re at work, or makes sure your child doesn’t die while you have a date night. They have much more to offer – themselves. There’s no need to be fluent in three languages, but you hit the jackpot when you find a sitter who can bring their own talents and passions to your child’s life.

There’s another movie, about to descend on theatres this holiday season, that puts the role of caregivers in the spotlight. Mary Poppins Returns will remind us this holiday season about the nanny who brought magic to a dull household. I have had sitters bring rock-and-roll dance parties, bake-offs, gallery-worthy collage projects and cupboard-organizing marathons to my home.

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And from Hannah, I have learned untold amounts. Not just about parenting, either. She was the person who, years ago, introduced me (and my kid) to Lady Gaga.

This New York Times piece about a nanny leaving the home honours the fact that babysitters and children form attachments – and that is healthy not just for their bond, but for the child’s bond with her parents. My kid is getting older. I know that one day he won’t need a babysitter anymore.

But we will always need Hannah.

What else we’re reading:

I saw the film Working Girl 30 (ugh) years ago, when I was a very young career woman and loved it enough that I went back and saw it again in the theatre. I don’t think I’ve seen it since, and I’m not sure it would stand up, but boy is this “juicy oral history” in the Hollywood Reporter ever fun. It’s a look back at the film’s genesis, crafted with interviews with the actors and creators, including producer Doug Wick. “The film dealt with sexual harassment, gender barriers, class barriers, privilege, snobbery from not having an Ivy League education,” Wick says. “In many ways, the movie was way ahead of its time.”

Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you’ll amplify it by passing it on. And if there’s something we should know, or feedback you’d like to share, send us an e-mail at amplify@globeandmail.com.

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