Hannah and Noah were both preschoolers. It was Sunday. Our wonderful, regular babysitter phoned me to say that she would not be able to work on Monday because of a family emergency.
I knew that I was about to get slammed with work on Monday. It would be time sensitive and non-negotiable. I could do a little of it today. But the bulk of it would have to be done on Monday, when new information surfaced and decisions were made about the choices I had already provided for clients.
I worked from home. Almost all of the work I did was aided by some sort of childcare - babysitter or pre-school. I needed to be professional on the phone. I needed to focus. I needed to pretend I was working from an office instead of an apartment that resembled a cheerful daycare center. The kind of work I did didn’t mix well with caring for small children. When I am working I like to really concentrate on that. Same with taking care of the kids.
These were the days before smartphones. The Internet and email was well established and I depended on those. Texting was just starting but not in widespread use. I had a great computer, but was rather tethered to it. It would be two more years before we could afford a laptop.
In those days, neighborhood resources were scarce for people who found themselves in my position. If this happened now, I could probably sign my kids up for a cool little class at a hip, family friendly spot close by. I'd work in the waiting area on my iPad while they were in there, painting with their feet, or making sculptures with food. But with no hip neighborhood, family friendly spot nearby and no iPad invented yet, I did not have this option.
There was some reason the kids were not in school. I can't remember why. It was either a school vacation or summer. So I did what was available to me. I called the sitters who I knew were experienced and trustworthy and worked on a freelance basis. All of them were busy.
I even considered one sitter who was responsible and great with kids, but a wee bit eccentric. She had once rearranged all of the furniture in the kids’ room while Jeremy and I were out. It's a very small room and the furniture looked very bizarre, at odd, jaunty angles. The arrangement left almost no floor space. Thankfully the children were happily asleep in their weirdly configured room. But Jeremy and I had quite the job to do the next morning putting everything back. Anyway, that sitter was busy too.
Next, I tried the mother's helper route. This was a good, but not perfect solution. Our regular sitter could do everything. She'd take the kids outside to the park. She could administer medicine, cook, and function beautifully with little input from me. Truth be told, she was much better at getting the kids to eat a nutritious meal than I was.
The mother’s helper route could still work. Whenever a 13 or 14-year-old girl would come over, that girl was like a celebrity to Hannah and Noah. They seemed stunned and delighted that a real live teenager came to play with them. As a result of the shock and awe, they were usually on their best behavior. One of them taught Noah some Spanish then called her mother so she could hear what she taught him. I'd still have to prepare meals, but having the mother’s helper there would free me up for part of the time.
Unfortunately, the mother’s helpers were all busy with things that teenagers do when they are not being mother’s helpers.
I ran through my list of nearby family members. All were gainfully employed which meant that they would also be working. Jeremy was working at a demanding job and had something very important on his agenda for Monday.
Having exhausted all of my options, I was left with the unpleasant realization that I was stuck with no childcare and a very busy work schedule.
One of my children was so active that the main objective I had when caring for him was to take the children outside as early as possible and stay out until naptime. I remember being outdoors in a drizzle. I'd call anything that wasn't torrential rain “a light misting” and stay put in the playground after everyone but maybe one other intrepid soul had packed it in.
It would be impossible and inadvisable to conduct important business from the sprinkler. I had to stay indoors. I had to conduct business with two preschoolers inside of the house and no childcare. I had to make professional phone calls, compose emails, shape itineraries in a business-like fashion while one of my children would likely attempt to climb our furniture.
He was also fond of shimmying up the doorframes, getting to the top, then hanging and swinging from the top of the door. I would have to do conflict remediation with my children while dealing with nervous and equally demanding clients.
I calculated how much money I would normally pay the sitter. I took that cash, left the kids with Jeremy and walked myself over to a sweet little gift store on Broadway. The store has since been replaced by a hipster coffee shop or a groovy Thai restaurant. They are right next to each other and it's hard for me to remember exactly in which storefront the cute gift shop was. It was one of those.
The store sold a well-curated selection of toys, and we would often shop there before a birthday party. I picked out some toys that I thought that Hannah and Noah would play nicely with together. I also selected the kind of toys that they would both want. In that case, I got them each one, so they wouldn't fight.
I did not get anything messy. I did not get anything that would involve adult interface. I did not get anything that they could potentially hurt themselves or each other with. I confined myself to a budget not exceeding the sitter fee for Monday. It turns out that I spent a little bit less.
I took the bags of toys and hid them in my room.
The next day, I dressed the children and gave them their breakfast. I let them watch a little Noggin. I got myself set up at my computer with my files and notes close by. Then I brought one new toy to Hannah and Noah in the living room.
Hannah and Noah were accustomed to getting new toys at birthdays, Christmas, Chanukah and occasionally as incentives. They were not used to being presented with surprise new toys on any old random day. I was counting on the novelty of the situation to buy me some peaceful work time.
This worked really well. I still had to keep my ear out and check on them every few minutes. Fortunately, they were both past the developmental stage where they were exploring toys with their mouths. I didn't have to worry about choking.
They played happily with the first new toys for a bit. Then I could hear them getting antsy. That's when I brought out different new toys.
The two sets of new toys took them right through lunchtime. I still had to prepare them lunch, which was a little dicey with the phone ringing all the time. After lunch, I did a quick naptime routine and put them down. That gave me another hour and a half of almost normal work time.
After they woke up and I facilitated potty time with the phone ringing off the hook, I presented new toys. They played. They got antsy. I gave them more new toys. They played. They got antsy again. More new toys.
Then it was dinnertime. I had made most of the arrangements, itineraries, marching orders and catering orders. I had smoothed the ruffled feathers of my clients, vendors and my children. I prepared my kids their dinner with some mild phone interruptions and only a few loose ends.
A FedEx deliveryman came and went with the added plus that the FedEx man coming to the door was always an exciting time for Hannah and Noah. They would run to the door and do a little happy dance as I handed the FedEx man a package.
Jeremy didn't work really late that evening. So after he got home, he played with the kids, did the bedtime routine and prepared a late dinner for the two of us after the kids were in bed. I spent more time working and clearing the decks for the next day.
The strategic roll out of new toys along with some good luck, had bought me an imperfect, but impressively successful workday.
The next day, I had another really busy workday. I honestly don't remember what childcare I had, only that I did have childcare. It may have been our regular babysitter. It may have been a substitute babysitter. It may have been one babysitter in the morning and another in the afternoon. I can say that I had mostly uninterrupted work time, which meant that it wasn't a mother’s helper.
Not so long after that, my older one started kindergarten, then a year later, the younger one. That brought with it childcare in the form of the NYC public school system. Of course, it also brought other complications with it. But I can say that none of the complications involved the gradual roll out of large numbers of new toys. If only it were that easy.