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Mother-in-law as nanny

Mother-in-Law as the Nanny: The Real Costs of “Free” Childcare

By Amalah

Hi Amalah!

I always knew when we started having kids I’d want to be a SAHM, at least until they were in school. Well, I’m due with my first in a couple of weeks and unfortunately we can’t afford for me to stay home with her after maternity leave ends. At least I get to take 12 weeks, but after that I had no idea what I was going to do with her.

I was starting to look into daycare when recently my MIL approached me and asked if I’d found anyone to watch the baby yet. I said no, and that it was stressing me out. She then tearfully proceeded to ask if I “would allow her grandmother to watch her.” I’m not sure why exactly she was emotional about it- was it because I hadn’t approached her to ask myself? Was is it because she considers it a huge honor? I had no idea, but what could I say? I told her yes. After she left I promptly burst into tears.

I know it sounds crazy- my MIL is one of the sweetest, most generous people I know. It will be a tremendous financial burden off of us, and I know the baby will be in the most loving hands. It’s a huge sacrifice for her to take my infant full time and she will spoil the baby to death. But here’s the thing, as much as I love my MIL, she drives me absolutely bat-shit crazy sometimes. She’s helpful to the point of being intrusive and VERY opinionated. She has something to say about EVERYTHING. She does not understand the concept of comfortable silence- she must ALWAYS be talking.

As well-intentioned as she is, my MIL can rub my nerves completely raw. And she will be raising my child 40 hours a week. Given my MIL’s strong-willed, very opinionated personality, I’m worried about being steam-rolled as a parent, that she’ll become too possessive (you should see how she is with our dog), plus I don’t want her aggravating tendencies to rub off on my baby as she gets older.

I’m generally a very logical person. Maybe I’m being too paranoid- or just jealous that someone else gets to bond all day with my baby when I can’t, which is literally heart-wrenching for me. I know I should be grateful and maybe I’m not giving my MIL enough credit. Still, how do I lay boundaries to prevent my fears from coming true?

Signed,

Always with the MIL issues

I don’t think you’re being too paranoid — this is one of those situations with a very large pro/con list, and you were basically put on the spot and guilted into agreeing before you had any time to weigh those pros and cons. Not cool. Even if you had ultimately agreed to go the MIL-as-nanny route, it would have been much, MUCH better if you had initially responded with a “Let me think about that offer and discuss it with Husband first.” And then “hired” her in a more formal way, with fewer tears and more “okay, but here are the ground rules” talks right from the start. 20/20 hindsight — totally the worst.

Having a family member as a primary caretaker is wonderful for many reasons. It’s an enormous financial load off your shoulders. You can rest easy knowing your baby is with someone who truly loves them and who is going to (hopefully) remain a stable, long-term fixture in her life. You don’t have to worry about any of the issues that come with traditional daycare, like unscheduled closings, inflexible hours, germs (and using YOUR sick days to stay home with a sick kid, only to get sick yourself with no leave left), rowdy older kids, and just that general nagging worry that your baby isn’t getting as much one-on-one attention as you’d like.

But oh, those cons. Those boundaries! Those mild in-law annoyances ratcheted up to 11! While ANY childcare arrangement requires a good deal of compromise and acceptance that no nanny or daycare in the world is going to always do things exactly the way you would, it can feel so, so PERSONAL when it’s your mom or MIL. And without good communication, it’s easy to let every little thing fester. You think she’s undermining you at every turn. She thinks you’re taking advantage of her by working late too many nights in a row. Why can’t she stick to the nap schedule? Why don’t you understand that sometimes your baby just doesn’t give a crap about your precious nap schedule? Why did you ever agree to this and how can you get out of it? Why did she ever agree to this and how can she get out of it? GAAAHHHHHHHH.

Our family all lived too far away to ever be a regular childcare option — though my MIL has said repeatedly that if we moved closer she’d nanny for us in a white hot second, and we do rely on them for any sort of overnight/travel-related care. So based on my not-entirely-equal experience, I’ll give this advice: As a first-time mom, I was simply wound way, way too tight to deal with an opinionated  family member as nanny, so know yourself. Your jealousy is natural and normal — and while it might feel illogical to be MORE jealous of a family member than a hired caretaker, I don’t actually think it is. Your MIL won’t be getting your money, but she will get that day-to-day emotional experience of bonding with your baby that you’re worried you’re missing out on. You need to come to terms with the fact that you have to work, maybe grieve a little for your lost SAHM dream, and then focus solidly on what childcare arrangement is best for your daughter. Some emotional homework for you, there.

As a second- and third-time mom, on the other hand, I would have been TOTALLY DOWN for my MIL nannying when they were newborns and babies (provided I worked outside the home, that is, rather than from home). I know we would have clashed on a few things (sleep training, sticking to meal schedules, BABIES DON’T NEED WATER OH MY GOD FOR THE MILLIONTH TIME) but I think I would have been chill enough to pick the right battles and let the rest go out of gratitude for the free care.

BUT the arrangement would have had to come to an end once they got older. In hindsight, fretting over her preference to rock my babies solidly to sleep instead of putting them in the crib drowsy-but-awake really isn’t as big of a deal as the disagreements we have now. I don’t really want to broadcast the specific details, but I think we have very similar MILs with similar personalities and yes. The stakes go up, as do the opportunities for undermining, once your kid is verbal and old enough to get confused by Things Grandma Told Me That Mom & Dad Don’t Agree With. The value of free overnight childcare has diminished over the past couple years, because I feel like we end up paying for it in other ways.

So. If I were you, I would probably accept that at this point, going back on your arrangement would be pretty damn nuclear, emotionally speaking, and if you’re due in just a few weeks it’s probably too late to find anything else anyway. So for now, I’d focus on the pros for your daughter and less on the cons that have to do with her just getting on your nerves. (She’ll be spending 40+ hours a week with your baby, but realistically, YOU’LL only be dealing with her a few minutes each day, so…win?) I mean, yeah, she’ll get on your nerves, but so would maybe getting consistently stuck in traffic on your way to the expensive daycare that charges you a fee for every minute you arrive after pick-up. Her constant talking will be good for your baby, and her confidence in her opinions will mean she probably WON’T be calling you constantly at work with endless questions.

I would also sit down with her NOW to discuss the arrangement in more detail, being blunt and honest that while you are hugely grateful for her sacrifice, you are aware this can be a dicey situation that really depends on good solid two-way communication and trust. If she ever feels like she made too much of a committment, she needs to tell you. If there are childcare directives you give her that are different from the way she did, you need to trust her to understand that this stuff changes with time and follow said directives without arguing. Pick your personal hills to die on (basically anything safety or health related), and agree to let the more petty, minor details slide. Clearly define expectations about responsibilities and schedules — will she be willing to do the baby’s laundry and clean up the kitchen, does she have any social commitments in the evenings that you need to respect and be home on time for, what’s the back-up plan for her taking days off (because for real — she’s going to need days off: vacation time, sick days, appointments, etc.), how much heads up will you need for said days off, and so on.

Your husband should be involved here, too. And you two will need to have a separate discussion about who will talk to her about any concerns or disagreements that crop up.

You might also still consider a compromise down the road — maybe just one or two days of traditional daycare at some point. (Give your MIL a heads up on the plan sooner rather than later, so she doesn’t think it’s because she’s doing something wrong. Be up front that the arrangement will have an expiration date.) You can position it like your daughter will benefit from the social interaction and structure, and because you understand what a huge time commitment she made and would like to give her a little bit of her life and free time back. If the MIL as nanny situation does turn out to be as irritating/undermining-y as you fear, and your finances allow it, you can slowly up her enrollment.

Or if everything is great with your daughter but you just find you just dread seeing your MIL’s face every morning, try to work out a shift plan with your husband — you go to work first, he stays until MIL shows up, then you relieve her in the afternoons (or vice versa).

Keep your options open, but also your mind. There’s free childcare and then there’s “free” childcare. Your MIL has offered a wonderful, generous gift…but for everybody’s sake it’s totally okay to be cautious about it and not just “wheeeeee! free babysitting! I can now never question her or have any opinion of my own because GRATITUDE!!1!” Maybe everything will be awesome. You can’t deny it’s nice to put the daycare hunt on hold and keep more of your paycheck, and having her as a nanny will be 100% more logistically convenient than using a daycare center, and a 1,000% cheaper than hiring a FT nanny on your own. The things that annoy you might have absolutely no negative bearing on your daughter, at least not at first. But if you can’t keep the lines of communication open without your nerves snapping, it’ll probably be best for everyone to explore alternate arrangements.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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MR
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MR

I totally agree with everything Amy said. My parents were the daycare for my niece until she started highschool. There were NO issues between my sister and our parents when my niece was a baby. But, once she started school… Sigh. And that was mother to daughter, not mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. So, I’d definitely say, having mil watch baby is fine, but maybe consider moving her to a pre-school/daycare type place when she is one or two. Because before then, it really is a lot of just holding and snuggling, and you can never have too many people love your… Read more »

Karen
Guest
Karen

I start my kiddos in daycare around 6 months and it’s pretty gut-wrenching to see 12 weekers there. They are just so small and daycare is just so chaotic. Unless it was a truly unsafe situation, I would be so relieved to have a family member watch my 12 week old and then proceed to other options as the baby got older. Def have a more formal conversation about expectations, etc. asap and use that conversation to open up the possibility that you may want a couple days a week at an outside the home daycare or at least adjust… Read more »

Lilly
Guest
Lilly

“As a first-time mom, I was simply wound way, way too tight to deal with an opinionated family member as nanny, so know yourself.” Yes! This! And hate to admit that I still am, where my MIL and my mom are concerned. But for the OP, you can also save the money you would be spending in daycare (a small fortune, at least in my area) to put towards your SAHM dream. You could still make it happen for next year?

Holly
Guest
Holly

I agree with Amy said, and have a few bits of personal observation/advice I would like to share.  I had originally planned to put my daughter in part-time daycare (I work part-time) when she was three months old. Much to my surprise, once she arrived I found myself reconsidering my MIL’s offer to take care of her (she had offered months earlier). After long discussions with my husband, we decided to take MIL up on her offer.  MIL and I are not the best of friends. We are both strong personalities and have butt heads many times. She is very… Read more »

Kacie
Guest

Agree with pp, hopefully you can make it work so you can be a sahm soon. Perhaps talk to a tax person to see what your husband’s take home pay would be, factoring out the two income household.

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

I think Amy’s advice is solid. I’m wondering, maybe, if you might want to enroll your baby in daycare two or three days a week. It might be easier knowing that your MIL isn’t doing this all full time. My friend’s MIL watched her son until he was 1 1/2? 2? I cant’ remember. After that time, she put him in a home daycare for two or three days. She also paid her MIL as well – probably no where near the real cost of daycare, but she felt better knowing that it was a job for her and it… Read more »

mary
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mary

One more pro in the mother-in-law watching the baby camp benefit is that you may see less of her than if she was not watching the baby.  This way she is building a relationship with the baby without taking up the shrinking amount of free time you will have as a working mother.  

Karen
Guest
Karen

That is an excellent point! And so true! My mom is constantly inquiring about seeing the kids on the weekends but that is our “family” time. It causes a lot of friction.

AmyRenee
Guest
AmyRenee

I agree with the advice given, but one more piece of advice I give everyone I know going back to work after maternity leave – even if you think your childcare arrangements are great, it can never hurt to have toured a few daycare centers and put yourself on the waiting lists for them (because in our area, they all have waiting lists for infants). That way you have already done your homework so if Plan A doesn’t work, you are partway to Plan B. And also that way when the daycare calls and says “we have a spot available”… Read more »

Brooke
Guest
Brooke

I sort of had this. My MIL watched my first born for 4 months after my maternity leave ended so I could wait till she was 6 months to put her in daycare. That felt better to me, and MIL was all, “sign me up! I can do it! Free!” just like yours. I really worked during my maternity leave to establish clear preferences and a schedule that worked for me and baby (you aren’t gonna know just how strong those preferences are until baby comes… things like pacifiers, sleep routine, etc). Then communicate those preferences and routine clearly and… Read more »

MR
Guest
MR

“I’ve found that anyone who loves my children as much as me has become a more important part of my life.”

^^^This.

SarahB
Guest
SarahB

I think the very emotional, put on the spot request and response means that you can actually still say no.  There are ways to get there, if you think having your MIL that involved in your life is a higher price to pay that saying no, and it might be in your case. What does your husband have to say?  I think you talk through the details with him, and then sit down with your MIL together and figure out if she really considered what it was she was offering.  Does she really want to be available from 8-6 Mon… Read more »

Christina
Guest
Christina

YES.
I think this has disaster written all over it. It’s not too late to back out!

Jill
Guest
Jill

“plus I don’t want her aggravating tendencies to rub off on my baby as she gets older.”

I would just point out that you are talking about the woman WHO RAISED YOUR HUSBAND, the man you decided to marry and have babies with, so I’m guessing on some level you actually approve of the job she did as a parent.

JD
Guest
JD

whenever I read letters about in-laws, I can’t help but always think this!!! I mean, we’re talking about another ADULT, someone who’s already raised an infant to adulthood, the person you made a choice to spend the rest of your life with and raise your own babies with, so they must’ve done something right along the way, right? and don’t forget you might be someone’s MIL someday too, think of her as dealing with your future self 😉

K
Guest
K

Not a personal response, but the other side of this: whenever I see this line of thinking, I roll my eyes a little. The person saying it almost never acknowledges that, following this theory, your MIL is also responsible for all the things you *don’t* like about your spouse. It’d be just as easy to fault her, then, for all the things her now-grown child does wrong. More to the point, though, a lot of who we are is far beyond the control of our parents, which I think most mothers reading this blog know intuitively. We all do our… Read more »

Eiko
Guest

Totally agree with Amy’s advice. Such a tough situation to be in — you want what’s best for your baby, and/but you don’t want to go insane dealing with mother-in-law stuff. You are not crazy at all! I love the idea of having her come over ahead of time, even several days, to get up to speed. Having a written plan/routine is also a great idea. Even though you will write it, it will feel more collaborative to her if you go through it together and allow her to respond. Better to get everything out in the open now. But do… Read more »

Jeannie
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Jeannie

I was never in this situation, so do take what I say with a grain of salt … but I would consider this if — and only if — I felt my husband was on board with my decisions, and was willing to run interference with his mom if communications situations arose. My ex never would have done that, and would have sided with his mom on everything, and I thank my lucky stars we never had kids. My husband is fantastic at riding the rails between his mom and me — and almost never has to do so, probably… Read more »

another ftm
Guest
another ftm

Our families have also offered to help with our day care situation. My husband’s parents are older and its been a very long time since they have been around a new baby where my parents have also been helping out with my nephew who is two so they are much more up on “kids these days”. Local hospitals here offer a Grandparents Class (found them when looking for child birth classes) and I am thinking of asking my MIL to go with me. That way we both can learn and then we can discuss how we might go about caring… Read more »

Kat
Guest
Kat

Agree with Amy! I also want to point out that a daycare/center type situation is usually not the only option for childcare for those of us that work. In most areas there are in-home providers (at their house or yours), nanny-share networks and co-ops, so I would recommend checking those out if the thought of a big daycare with lots of kids in baby containment devices freaks you out (it did me – I toured a few traditional daycares while I was pregnant and was in tears by the end of each tour – not a good fit for us).… Read more »

Dorie
Guest
Dorie

Amy’s advice is spot-on! I say that as a mother of three who struggled with non-relative daycare for eight long years before deciding to just give up my job and stay home until the youngest is in school. I just couldn’t deal with the constant battles anymore. I was literally losing my mind. You are are so fortunate to have your MIL.

KimC
Guest
KimC

Ok my relationship with my mother in law is great- she’s a great woman, though sometimes she bugs the crap out of me.  Im a rather strict parent on some things and shes not and wasnt and I guess she feels judged?  Also HER daughter is doing the parenting thing just like her mom so it makes me an odd man (woman) out.  That being said- When my oldest was a baby, she had colic.  She had to be held all the darn time to be happy and she screamed for absolutely no discernible reason and she would not go… Read more »

Kerry
Guest
Kerry

If there’s any way your mother-in-law would come to you, that’s magic. Every extra hour your daughter sleeps in in the morning is an extra hour you get with her in the evening = ).

Susan
Guest
Susan

While I do love when my ILs watch my boys now (they’re 3 and 5) when they were young I insisted on taking them to their house because I didn’t want to think about how messy my house was. To me, the stress of getting everyone out of the house in the morning was less than the stress of trying to tidy up before anyone came to our house.

Lex
Guest
Lex

I have both my mom and my MIL in my life (my MIL to a much lesser extent than my mom). While your concerns are 100% valid, as someone looking back from 9 months, you might also want to spend some time talking to your MIL before you make up your mind.  My MIL and I disagree on several issues, specifically vaccinations and gluten. I was so hormone crazed during the end of my pregnancy that I wouldn’t even read a book she sent us because it had anti-vaccination information in it. My husband told her that it was an… Read more »

Mona
Guest
Mona

In Laws always come with boundary baggage, real or perceived. I say if you trust your MIL to be home with your baby and know she will be living and wonderful- do it! It is a blessing in many ways- and it is wonderful for your kids to have that loving, day to day interaction with grandparents. If the irritation and irks are over relatively mild issues that just won’t matter much in a few years, try to overlook them as best you can, and go for it. You can always switch care later if that feels right. But nothing… Read more »

Kerry
Guest
Kerry

Two things 1) I think your feelings are completely rational, but they are also very similar to the feelings I had when I was very pregnant and giving up my life long assumption that I would be a stay at home parent in order to have my husband fulfill that role instead. (I left him alone with SEEDLINGS once and came back to find out that he had decided he knew more about raising seedings than me and I was no longer allowed to touch them). I think the final countdown to having your very own baby is always filled… Read more »

Stef
Guest
Stef

Here’s something from a different perspective. My mom left me with my grandma (her mother-in-law) when I was about 3 mos old. It broke her heart to do so, but for monetary reasons she needed to go back to work. Stupid day job! My mom and grandma could not have been more different, but the one thing they did have in common was they adored me. They clearly must have established some boundaries, because not only did grandma take care of me, but when I was 3 my parents bought the house across the street from them to make it… Read more »

LB
Guest
LB

I have my mom doing quite a bit of childcare for me and she has absolutely NO boundaries and is incredibly opinionated and critical, particularly about my housekeeping and cooking skills (or lack thereof). But she is also very helpful and thoughtful and loves my daughter more than anything and is amazing with her. So far it has worked out really well, better than I expected. I have learned to just take the bad parts of her personality with the good and focus on the benefits and ignore the rest. It is hard sometimes but it has been worth it… Read more »

DontBlameTheKids
Guest

I don’t have MIL problems, but I sure do have Mom problems. I would love for my MIL to watch the kids instead of paying for daycare (but she works, so no), but I would rather pay twice what I pay for daycare than let my mom do it.  To me, the nature of the opinions and undermining is important. I don’t get so worked up over some things as other things. And, yes, the stakes get so much higher as they get older. I would probably let my mom watch the baby, even though we don’t agree on many… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

My mom watched my second child for his first year (from 3 months on) and will watch my third beginning this fall.  I totally understand that even though it *should* feel easier/more comfortable because it’s family, it sometimes doesn’t.  The fact that it’s family just adds that extra bit of tension/stress that is difficult to deal with.  And I was dealing with MY mom, I can only imagine how it would be ratcheted up if it were my MIL (with whom I have a generally good relationship… but still….).  Anyway, just wanted to offer some tips based on my experience:… Read more »

Kath
Guest
Kath

I agree with everything Amy said! My only thing to add is to maybe not judge how things are working until a few months in to this arrangement. Both my kids are in fulltime care at a center that we love. With my first, I stayed home with her the first 7 months. With the second, I stayed home with her for 14 weeks, then my mom watched her for 3 months and then she started daycare at 6 months. My mom and I have have a great relationship and she did great with my rules and boundaries, but I… Read more »

judi
Guest

just one thing to add and it’s something a therapist told me once – it doesn’t matter how much time/physical presence grandparents have, your children are YOUR children and they will be like YOU. you’re around, too, and your relationship/bond isn’t something that gets taken away or in some way superseded by a grandparent relationship. which is not to say you shouldn’t be cautious and communicate openly, but just that you shouldn’t dread “losing” your child to her, because she will definitely be yours.

Lucy
Guest
Lucy

My mom-in-law has watched our son since he was 5 months old (he’ll be 2 in a few months) four days a week. On the other day, he goes to daycare. My MIL and I are very different and there is definitely sometimes tension (and probably will be more as he gets older). I had similar worries when I had to go back to work. But now I am 100 percent so happy and grateful that she is able to watch him. The jealousy may not go away completely but I just think of it this way: your child will… Read more »

Shannon
Guest
Shannon

One thing I don’t see many people mention is that full-time childcare is VERY TIRING for grandparents. Hell, it is tiring for me and I’m in my 30s. I live in an area where it is really common for grandmothers in their 60s+ to watch multiple grandchildren to avoid daycare. These poor women are running ragged and often admit to me at the playground that they are exhausted and overwhelmed doing full-time childcare, but they dare not admit it to their children (the parents) because god forbid that would mean putting their preshus baybies into daycare. I really think parents… Read more »

cricket
Guest
cricket

Thank you for bringing this up. I watch my granddaughter 5 mornings a week from 6:30 am until my DIL gets home. She works part-time, but she doesn’t get home until 1:30. Then after watching my granddaughter all week, sometimes she askes me to keep her overnight This last weekend I had her until Sunday morning, and back at her house Monday morning. I am 65 and very active, however I AM TIRED! I need to learn how to say no!  

Natalie
Guest
Natalie

I had to go back to work 4 weeks after my daughter was born (I had been working at my job for less than a year when I had my daughter and had almost no sick/vacation time to use). It was TERRIBLE but there was no other choice because we needed my job to survive. My Mom, who I rarely see eye to eye with, became our child care provider. That was 5 years ago. Now my daughter is getting ready to sign up for kindergarten. There have been ups and downs, things my mom does that DRIVE ME INSANE,… Read more »

JM
Guest
JM

I agree with Natalie 100%!!! We did it both ways–with my first I declined my mother’s offer to watch my son, and went with a babysitter then daycare later on. With my daughter I just couldn’t find a decent sitter so I asked my mom. Both are doing great but there’s definitely more pros to my mom watching my children than someone else, most of which I only realized in hindsight. I think the biggest pro, as Natalie mentioned, is the relationship they form–my mom and my daughter are so close, plus my mom is closer to my son because… Read more »

Anonymous for this
Guest
Anonymous for this

My in laws watch my daughter once a week, sometimes more. Despite many of the bumps described above, it was working for both sides. This week, the baby came home with scratches they hadn’t noticed and couldn’t figure out. When it was pointed out to them (not rudely, I promise!) they got upset and are now not sure they’re up to the task of watching her at all. I definitely vote for having a plan b as described above. If they decide they can’t keep on, we are in a pretty stressful situation.

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Me witt
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Me witt

This post helped me tremendously since I am in the same boat! It’s hard enough leaving our babies and having to think about my MIL steamrolling me as a parent has been stressing me out!