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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?


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.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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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