July 29, 2020

Sure, it's more affordable. But it can also be a battle waiting to happen.

With the average cost of full-time care at a childcare center now exceeding the average cost of in-state college tuition, and paid parental still not required by federal law, it’s no wonder that around 42 percent of mothers turn to a grandparent or other relative to look after their babies and toddlers when returning to work, according to the United States Census Bureau. While this arrangement often comes with a lower price tag than a nanny or daycare—plus the peace of mind of leaving your little one with a loving family member—it can also set the stage for some serious conflict. Here are five ways to keep the peace when a relative takes on childcare.

1. Don’t Assume It’s Free

For starters, put aside the presumption that childcare will be free just because your mother-in-law or sister has agreed to step in. Not only is compensation a sign of respect and gratitude (this is a big job, after all), it also helps formalize what can otherwise feel like a casual arrangement, further solidifying the childcare provider’s commitment to the role. If your relative won’t accept payment, consider finding other ways to “compensate” them -- whether that means covering the cost of one or more of their household bills or even lending a helping hand yourself. You should also plan to pay for food, activities and any additional gear your family member might need to take care of your little one, even if they won’t accept a paycheck.

2. Navigate Limitations Together

Keep in mind that your aunt might not be able to carry your all-terrain stroller up the stairs, or that your cousin can’t get to a standing weekly appointment on time if rush hour makes you late for pickup. It’s impossible to anticipate all childcare challenges from day one, so give everyone (including yourself) a generous learning curve. Consider doing a couple of dry runs before embarking on the new routine, too. Walk your family member through the basics, like where you store extra diapers and how to work the bottle warmer, before leaving them on their own. Practice preparing yourself and the baby for a typical work day and test out your commute, while keeping an eye on the time. Make sure to ask your relative where they might need additional support along the way, and remain flexible yourself. And make sure you have a back-up plan in place for both of you, for those inevitable days when things go wrong.

3. Find the Right Time to Talk

Open communication is key, but when you talk is almost as important as what you say. While having a family member looking after your little one might enable you to connect with your child throughout the day, hourly texts asking exactly when your child napped or what he or she ate are distracting (and may even suggest a lack of trust). Find a balance that helps you feel connected to your kiddo during the workday without overwhelming your relative, and use check-ins as a chance to see if they need any added support as well. Meanwhile, plan to review the day during pickup, and let your relative know in advance if there’s anything specific you’d like to cover. If you need to discuss an issue or concern, carve out private time without your child present (especially if she’s older), and avoid bringing up a sensitive subject at the end of a long day when everyone is exhausted.

4. Pick Your Battles

Let’s face it: handing over the child-rearing reigns isn’t easy. But remembering that no one can read your mind and that childcare will be complementary to your own parenting and not identical will spare you some stress. Before committing to any arrangement, have a clear and honest conversation with your family member about your own ideals and expectations, and make sure that they’re comfortable with your preferences. From there, keep in mind that children can be unpredictable even in the face of the best intentions. A missed nap might feel like a fail, but before you have a serious conversation with your aunt about the importance of routine, remind yourself that a stuffy nose or a new tooth can easily throw a wrench in any caretaker’s carefully laid plans. If your father-in-law gives your little one a cookie when you were planning to avoid sugar until age one, don’t scold or harp on the slip up. Just gently remind him that you’re holding off, and he’s likely to respect your wishes.

5. Remember That Your Relative is Not a Nanny

Yes, it’s important that you and your relative take the arrangement seriously, but you can’t pretend this “professional” partnership isn’t personal. While it’s undoubtedly important to treat any nanny or daycare provider with the same kindness and respect, when it comes to entrusting care to a family member, keep in mind that emotions are likely to run higher, conversations may be a bit less censored, and at the of the day, there’s the added responsibility of maintaining family ties. So, make the most of how well you know your family member by building a relationship that’s beneficial to all, and showing your loved one gratitude in whatever ways will be the most meaningful.

Written by Jessica Laird for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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