After weighing our childcare options, we decided to hire my mom as nanny for our three young kids. The outcome certainly saved us money, but it came with an unpleasant emotional cost.

By Christina Crawford
July 21, 2021
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An image of the hands of a grandmother holding a newborn baby's feet.
Credit: Getty Images.

A few years ago, I found myself with a three-year-old, a two-year-old, a newborn, and a husband who worked very long hours. I was in over my head, and I needed some help. Big time. So, we weighed our options—financially and practically—and ultimately asked my mom to move in with us as a full-time nanny. But things didn't quite go as I planned.

My husband was in the midst of a surgical residency that required him to work unholy amounts of hours plus be on-call. He was doing his best, but he just wasn't able to offer me much assistance with the kids. For a while I tried to manage the circus myself, but after an incident in which my oldest almost maimed my middle with a toy while I was breastfeeding my newborn in the next room, I decided it was officially time to call in for back-up.

Money was tight, because we were buried under a mountain of both of our student loans, so I knew cost would be our limiting factor. I conducted a cost-benefit analysis and concluded there were three viable childcare options to consider: an international au pair, hiring an hourly nanny, or asking my mom to move to Texas to live with us.

Option 1: Au pair

An au pair travels from overseas to live with an American family and help care for their children. Host families pay a weekly stipend (roughly $250.00) that is calculated by the federal minimum wage, less an allowance for room and board.

This option was attractive to us because it allows you to leverage your assets as part of the person's pay. The downside, however, would be a lot of upfront costs: Approximately $15,000.00+ in various fees for application, yearly dues, education, and matching. Of course, those costs vary widely based on which agency you use, your children's ages, and the level of skill of the caregiver.

We were enticed by the possibility of exposing our kids to another language and culture, but this was more than we could afford—plus, the idea of a stranger moving into our home made me a little wary, so we ruled this one out.

Option 2: Hourly nanny

Next was a daily nanny who would work set hours and earn an hourly rate of $18.00-$20.00, based on the average wages for a babysitter in our state and those neighboring. We'd likely be able to find and hire a qualified nanny on reputable sites such as Care.com, Urban Sitter, or Sittercity—ideally a seasoned sitter who belongs to the Association of Premier Nanny Agencies or the International Nanny Association.

This seemed like a decent option, and it's certainly common enough. But with an hourly-wage nanny, there's no flexibility in terms of cost or timing; each hour costs you more money. What if we had a tough week—or month—with family expenses? What if we needed a nanny to stay overnight but couldn't afford it? These cost concerns would be fewer and further between with a more flexible, less official nanny: my mom.

Option 3: Grandma

My mom had always spoken of her desire to be active in my kids' lives, so I broached the topic of her moving in. The problem was that she lived in another state and was still working full-time; this would require her to retire early and move across the country, which would of course have significant financial repercussions for her to consider.

I figured this would be asking far too much of her—but when I floated the option, she was so elated, she jumped at the chance and headed for the Lone Star State.

She initially offered to help us for free, but because I knew how much work it was going to require, we decided to pay her a comparable amount to a nanny who was not related to make it fair (and alleviate guilt on our part). But since she was living with us, we would get more hours of care, thus saving us money. And, as with the au pair option, we were able to bundle my mom's living expenses in with her pay to make her salary more affordable for us.

I knew from the start that she wasn't going to be a "nanny" in the traditional sense of the word. A nanny would imply that person takes the kids, and the parents are free to go for the day, but this was never the case. I was already with the kids 99% of the time; my mom would simply serve as an extra set of hands, which I desperately needed. With two toddlers and a newborn, things were so chaotic at home, we could have easily used 10 extra sets of hands.

Things started out well, and the kids instantly developed a strong connection with their grandmother. She gave the kids care and love above and beyond what a hired helper would provide; after all, these were her beloved grandchildren. It was immensely reassuring to know that the kids were in good hands, and I could trust her implicitly. That feeling of comfort is something that money can't buy.

But as time went by, I started to realize there are some major cons of "working" with your family member. The line between paid employee and grandmother became completely blurred, and it caused some real problems.

We had never established boundaries for my mother's "working hours," which was our chief mistake. We both took advantage of our lax situation (why write down a schedule or a contract when we could fly by the seat of our pants? I laugh at this freewheeling attitude now), and it started to negatively impact us. Our agreement was that my mom would help me whenever I needed it, but since small kids and babies are a 24/7 job, there was always "work" to be done—so we were both constantly running ragged, which wasn't fair. And she got away with things that I would never have tolerated from a hired person.

Another issue was that my mom's parenting style was squarely in the permissive category while I'm a little more, ahem, unpermissive. I have rules about screen time limits and healthy eating, and I would constantly tell my mom that I didn't want my kids eating junk food and watching unlimited cartoons. But I would routinely find them doing just that.

"A grandma is supposed to spoil her grandkids," she would tell me as her defense. The problem was, my kids were getting spoiled like this all day every day, which infuriated me because it made me look like the bad guy who wouldn't let them do/eat all the good stuff. Over time, my frustrations started to affect my personal relationship with my mom. 

The initial plan was six months, but my mom lived and nannied with us for three whole years. How she lasted that long is truly a mystery to me, and a testament to how much she adores my three little boys. When she moved out, she got her own house about 20 minutes from ours. We now see her a few times a week, and she is allowed to just be a fun grandma—instead of having to deal with the immense pressure of raising my kids day-to-day. Our relationship is much happier and healthier because of it.

Looking back, sometimes I question if we did the right thing by having my mom take on such an onerous role, just to save my family a few bucks. Money-wise, it definitely was the best decision; we got high-quality, flexible childcare for a financial fraction of what we would've spent on a more traditional route. But was it fair to my mom? Or to me? Or even to the kids to expect so much from her?

I've come to conclude that yes, it was the right choice beyond just financially. After all, my kids now have an unshakable bond with their grandmother, and she had a front-row seat to those precious early years that were gone in the blink of an eye.

Of course, I was so sleep-deprived those three years that when I look back on that time, I can barely remember a thing. But I do remember this: watching my own mother soothe and nurture my children was beautiful. I know in my heart that the way she sang softly and gazed affectionately at them was well worth the price (financial and emotional) that we all paid.