We're flying solo these days, my children and I. For the first time since their father died four years ago, there is no one helping me share the load--no extra hands, no eyes- and-ears, no adjunct adult in the room downstairs.
We've bid our last au pair goodbye.
We're moving forward now with mingled feelings of fear and liberation, toward a new life, reconstituted as a family of four.
When police broke the news that my husband had died, it was among my first panicked thoughts:
"Who's going to help me take care of these kids?"
The girls were so small then--only 3, 5 and 8--and their needs loomed so large and incessant. How could I, all alone, make a living and a home? Sheer survival dictated that I share the load.
I turned the children's playroom into a bedroom and went in search of Mary Poppins. Someone kind and wise, loving yet firm. Someone who could bring order and routine to a household rent by chaos and grief. Someone to share our highs and lows, our meals and vacations, our bathrooms, kitchen and the family cars.
But I soon found out that the British nannies, the Jamaican governesses, the "full charge" housekeepers whose services I sought, commanded salaries higher than I could afford.
So I settled instead for a Swedish farm girl barely out of her teens, a girl who didn't know the English words for "shoelaces" or "aluminum foil," but who could say the right things to soothe a skinned knee or settle a sibling squabble--a girl who wanted to feel like part of a family as much as we needed to feel like a family again.
She moved in on a Monday morning, and by Friday night I wondered how we'd ever gotten along without her. She was better, I'd joke, than having a husband. Life with her was like having a wife . . . a perfect wife.
Nothing seemed to faze her, not the children's tantrums or my demands. The house was always tidy, the meals always on time. She sensed when I was nearing my breaking point and would whisk the children away to give me peace. She lifted our spirits with good humor and grace--and a smile that helped mend our broken hearts.
When she returned home for college a few months later, another Swede came to take her place . . . and another and another over the years, each connecting with our family through her own special gifts and idiosyncrasies.
There was Sara, who liked nights on the town and sleeping late, who made pizza from scratch and taught me to sew. When the kids were asleep, we'd sit at the table and talk into the night. There was no crisis I couldn't share with her, no limit to her goodwill.
And Linda, who loved my girls with such tenderness and ferocity. She was like the big sister I wished they'd had. She couldn't keep house to save her life, so I'd do the laundry while she snuggled with the kids, watching TV in bed.
Then Lena, soft-spoken, patient and unfailingly kind. And finally Asa, who was funny and smart, who taught them the words to hip-hop songs and painted their fingernails bright purple and blue.
Each was part of our family for a time. Pictures drawn at school would show four brown-skinned people and a peach-colored blond who had made her way into my children's prayers, in the "God bless our family . . ." that we ended with each night.
They fought with the kids and with me from time to time. And together--like a family--we plowed through our differences, made accommodations for shortcomings and learned to value the qualities we found to love.
It wasn't just child care, and went well beyond housekeeping. For me it meant freedom--to slip out of the house on a Saturday morning or stop for a drink with a friend after work--and companionship. The au pair was the one who listened to my complaints about hard-hearted bosses, laughed at my jokes about dates gone awry, understood my concerns when my children fell short.
For my daughters, it was more than snacks after school and help with homework. It was having someone nearby they could trust with their secrets, their fears.
But as my children have grown older, their needs have changed . . . and they have grown more capable of meeting those needs themselves. They rely on one another more these days, and I now can leave the house with my oldest in charge.
Our au pairs, too, have moved on in their lives . . . to college, marriage, motherhood. And somehow it is easier to see the passage of time reflected in their lives than in my own.
With Linda's letter last month, she sent baby pictures of her daughter, Isabella, now 9 months old.
"Hard to believe so much time has passed," she wrote. "I wish I could have watched the girls grow up."
"Grow up." They have--we all have--grown up . . . and outgrown, maybe, a system that once served us so well.
We said goodbye to Asa last week and set about making her room into our room again. It feels strange to lie there on the futon--once her bed--thinking of all that this new era will bring.
It's more than the practical, the "how can I squeeze all the au pair did into a schedule already crammed full?" It's the emotional shift I must learn to make.
I realize I'm in this alone now. There no longer are the extra hands for busy days, the listening ear for my lonely nights . . . no other heart to break or share my pride, depending on what the children do.
But I feel my fears ease as I look around this room--now filled with toys and books and games. And the space my growing children need.