'Help! Is free child care from my mother worth the emotional cost?'

Lizzie O'Leary

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Dear Asking for a Friend,

I'm facing a child care conundrum. While my partner is away on a work trip, my mother offered to fly to New York to help care for my two young children, free of charge.

While I could hire a babysitter to help out in the early mornings and late evenings, when I really need an extra set of hands, I'd prefer not to shell out even more money for child care than I already am. (As a working mom, I already pay for my kids to attend day care.) Plus, the visit would give my mother a chance to spend time with her adored grandchildren.

But while Grandma doesn't charge for helping out, her trip does come at a cost. I'd have to purchase a round-trip plane ticket to New York and likely pay for her transportation to and from the airport. In addition, my mother is quite particular, and my grocery and gas bills will most certainly go up — she doesn't do subways.

In addition to the expenses I can tally up, there are other costs I can't really put a price on. There's a certain amount of emotional labor that comes with having her in my space. A lot of my parenting choices boil down to convenience, and I'm not sure I can handle the judgment of, say, making chicken nuggets for dinner or skipping baths when I'm just too tired after a long day of work.

My question: Is free help from my mother worth the cost?

Thank you,

Dear Conundrum,

As the daughter of a particular mother (Mom, don't read this), I sympathize. What you're describing here is a Cost of Free Babysitting situation. I'll share with you a line I stole from Slate's Nicole Cliffe: Even with your mother's best intentions, the care she'll provide isn't really free.

But there is a way to break this down and help you decide. You just have to think like an economist! Not as boring as it sounds, trust me. I recommend turning to the work of Brown University professor Emily Oster, who has two great books, "Expecting Better," and "Cribsheet," about pregnancy and parenting young children in America.

Oster's approach is all about gathering the data, weighing costs and benefits, and making the decision that works best for you. Caffeine during pregnancy, for example, is something a lot of women are told to avoid. I'm willing to wager that many an expectant woman has been shamed for holding a Starbucks cup. But Oster does the math, digs into several studies in medical journals, and breaks out the risks by milligram — it's generally best to stay under 200, but you'd basically have to drink six to eight cups a day to increase miscarriage risk.

The key here, as Oster points out in both her books, is that there is often no perfect answer. It's about what feels right for you and your family.

Even with your mother's best intentions, the care she'll provide isn't really free.
Lizzie O'Leary
economic and policy journalist

So let's try to apply those principles, taking the easy part first, the math. I think you should add up the monetary costs of a plane ticket, taxis, gas, and groceries. These are your grandma-related sunk costs and you can compare them to the cost of paying for extra child care.

But I don't think that's why you're really writing. It's not just about money. You nailed it in your letter when you described the "emotional labor" of having your mother in your space. That's what this dilemma is all about.

So, let's add up the emotional costs. We know the benefit for your kids: They get to see grandma, who loves them. For your cost/benefit analysis, I think you should play out a scenario in your head, where you set the rules and gently remind your mother that she's here to help, not to be in charge. That means being okay with saying, "This is what the kids are having for dinner tonight and, boy, it's lovely that you're here because then they can have bath time with Grandma while I rest!" The end.

She doesn't actually get to object because, well, you're the captain now.

If you can sit with that imaginary scene without too much discomfort, then you know what to do. If you decide the cost is too high, then bring in the strangers who will do exactly what you're paying them for.

Good luck,


Lizzie O'Leary is a longtime economic and policy journalist. She hosts the podcast What Next TBD at Slate, and is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. Prior to that, she created and hosted Marketplace Weekend, and worked as a correspondent for CNN and Bloomberg TV. She has also served as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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