The greatest gift – what’s the cost?

I grew up in a family that was never flash with cash. Paying for domestic help was, I thought, the province of those whose bank balance was like their pride – probably a bit inflated.

That view began to change when I was living in South Africa in the early 1990’s. Our resident maid provided me with a different perspective. One morning shortly after I arrived, I began cleaning the bathroom floor. When she saw me, she started shouting and flailing her arms. While I didn’t understand her language, her meaning was unmistakable. NOT HAPPY! If she didn’t work her family starved. The small wage we paid her was all the social security she had. Seeing a man on hands and knees cleaning the bathroom floor might have pleased some women but it didn’t please her! All she saw was next weeks dinner going down the drain.

I quickly realised that it was often not snobbery but a sense of social responsibility which lead many good people in South Africa to have house servants – often more than they truly needed – as a way of giving the dignity of work to people. With this in mind, we promptly engaged a gardener as well as the housemaid.

Still, some years later when a friend in Australia employed a live-in nanny I was surprised. It’s not something most Australians do. But as my own family has grown my wife Julie and I have begun to think differently. A lot has to do with the kind of parents we want to try and be. “Employ a nanny to be a better parent?” you ask – sounds like out-sourcing responsibility.

Dr William Doherty, an internationally regarded marriage and family therapist and researcher, writes about being “intentional” both in our approach to marriage and parenting. He says that many couples find themselves on a “good parent” treadmill. Doherty argues that this arises from good but misguided intentions and misconceptions about what children truly need. We tend to over-invest in our children and not put enough time into maintaining a strong marriage. This mistake Doherty says, is as common as it is serious.

This “all about the kids” approach to marriage risks breeding children with a sense of entitlement. They never grow out of the immature beilef that they are the centre of the universe. But pouring all of our time, energy and emotion into satisfying them sends a dangerous message. It feeds an individualistic and consumerist attitude which goes against Jesus’ call to live not for ourselves but for others.

This leads in turn to a second problem – how children view marriage. My father left a deep impression on me (not so positive at the time) when he said that if our family were on a sinking ship, his first obligation was to save Mum. We came next. He’d made a vow before God to my mother – a promise which had to orient his entire life from that point on. Even his love for God was expressed through loving my mother.

As a consequence, I had the blessing of growing up with an unquestioning confidence in the stablilty of our home life. It wasn’t perfect – no family is – but that security has been a powerful influence. I took it for granted until secondary school when I saw the suffering of my best friend whose parents were separating. My parents had a marriage centred marriage rather than a child centred marriage.

Another problem of a child centred marriage is that when those little centres move out – so does the reason for staying together – if it manages to hold together that long. We risk going to countless sporting activities, music recitals and the like, in an attempt to give something to our children. However, in the process, we lose the friendship of our mate and the foundation upon which those children depend. Not only is our own marriage at risk, but also the example of love that our children need. But it takes a courageous effort – almost a battle – for a couple to retain their love.

Dr Doherty encourages couples to actively take back their marriage. He points to decades of research which confirms that the best gift we can give our children is a stable loving union.

How does that relate to having an Nanny? For Julie and I, that has meant paying someone to come into our home and take some of the burden of domestic duties so that we have the time and emotional energy to maintain our friendship and love. It also means that rather than spending every minute doing chores and paddling furiously just to keep our head above water, we have time to read with our children as they (not I) fall asleep, to kick the footy, bake some cupcakes or play lego.

Does it work? It does, but It takes discipline and being accountable to one another.

It can be a trap is to confuse self indlugence and recreation. Some people (like my wife Julie), struggle to stop and relax. When someone is there to look after the children, there are still so many jobs she could be doing – that laundry basket never seems to be empty. But we also know that if she doesn’t take time to sit in a café and read a good book once a week and have an afternoon nap now and again, she starts to get tired and the fuse gets that bit shorter. So I’ll ask if she used her time to relax. Just this morning she sent me a text “in my favourite café – relaxing now”.

Of course the error can be at the other extreme. If I use the time to indulge in my own individualistic pursuits instead of serving the good of my wife and children, I’m doing the very thing William Doherty warns against. I model to my children the self-centred individualism which I should be combating. So getting that balance right calls for wisdom and communication between a couple. But it’s a balance we simply have to find.

The transition from two to three children was one of the most difficult times of our marriage (it took us a while to get the shift from man-on-man to zone defence). We were going insane. While we had wanted more children, we just weren’t coping – with the children or with one another.

Marriage counsellors often say that part of helping a couple who are struggling to get back on track, is to help them reconnect with the times, places and things they enjoyed in their good times together. So Julie and I went out to dinner to a place that was special for us. It wasn’t flash. It was the restaurant where we had our last meal as “friends” – the venue from which we had, years before, parted knowing we weren’t just friends any more.

Back in that special place, over coffee and sticky date pudding, I rediscovered my delight in my wife which had been lost on the treadmill of life. I had forgotten what delightful company she was. I had found her again. Over dinner we worked out that it was about three years since we’d had a meal out alone like this. We then realised that, if we didn’t want to lose what we’d regained, it would take some effort. So paying for a good babysitter (when we’ve stretched the family ties as far as is prudent) is part of the price we pay to have a good marriage.

In a time pressured culture, Julie and I see paying for that space not as a luxury, but as a necessity, if we are to have the kind of marriage and family life that brings joy and happiness to us all. To avoid the cost in suffering that would otherwise result, we would consider it cheap at twice the price. And we never stop thanking God for his generosity in blessing us to be able to manage it.


* Don’t over-invest in children – put time into maintaining a strong marriage. Pope Francis recently encouraged families to “waste time” together. Unstructured activities where we simply have fun with our children – like playing in the park – create rich memories and strong bonds. Having a regular date with our spouse where logistics are “off the table” is equally important – the kinds of dates you enjoyed when you were courting.

* Consider some in-home care or services to give you the time and energy to invest into your marriage.

* Weigh up the pros and cons of getting some ‘professional’ help – the financial cost versus the cost to your relationship with your spouse and children.

Matthew MacDonald is the Executive Officer of the Life, Marriage & Family Office in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.