In linkmania and internet fame news, Proffitt from Good Girls Gone Geek interviews me about this here site today.
And now, a question.
I’ve wound up in a rather unpleasant business arrangement, and I was hoping for some advice on disentangling myself from it.
To summarize: For the past 2 years my sister and I have been the regular babysitters for a single mom (we’ll call her Jen). She only has one kid, and the pay isn’t bad (though definitely less than we make at other sits), but over time things started to get weird. There were some major warning signs, but I was naïve enough to brush them off.
Warning sign 1) Jen started getting us tangled up in the custody dispute with her ex. Turns out he’d been under investigation from child protective services for neglect, and she wanted me to report anything her son had told me while I was sitting. Things got even worse when she dropped her son off for a babysit one day, and warned me her ex might come looking for him. She told me I should “lock my doors and hide in the basement if he shows up.” Naturally, I was pretty freaking appalled that she dumped that on me and expected me to roll with it!
Warning sign 2) Jen has started promising her son we’ll take him on outings, without checking with us beforehand. Today she told him we were taking him to an indoor play structure, and announced it to us when she dropped him off. Turns out the trip was out of the question, because a bit after she left I was forced to make an emergency trip to the doctor. When Jen found out I’d have the car for the afternoon, and wouldn’t be able to get her son to the play structure, she pitched a fit. After we explained that I’m experiencing serious complications from my meds, she told us I should just drop off her son and my sister at the play structure. When we explained that wasn’t an option, she flipped out. Even after we told her in no uncertain terms that my health is important, she was horribly upset.
So in short: I’ve decided to end our working relationship, but I’m a bit nervous about how Jen will react. She’s extremely good at pulling the “I’m very disappointed” shtick, and even better at guilt tripping; and I’m not very good at standing my ground in the face of that. Do you have any advice for how I can guide the conversation, while making sure the ball stays in my court? I really want to come out of the inevitable conversation without giving in/being apologetic when I shouldn’t be.
Is your sister going to keep sitting for “Jen”? You can still absolutely stop sitting for her even if your sister continues, but if they remain in contact, this becomes much more of a team effort where you will need your sister to have your back and help you enforce boundaries. We’ll come back to that later.
We haven’t talked about “forced teaming” in a while on this site, but this is a good letter for it. Forced teaming is a manipulation tactic where one person acts like his or her problems are shared problems, meant to make you feel like you are both in the same boat and should be allies. While I first encountered the term in The Gift of Fear as one of the ways that predators bring down a person’s defenses, we’ve probably all been guilty of this at some point in our lives when we are stressed and our backs are against the wall and we just wish someone would help us solve things but we don’t know how to ask directly. It’s the source of many a guilt trip. By making you a party to her custody battle, Jen was making her problem into your problem (and potentially making you unsafe, jeez!). She may have felt like she had no other choice! But it’s forced teaming and guilt trips that you’re going to have to watch out for when you break things off.
Because while losing a reliable childcare provider is really stressful and, and it may bring up some rejection and anxiety feelings for her (and her child) that are not so fun, the question of “Who will babysit now?” is her problem. You can certainly have empathy for her situation without making it your problem. So this is training for you in how to make your “no” stick and stand up for yourself in the face of “I’m So Disappointed In You”, and other guilt trips.
First, let’s break down “I’m very disappointed in you.” While it never feels good to hear that from someone, who cares? A lady who doesn’t treat you very well is disappointed in you? No, I think YOU are disappointed in HER. So disappointed that you’ll be quitting that job forever!
Not everyone will like you or shower you with approval all the time. You have to learn how to be able to deal with other people’s negative emotions and not take them on as your own (even when the other person is specifically trying to get you to do that). There is this internal process where you learn to recognize what’s happening and say (even if just silently to yourself) “I’m sorry that you feel that way, but that doesn’t mean I have to do what you want me to do.”
So let’s get to the nitty-gritty of how to get this done.
While you may feel like you owe her an in-person discussion (and she will certainly feel like you owe her this), an email or a phone call gives you some power to avoid that in person hard-sell. If you do actually talk to her, rehearse with your sister.
What you need to communicate is “Jen, I won’t be free to babysit (child) after (date). I wanted to let you know as soon as possible so that you can make arrangements for an alternative. He’s a great kid, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him, and I wish you both well.”
Now, you could give her reasons for the change, and the reasons could be the true ones – you feel like she overstepped her bounds on several occasions and it’s made you realize you don’t want to work with her anymore. If you did still want to have a working relationship with her, it would be extremely beneficial to bring up the custody issue and the “promised excursions” issue and lay out your boundaries clearly about that. But since your mind is made up to sever the relationship, what would be the goal in hashing through all of that? You’re trying to disengage from her, and you don’t have to get her to accept your logic as to why or make an unimpeachable case. A long discussion keeps you engaged with her longer than you want to be. You may in fact want to help her avoid this problem the next time, but you’re her child’s babysitter, not her life coach.
Because you do not have to give her reasons. Even if she asks. You can just repeat “I’m sorry, I won’t be available anymore” in a monotone until she goes away. The reason is: You don’t want to. That is enough of a reason. And in the hands of a guilt-tripping person who doesn’t want to hear “no”, every reason you give is a reason that she will poke and prod trying to find a weak spot. So if you feel like you are likely to cave in, remove this ammunition from her.
The “correct” response from her to your initial message is some variation of “I’m very sorry to hear that, obviously, we both like you so much.” She gets to ask (once) “Any chance of changing your mind?” or “Is there some reason you want to tell me that might help me keep someone like you around longer?” but if she pushes you beyond that or makes you uncomfortable, she is the one breaking the social contract.
Once you get through this part, have little or no contact with her. Which means, it’s time to talk about your sister. Does she plan to keep sitting for Jen?
Because if so, Jen’s next step is going to be to ask her what’s up, and your sister is going to need to be armed with a neutral “I don’t know what’s up, she just said she didn’t want to anymore” response with a “My sister and I are separate people, but if you keep bugging me about this I will quit, too” round in the chamber. Can your sister have your back? Can you talk to her about this stuff and help her to avoid getting sucked in? Jen might make it *very* uncomfortable for her, uncomfortable enough that she might use your sister to try to get you to convince her to come back so that Jen will stop bugging her. Work it out between you together.
I certainly feel for Jen and don’t think she’s evil, but you get to prioritize your own needs and decide who you want to work with, and getting a little practice shutting down a potentially manipulative situation will stand you in good stead. Good luck.