of a relationship
the relationship between any working mother and the caretaker of her child involves some of the most intense, important, conflicted, and complicated interactions a woman is ever likely to have. Once a mother returns to work—full-time, part-time, anytime and anywhere—it’s the one relationship that almost more than any other will keep her awake at night, make her furious, desperate, grateful, and guilty.
For a mother who both loves her children and needs her job, it’s also often a relationship she wishes she would never have to have. Yet from the moment it begins, it becomes hopelessly and forever entangled with her view of herself, her love of her family, and her need to support them. In this way it becomes instantly and inextricably folded into the dialogue every mother carries on within herself, and with her partner, her colleagues, and her friends: If playground, cocktail-party, and book-group conversation is anything to go by, the topic of nannies, what they do to us and what we do to them, is right up there with talk about love, sex, and school waiting lists.
Many employers are blissfully unaware of this relationship, and contrary to what they might wish for, a new mother never returns to her job alone. She comes back changed in some fundamental way, having had to rearrange her priorities and her life, though hopefully not in a way that will affect her performance on the job. She brings a little of the homefront to the office—not only her child, but also the woman who does her other job with the kids at home, at school, or in day care. That other woman is her companion every day, and she has citizenship in her computer, briefcase, and cell phone, not to mention her head and heart.
Ironically, often the women acting as de facto mommy substitutes to the children of other working women have children of their own to love and raise. Nannies by any other name, they are also the children’s caretakers and their mothers’ alter egos, stand-ins, and understudies, replacements, enablers, employees, confidantes, friends, and rivals, sometimes hapless victims and not infrequently long-suffering heroines.
Those caretakers rarely have an opportunity to openly offer their perspective on this pivotal relationship, and how it affects them emotionally, socially, and economically. My research for this book makes abundantly clear that the majority of live-in or -out, full- or part-time nannies have no official training or special education in early childhood development. More often than not their training is the sum of their experience, and their qualifications amount to little more than highly subjective references from previous employers. As a result, the status of “professional” will forever elude them, but the irony goes deeper than that: For the minority of nannies in the United States who actually do have professional training as well as legal working status, life is often a constant and frustrating battle to prove they are not “just babysitters.”
After all, why would any young woman in her right mind actually choose to waste a decent education by going one-on-one with another woman’s children, in a home that’s not her own, and in a situation where no matter how good she is at her job she’ll always be relegated to playing second fiddle? Professionally trained nannies may be in great demand among parents who can afford to hire them, but those who actually see this job as a career and stick with it for more than a few years before starting their own families, or branching out into more lucrative jobs in other areas of the child-care business, are still far and few between. As a result it is simply an accepted part of life in our supposedly color-blind and egalitarian society that most nannies do their work without benefits in exchange for cash and while under the radar from both the INS (now known as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Bureau) and the IRS.
Because there is no nanny union, they are, at best, considered domestic workers engaged in unskilled labor. As such the prevailing attitude continues to be that anyone can be a nanny really, simply by virtue of being female. Rarely are they recognized as the essential and extremely hardworking nurturers of society’s working capital and most valuable future asset. In this new millennium women might be more liberated than ever, but mothers who work as well as the caretakers of their children continue to be deprived of anything resembling true equality, both financially, socially, and in terms of their professional status—the argument so powerfully made by Ann Crittenden in The Price of Motherhood.
One would have to be a true curmudgeon to disagree with the old chestnut that “the children are our future,” but that is also where the national consensus ends. Babies? Always adorable. Motherhood? Wholesome as apple pie. Nannies? A necessary evil, but please—let’s not talk about them. In fact, for purposes of immigration, labor practices, human rights, and our view of ourselves as “good mothers,” it’s better for all concerned to simply pretend that nannies don’t exist. But they exist, thank God, and we should all thank our lucky stars that they do. How else could mothers blaze trails up the traditionally male corporate ladder? Not to mention toil away in midlevel white-collar positions or menial blue-collar jobs, contributing the crucial funds their families need to get by.
We certainly don’t have a coherent national child-care policy to thank for that. What few feminists other than Barbara Ehrenreich have dared to point out is that nannies and child-care workers of every stripe are the unwitting victims, underpaid enablers, and questionable beneficiaries of the inexorable drive of the American female to achieve equality in the workplace.
The old chestnut is true, of course, and children do represent our collective future, not only because they will reap what we sow, but also because every society’s wealth is directly related to the level of education and skills attained by its future citizens. Yet the vast majority of those who change our children’s diapers, read to them, take them to the park, wipe their dirty noses, kiss, hug, and lug them about appear in no country’s GDP. In the lexicon of economists and politicians the world over, “nonworking” mothers are not considered productive in the traditional sense, and therefore might as well not exist. It goes without saying that the same applies to the legions of illegal or undocumented child-care workers in this country.
And yet there is an awful lot riding on those nanny backs, particularly considering that working mothers are very much a part of the economic equation. With close to 70 percent of American women with children under ten engaged in the workforce, motherhood has long been a far more complicated affair than happy and impeccably coiffed housewives in 1950s commercials once suggested. Someone has got to look after our children while their mothers are away contributing to the economy—nothing new about that. Nor is there anything new about the debate surrounding the myriad ways in which modern, emancipated, or simply hard-pressed mothers should struggle with finding the right balance between career and family. Sadly, it seems the debate among women is becoming more polarized rather than less, as dedicated full-time stroller pushers and briefcase-wielding amazons face each other down with the mutual battle cry of “I’m doing what’s best, so get out of my way.”
Similar to countless how-to manuals on shattering the glass ceiling, since the 1970s a steady stream of books has been published on all the tricks of surviving working motherhood—juggling, multitasking, delegating, part-timing, rearranging priorities, and so on. What is comparatively new, however, is a strange and growing disconnect between the economic and political realities of our generally accepted social contract, and the messages women are getting. The contract states—explicitly in all manner of legislation and implicitly in our expectations and hopes for our daughters—that of course women should work. Not only that, it’s obvious they need to and want to, which is actually so old hat it doesn’t even bear talking about anymore. The other message women are getting, however, is possibly even more powerful, and has an equally legitimate claim to our hopes and dreams.
This message—Raise Your Own Children—comes not just via the expertly packaged legion of child-care experts, but also increasingly from other women and mothers, spread via an entirely new genre of books and authored by mothers who have found their true calling. Occasionally with humor but just as often with missionary zeal, these mothers write about how all other successes, ambitions, and challenges in their lives paled into insignificance once they were faced with the trials and sweet rewards of raising their children. While there is nothing wrong with reveling in full-time motherhood, the economic realities of our increasingly work-obsessed culture means that fewer and fewer women can actually afford to focus solely on raising their own children, even if they wanted to. Inevitably, while they are at work, child rearing becomes someone else’s job.
Women are continually extolled to go forth and be anyone’s equal in any area of life; to ever seriously suggest otherwise would be a most grievous violation of our current social and political code of conduct. Yet there are equally righteous voices, echoing all around us in the media and of course in our own hearts, that we mustn’t forget to bond with our children, not to mention have them while we’re still fertile. And once they’re here, let’s be clear: Children need their parents. And while children don’t screw things up, parents, on the other hand, do.
Well, mostly mothers do, actually. The language in the most recent editions of parenting manuals by Dr. Spock, Penelope Leach, T. Berry Brazelton, et al., may have been sanitized to reflect a politically correct view of parenthood, but a close reading of these texts reveals that very little has actually changed. Mothers are still considered to be primary caretakers, and even if Daddy now changes more diapers than he used to, let’s face it—nannies have rarely been hired to be father substitutes.
It is no wonder then that the relationships between mothers and the women they hire as nannies should be such a pressure cooker of love, ambition, need, and misunderstanding. Add money, thwarted expectations, the potential for exploitation, and often profound differences in culture, class, education, and language to the mix and the only thing that is surprising is that mothers and the “other mothers” of their children have until now largely conducted their relationships without any real emotional guidance or insight.
The drama, not infrequently pathos and occasionally tragedy, of the stories told to me by so many women on both sides of the mothering fence is extraordinarily compelling. Not only do they provide an often entirely unvarnished look at what goes on beneath the thin, public skin of so many families, they also draw out the myriad ways, often harsh quid pro quos, unspoken conspiracies, subtle deceptions, quiet desperation, and millions of small and large compromises that mothers everywhere make in order to have someone else take care of their children while they take care of business.
The issues raised through the stories told in each chapter rarely have a single, “good” answer. The only thing they will demonstrate for certain is that one mother’s Mary Poppins may well be another’s child-care poison, and vice versa. However, my intention is to focus on certain universal issues and examine the whole spectrum of nanny/mother relationships, so mothers will feel less alone in their struggle for a formula that works for them. As in any relationship, it can be powerfully revealing to get a sneak peek at what the other person sees when they look in the mirror, and painfully surprising to hear how some of the things we all do and say with perfect conviction and righteousness become entirely warped in translation.
The stories in this book are all real, and the voices of the women who tell them genuine. I’ve taken great care to change all names and other obvious identifying features, such as the nannies’ nationalities and family status; the mothers’ professions; the names, ages, and genders of their children; and their location or nationality. I spoke to many more women than I have room to recount in these pages, and while each voice was unique in the same way that each child is unique, there were many strong and similar underlying currents of passion, struggle, and uncertainty that emerged over time. I met the women—mothers, caretakers, and often both—through friends and acquaintances; by word of mouth; occasionally through classified ads; in Internet chat rooms; and of course on countless playground or park benches and wherever children and their grown-ups congregate. Once I introduced myself and explained my project, the women I approached very rarely refused to talk to me, and once begun, I can honestly say that not a single conversation was ever brief or dull. In some way everyone had a new and interesting perspective to contribute, and above all each had her own inimitable voice, which I’ve done my best to capture.
The situations in which the mothers and their substitutes—for lack of a better word—found themselves were all as individual as the personalities of the women involved. The deeper I delved, the more I found that there was rarely a categorical right or wrong. With a few glaring exceptions each woman would look to what she perceived to be best for the children for guidance in where to draw the all-important lines in the complicated relationship with their mother or caregiver, just as I myself have done: My own family has endured virtually every variation of child care imaginable, not to mention the other obligatory, groaning-bookshelf reading list of the “modern mother.”
It was only after reading Dr. Spock’s famous opening, “Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do,” that my confidence began to waiver. Since then it’s turned into a full-scale topple. Turns out I was pretty clueless, and what I know now, of course, is that the whole “having it all” shtick was a dirty, rotten lie. What’s more, it has become clear to me that to have little Dick and Jane in safe and loving hands while I or any other mom is at the office, occasionally has consequences that are not only unforeseen but also heart wrenching and deeply controversial in both a moral and ethical sense. Most important, my view of how the catalyst of a child (or four, in my case) affects the relationships between women (never mind between husband and wife) has changed dramatically. Straightforward? Never. Honest? Rarely. Respectful? Sometimes. Intense? Oh, let me count the ways . . .
Above all, what I hope readers will take away from this book is this: Given the child-care options currently available to American women, having a nanny (legal or not) does not make any mother a pariah or a saint. I hope, too, that hearing the voices and stories of others who have made the same or different choices will make each reader more sympathetic to “the other side,” or even to her own, and therefore better able to manage those issues that will inevitably arise. If reading this book leaves a mother—or a nanny—feeling more confident and compassionate, and less guilty or resentful, and encourages her to step a little further out of the closet where this all-important relationship is concerned, then And Nanny Makes Three will have achieved its objective. Not surprisingly, achieving it has much to do with my own experience and a need I have perceived, not only in myself but in so many others, to synthesize what I have learned. Probably the most important realization has been that the amount of emotional energy, financial resources, and sheer thinking time that I have expended on my relationship with the women who look after my children while I am gone is equal to none. Rather predictably, my husband has often complained that he comes a distant third, or perhaps I should say sixth: first the children—one, two, three, and four—then the nanny, and dead last: Papa.
Copyright © 2007 by Jessika Auerbach. All rights reserved.