When I graduated college in 2006 I moved to New York City to be a live-in nanny. I lived in a makeshift bedroom, formerly an office, and slept on a futon, behind a door with no lock, for two years. The kid went to school — fourth grade — and while he was gone I would write. Or I would sleep. Or watch TV. Get depressed. Read The Secret. This was post–Nanny Diaries, pre-financial-crisis New York, when they played “Trapped in the Closet” at happy hour and the bankers were only just starting to discover the Lower East Side. I lived with the family in the same building as Stephen Malkmus but had no idea who he was.
I liked brandishing the word nanny back then, and so did my boss. To me, it was a sort of class rebellion, and to her, maybe it was aspirational. We both laughed a little when we said it, sometimes chickening out and using babysitter when we talked to other parents or the kid’s teachers. “The nanny” is an evocative phrase, an archetype, something rich people have. The Nanny is vaguely threatening: She infiltrates the domestic; she either has her own family whose needs are at odds with your own, or she has no ties and that is its own threat, too (youth, freedom, Ben Affleck). She witnesses fights and messes and knows you forgot to buy toilet paper on the way home from work, because you texted her to go do it herself. A nanny could be anybody who needs work — an immigrant or a graduate student or a man or a mother herself — but in the popular imagination, the Nanny always has big boobs (erotic, maternal). The Nanny knows too much, and you need her too much, and she takes your money. To a 22-year-old with no real prospects, only potential, this was its own sort of power.
Almost ten years later, I left New York and moved across the country with my partner and 6-month-old son, in search of, among other things, affordable child care. We had spent the first six months of my son’s life doing a little freelance work, but mostly spending through some savings and splitting time taking care of the baby, clawing our way through each day. This made fiscal sense in the face of Brooklyn day-care costs, but once we were in the sensible paradise known as the Rest of the Country, land of the in-unit washer and dryer, we began to let ourselves think about child care.
There was no way in hell we were ever going to hire a nanny. Sitting around the dinner table, we gamely, sensibly discussed the pros and cons of having a regular babysitter or sending our son to day care. He was 9 or 10 months at the time, and crawling, but shy and sensitive, and we knew that at that point he would probably prefer one-on-one care, if you can talk about a baby’s preferences with any seriousness. We had a flexible schedule, and a babysitter could work around that. “But then we’d have an employee,” I argued, or justified to myself. “And they’d be in our house, in our family, and we’d have to interview them, and possibly fire them.” I thought of how hard it was to quit my nanny job, the lump in my throat when I said I was leaving, how guilty I felt. We were intertwined. I was so close to the kid. My life was spent helping someone else’s family function.
Having a third person to help our family function sounds amazing to me right now, but at the time it was unfathomable. We were so mired in new parenthood, and so nervous. Who were we to ask for, much less pay for, help? We felt like middle-class impostors.
There are things that make me feel like not just the mother of my child but a Mother, generally. I feel like a Mom when I’m pushing my stroller through a crowd and murmuring an incantation of apology to no one in particular. I feel like a Mom when I slam shut the back door of my station wagon in the Target parking lot, then walk the cart to its proper corral. And I feel most like a Mother when I am picking my son up from his day care and am chatting with the women who take care of him.
My friend Ester Bloom is a writer with a young daughter. She has hired a regular babysitter (“I wasn’t just a mom, I was a boss. That was weird!”) but now does day care, which she says she vastly prefers. She echoed my sentiment: “I feel very Mom-ish when I pick baby-girl up. Like, ‘Look! I am a responsible parent, here on time, greeting my gleeful daughter with a hug and some string cheese.’”
The changing of the child-care guard is when I felt most like a nanny, too. When the kid’s mom came home from work and we engaged in the same chitchat I both relish and shy away from as a mother.
At least at my son’s day care, there is a report card. It is a photocopied worksheet, a half of a page, where someone — I never know who! — records what he ate, when he slept, what kind of mood he was in (happy, sleepy, grumpy, and so on, Seven Dwarves–level emotional acuity). Using the language of “school” cheerily obfuscates the labor involved. He has “teachers,” not child-care providers or babysitters or nannies. This connotes something class-wise that makes us all more comfortable. That we don’t have to discuss how many diapers he went through out loud when they hand him over (there’s no way I would ever, ever ask) is one of our most cherished things about it.
As a nanny, the Report was verbal and it was in our shared home and I dreaded it with all of me. Here’s what he ate. Here’s how his homework is going. How was he? Who was he playing with at pickup? Did you ask Joe’s mom for a play date? How did he do on the test? Are his clothes ironed? Are you going out tonight? Are you staying for dinner? I never quite knew what to say to make her happy, but I know that was always the goal. I wanted to say the right thing, to please her, to assuage her.
Her interrogation is one I’m familiar with now: It’s the interrogation of a parent a little sad to be missing out, of someone naturally worried about her kid, of someone feeling both out of control and deeply responsible. I ask Dustin these same questions after he’s been watching our son. What did he eat? Who did he play with? Did he go down the slide? How was bedtime? The difference is that the parent relishes reporting these details. One of the primary benefits of being in a relationship is recounting banalities at the end of a day apart, feeling like there is at least one person in the world interested to hear the details of your every meal.
But I never ask the “teachers” these same questions. When I interact with them, every gesture and word I have is used to portray a deep amiability and respect for what they do. I am the cool mom; I empathize; I know how it is. Oh, did he eat dirt and cry all day? That’s cool, I’m so sorry you had to deal with it. With my son! I pay them $860 a month and am apologetic on behalf of my baby son, and it takes every ounce of restraint I have not to lean over the baby gate and say, “You know, I used to be a nanny.” I want them to know I am one of them, that I deeply relate, even though I only cared for one kid, who was 9 and then 10 and then 11, for two years. Even though I spent all day writing or watching Oprah and really believing in the Secret, and all night smoking menthols and trying to lose my virginity. I was a child then, and they are adults. They are great at their jobs, even though child care is easier when all parties allow the late-capitalist delusion that it isn’t a job at all. Like maybe they’re doing the work because they just love children that much. Though, having done it, I know it doesn’t always feel like a job but something else much trickier, with fewer boundaries and higher stakes.
I defer to these women out of guilt but also out of a real trust of their expertise. They certainly know how to take care of a 1-year-old better than I do. I forget I’m the mom. My friend Ester says sometimes she pretends she is the babysitter, “and the real mom will be swooping in any minute now to save us all.” I think I am still the babysitter when I’m around these teachers. I’m taken aback when they explain to me why he was sitting alone crying when I walked in. “He was happy all day, I promise!” one woman said, vaguely nervous, vaguely defensive. “Did he sleep?” I asked, my face red, my body full of that same dread. Now the dread was more complicated, multifaceted. I felt sick thinking of my kid sitting alone, inconsolable, while I was sitting in bed trying to write about him. I worried we’d made the wrong decision, that he needed a nanny after all. And then I felt bad for reacting, for wanting more information, for treating the teacher like an employee.
She told me he slept on and off, and she said it in a tone I knew intimately. She was trying to read me, trying to meet me in that holy-grail place where truth and pleasing me overlap. “He didn’t cry all day,” she said. “Don’t worry.” I shrugged, literally waved it off with my hand in the air, and held my son’s head to my chest. “What’re you gonna do?” I said and turned and walked away.