I guess it had to happen eventually.
I was a nanny for 10 years. I have been a mother for nearly three. Inevitably, my loyalty would have to cross the divide, falling decisively on one side or the other.
A friend told me today what she pays her nanny, who has a degree in child development and years of experience. Her nanny is a grown woman and lives in New York City, where it costs about $10 for a bottle of Coke and the selling of a kidney to buy a monthly Metrocard. I expressed surprise before I had the chance to stifle my reaction. Or perhaps I didn't try hard enough because I was annoyed, which was immature and impolite on my part.
But I have been down this road before. Every time mothers start to complain about the cost of childcare in the city, I must decide: get into it or ignore it?
Sometimes I want to shout: "You know I am right here, right? You know that my side job for 10 years was caring for the young of others? You know that you are all crazy and ungrateful and selfish, right?" But I don't. They can't understand. It isn't worth the argument.
My husband and I can't afford much childcare; my toddler is approaching three and we have only just now enlisted the services of a sitter for four hours a week. Still, I pay the going rate, despite my babysitter quoting me a lower figure.
Because I know. I know what sitters and nannies do, and I know how hard they work. I also know that people think that if one wears dress shoes to work, one has a "real" job, and if one wears sweatpants — in order to be able to chase after a toddler all day — one has a "pretend" job. Parents develop instant amnesia the second they hand a child over to a sitter, forgetting how incredibly hard their task is in raising kids.
Let's take a look at what a nanny does every day:
- They arrive at a stranger's house with a smile on their face and a stability that cannot waiver from one hour to the next: their job is to be emotionally available, loving, a guiding influence and a boundary-setter.
- They must be BORED for many hours of the day. Childcare is tremendously rewarding but it can also be the loneliest of tasks in our segregated modern world. They must summon emotional courage and stamina to endure the sheer number of hours of playing with a child that they face each day.
- A nanny gets sunburned every summer. They schlep tired children over their arms, push strollers over long hills and city sidewalks, stand for hours awaiting a child at the top of a burning hot slide. However heavily slathered in sunblock they are, a nanny gets burned every summer. As a bonus, there is never anywhere to pee on those playgrounds, so not only does their skin burn, their bladder does too.
- A nanny soothes. A nanny chats. A nanny wipes soiled bottoms. A nanny dries tears and sings lullabies. A nanny rocks a child to sleep. A nanny reads with their best character voices out loud from the same books over and over. A nanny bathes and applies baby lotion and puts on diapers and sits with a child who can't sleep, stroking a sweaty head. A nanny cuts the crusts off sandwich bread. A nanny cleans the kitchen if they get a “spare” hour during nap time. A nanny parents.
- A nanny forges a bond with a stranger to give that little stranger the comfort and love that their parents are unable to provide while they earn a living (or in some cases go to the gym or to the movies or go on a date.)
It is analogous to prostitution: Nannies offer up their bodies and souls to make an hourly rate; they pretend to love sometimes unlovable children because that's their job. Often, they pretend hard enough that they end up loving them for real.
A nanny is someone who knows intuitively and through experience how to take charge, how to love, how to nurture and how to hold a tiny sticky hand or dry tears rolling down soiled faces — even when they are desperate for five minutes alone, just five minutes to pee or eat a snack.
Parents develop instant amnesia the second they hand a child over to a sitter
Anyway, my friend got mad. Real mad. She sensed my surprise at the wage she paid her nanny and all her insecurities came tumbling out in a volcanic heap of mother exhaustion. She threw every bit of pent-up disapproval she had for my mothering at me. She "disagreed" with my choice to let our child co-sleep, she "disagreed" with not having a completely routinized day, she "disagreed" with me that I didn't like the idea of cry-it-out, she would never let a child stay up late ... you get the picture.
It was awful. It turns out that like every other issue to do with parenting, how much you pay your nanny is a hot-button topic.
I was summarily thrown out of the house. My child and I wandered to the fancy lobby; I was stunned, my toddler was unaware that we’d been dismissed.
I don't regret the loss of the friendship. Sometimes things just don't work out. I also couldn't care less what she thinks of my mothering. What I do care about is that mothers aren't the only ones who are tired, defensive, much maligned and unappreciated. Those people you see caring for kids who aren't their mothers and fathers? Those are nannies and daycare workers and babysitters. And they must pay for the Metrocards that bring them to work each day to care for other people's young.
If you live in an expensive city, you should be paying your nanny a wage appropriate for the cost of living in that city, and appropriate for the exhausting physical and emotional effort of their job. You should be making sure your nanny has food and drink, you should be asking your nanny how their day was and not just if the kids are all right. Don’t call them up and open with “How is Katie? Did she eat?” Your nanny will register how little you care about how hard it is to mind little Katie all day.
Open with this: “How are you? Did you get a chance to eat? Are the kids driving you nuts today?” Your nanny is a person who lives in your home for much of the day, and that makes them family. If you don't respect their needs, they will find a family who does.