Monday, December 16, 2013

City Mommy, City Nanny

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Writing about nannies in Manhattan is like holding a large container of gasoline, standing next to an open fire and saying "Oh, what the hell, let's see what happens?" Of course I am not writing about nannies, but about being a nanny. In Manhattan. Which can be like jumping into that flame to find a few scraps of cash within it before they burn.

Let me say at the outset that some of my best friends are families with children whom I have cared for.  I say that tongue-in-cheek, but it's true. I have formed lifelong loving friendships with both parents and children I have met and cared for in my expedition in the jungle of Manhattan service positions. These families hold my heart firmly, and lest anyone accuse of me of protesting too much, I have the memories and stories to prove it.

I also owe a debt to my clients because they taught me much about children and the way they work, how their internal mechanisms are as intricate and finely tuned (and easy to disrupt) as the wind parts in an antique watch. Spending all day with a child is rather like a Buddhist exercise: one must let go of "plans" and see where the path takes you, where the child pulls you.

When I became a mother it was my greatest fear that I would have suffered terrible burnout and be unable to feel the joy of accompanying a child throughout her day; it would be old-hat. Happily, I didn't. Not to say there aren't slow hours in the day (when will I master the art of letting my child put imaginary oregano in her imaginary cocoa instead of insisting that it needs some cinnamon or whipped cream? My husband, fortunately, is a whiz at tea parties. My being an actor, I have, perhaps ironically, no gift for that sort of pretend-with-no-boundaries, such is my compulsive allegiance to reality.)

There were dark passages too. I have tales of times when I met children who despite (or perhaps because of) their financial good fortune had me running to the dictionary to look up the definitions of "conscience" and "character." I once witnessed a 13 year old boy torturing a bunny rabbit. His pet bunny. I reprimanded him, only to be told that "the bunny started it." I wish I could report that this child had a precocious gift for dark humor but alas it was as straight-faced as the torture was aggressive. I took the bunny away and told his parents. What they chose to do with the knowledge, or the bunny, I don't know. I asked my agency to cross that address off the list of my future appointments. You can't save every bunny, alas.

But mostly the problems stemmed not from the children, but from the parents.

Why does it sometimes go wrong with the nannies? Why do some families fail at forming loving and respectful relationships with those who nurture their babies?

When I was in my first trimester of pregnancy I was wandering the baby book aisles of the local bookshop -- trying to understand the magnitude of the shift that was about to occur from being a nanny to being a mother -- when I stumbled upon a popular title. It was called City Baby, and its cover illustration spoke of all things gentle and peaceful and benign. The cartoon drawing of a mommy, wearing a kerchief as she carried her young babe along a horizon of  high-rises  looked so much like the mother bird in P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? that surely she was trustworthy. Surely she homage to the cuddly feeling that book inspires.  I could take advice from this kerchief-wearing hippy about raising a child in New York City.
The cover of the self-appointed "New York City Baby Bible."
My heart sank and my blood boiled as I leafed through its pages. I scribbled angry notes in the margins of a magazine I found in my purse, as I didn't want to forget a word of this dangerous "advice," so potent and so wrong that I despaired at the thought of families obtaining "wisdom" from its pages. Of course the section that was of particular interest was that on how to "train" a nanny. With advice like this infiltrating the population like a fleet of armed robots, we need a State Department fully staffed with ambassadors to broker a peace between nannies and their employers. Gasoline on the fire, indeed.

Poor City Baby. It is my sacrificial lamb: one of so many books that shred the bonds between those who nurture our young and those who need their help. So exemplary of bad advice; it is my pick for most misleading, most likely to cause trouble, to wound souls and to give mothers dangerous notions that not only sever their bonds with nannies but even shred the fabric of polite and decent society. Am I being dramatic? I hope so, because there is nothing more dramatic than our relationships with others. Souls and happiness are at stake in the mommy/nanny dynamic. This is something that has to be gotten right.

The good news is that it can be gotten right. I will return to City Baby and the specifics of its crimes against parents and their employees (not to mention against their children) in my next post. I would like to end this post with a note of hope, a trumpet of good will, a thank you to all the children and their parents who are my forever extended family. The little girl with whom I read The Doctor and The Dormouse, the little boy with whom I had tea parties and bubble cakes at bath time, the little boy who gamely ate his dinner dressed as Snow White according to his older sister's wishes. A thank you to the parents of two little girls who seemed to have sprung from a birthday cake such was their sweetness, to the parents who asked me how my day had gone and made sure I made it safely to a taxi at 2 am. Thanks for the memory - so many collectively that they will fill many happy posts.

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