Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Parents and the Guide Books that Eat Them

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Three spring times ago I sat crouched in a Barnes and Noble, bent over the "Bible for NYC parents."  City Baby. I was about ten weeks into my own pregnancy and ten years into my time served as a nanny to families all over the city.

I was not unfamiliar with guide books. I was not unfamiliar with being treated as "the help" by people whose children fell asleep in my arms. I knew that being a nanny was not unlike prostitution: you are paid to love and if you find a particular family or child less than cuddly, you are paid to pretend to love. Finding the intersection of a guide book with my intimate profession and seeing, in black and white, where, how and why it all goes wrong, well that was a bit of a shock.

I hurried home and typed an essay, for no one but myself and my imaginary newsletter to the city of New York. Here it is in all its first burst of fury fullness. In the following, I don't mean to imply that due diligence in hiring a nanny isn't important, but to me that is so obvious that it hardly needs to be stated in a guide book. What I do mean to say is that parents will reap what they sow in their relationships with those who spend so much time with their babies. There is so much hurt, so much misunderstanding. These are topics I will address soon enough: how one should be with his nanny. (Hint: personable and loving.) But this is the unedited screed of a woman who had sweated through years of changing other children's diapers, and it seems a good place to begin the conversation.

City Mommies and the Guidebooks That Eat Them (written in May 2011)

“When the nanny starts it is important to watch how she and your baby interact in order to make sure they are comfortable with each other…It’s a good idea to have a list of duties as well as what is expected of the nanny on a daily basis aside from child care, such as cooking, cleaning and laundry…Be specific. We are big on giving a nanny a “trial” period. Take this opportunity to observe her with your baby. You may also want your nanny to have a physical examination. Once a nanny is on the job you may want to monitor her activities in your absence. You may want to tell your nanny that you have a camera so she is always on her best behavior.”

“We have changed nannies several times… The most important person in your child’s life is you, the parent. Kids eventually adjust to a new nanny or caregiver.”

-City Baby, New York

When trying to figure out where it “all” went wrong, how many mothers in New York got imperialistic and entitled and just plain crazy in their behavior toward “the help” do we need to look any further than this relatively new breed of book, The How-to Guide? These books, as do all products of clever marketing, fill an imaginary void -- an identity void.  

If who we are is what we do, then learning the techniques of any craft or skill gives us an identity.  But what happens when being a certain type of person requires following certain rules and techniques? Does that make being doing? Being a mother is one of those conditions that despite our best efforts, despite the thousands of magazines and books and blogs and calendars devoted to this state, is not a job or a skill but merely a state of being. A passive state of existing in relation to someone else.

This is where the books come in. They may look like they are simply conveying basic information: the best deals on cribs, a guide to East Side pediatricians’ offices, a list of rainy day haunts for toddlers. But what they are really peddling is identity. City Baby has a cartoon drawing on the cover: a gentle, innocuous “mommy” with a kerchief covering her hair on a windy day as she passes by the rooftops and trees of an urban landscape. She looks very much like the Mommy bird in “Are You My Mother?” whose arc for an entire storybook is fetching food and bringing it back to her newly hatched baby.

So at home with her role as baby-carrier and kerchief wearer is the mommy on City Baby’s cover that you can’t really square the section on nannies at all. Why does this kerchief-wearing baby carrier need a nanny? She is wearing a checked kerchief! Checked kerchief wearers don’t hire nannies. They carry their babies through their days of collecting food and bringing it back to the nest. And isn't this one of the first types of images a newly pregnant woman summons? Protector, carrier, fort in the storm goddess? Nest builder and fountain of wisdom? Ah, marketing. How insidiously it matches the embryonic visions of all our intangible dreams.

How cleverly it can suck a woman in with stylish and symbolic cover art and then re-craft her into a rule-following, urban-jungle avoiding East Side yellow pages reading useless waste. An imperious, perpetually worried, self-doubting mess, no longer wearing a kerchief and toting her spawn capably through the streets. What terrible treachery these books are! How cruel is the implication that a woman is incapable of hiring someone to help watch her kids without the specific and exacting advice of experts? How undermining is the implicit suggestion that a woman can’t figure out how to judge someone’s character with the tools she has accrued over many years of living? How insidious the notion that danger lurks everywhere and if you don’t follow  interview guidelines and suggestions on the best places to buy a nanny cam your child will meet certain peril?

The mommy bird in “Are You My Mother?” flew from the nest before her baby bird hatched. She thought she would have time to get a worm and fly back before the big event. She does not interview a fellow bird before requesting that she keep an eye on her nest for half an hour. She does not ask another bird for help at all. She just assumes that her baby will be okay for awhile as she cruises the landscape for nourishment. And when she does return to an anxious baby who is remarkably already aware of the existence of mothers, she does not weep in waves of anguished guilt. She tells her baby where she was and assumes that he’ll be just fine. She does not have to check a video feed later, either.

A kerchief is much lighter than a guidebook. And far more useful. Mothers of Manhattan are weighed down by advice on how to achieve the identity of motherhood. Once you know how to interview a nanny, set up a nanny cam, check repeatedly for signs that your child is “comfortable” with the nanny, you are a qualified mommy. You are in the club of self-assurance.

Except you are anything but self-assured. Instead, you have dutifully followed advice on how to be a nervous, antagonistic, nanny-baiting wreck. Which is one of the most dangerous types of people a child can have around. Abandon the guide books, mommies-to-be! If you have an instinct that tells you that asking about a person’s interests and hobbies might ingratiate you and establish a sense of familial good will, follow it! If your instinct tells you that announcing the presence of a spy camera might be insulting and hurtful to an already thoroughly reference-checked nanny, it’s right! Congratulations! You are the proud owner of common sense and kindness, two invaluable characteristics that will ensure the health and well-being of your new baby.

What was all that advice about your diet when you were pregnant? Eat food that is healthy for you, because it’s healthy for the baby too! Take good care of your nanny, the advice should go, and you are taking good care of your child. You are already a mommy. A mommy is just a person who had a child. It is not someone who knows how to interrogate a stranger and terrify her into a submissive state. It is not someone who needs to be reassured that she will be more loved than a babysitter. A mommy is a bird who comes back to the nest, certain in her choice of worm, to feed her child. What would we think if the story ended with the mommy bird collapsed in tears over her decision to fetch a worm too close to the deadline? She would not seem terribly Mommy-like, would she? 

So why allow yourself to be terrorized by guides that tell you that you don’t know how to interact with the world already? That make you jump through hoops to assume a new identity when you possess it the moment the baby pops out? Trust yourself and not the advice givers. If you think nannies are people just like everyone else, you know a lot more than the guide books do. 

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