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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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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Monday, December 2, 2013



"You try to keep up with the grandparents, but it's hard. So there end up being a million presents under the tree."

I overheard this remark in a little shop in my neighborhood. My daughter and I stop in frequently so she can play with the owner's dog. Sometimes I buy some balloon stickers to pay rent for our time with the dog and at the play table. It's 25 cents for a sheet of four stickers. Four! Yet we are definitely the customers on "rent-control" (apologies to non-New York readers who might not know this term, so woven into the fabric of city life here) because nothing else in the shop is affordable to anyone with a normal income, or I'll just say it, a functioning conscience.

I stifled the urge to tell the customer that she could stop trying to keep up with the grandparents by buying antique Radio Flyer wagons and  American Girl Dolls with her surplus and  instead send a check to Oxfam.

My husband says I generalize about people based on one comment and it's an unattractive trait.  It's true,  I dislike myself when I am angry and judgmental. But sometimes it comes naturally. I think I get angry at what I am afraid of. I am afraid of consumption because I consume, and I consume more than is my share, too. And I consume when non-material experiences would be more gratifying. And I judge others when I need to put a barrier between people who are "shallow" and, well, me. It doesn't help. In the end, it doesn't feel good to think oneself  superior to anyone, much less to those whom you accuse of feeling or acting superior.

Still,  I believe it is important to examine the nasty underbelly of consumption, especially when one lives with a young child in Manhattan, where the false promise of purchasable happiness lies in every storefront and every block has many storefronts.

In  About Alice, Calvin Trillin wrote of his late wife's allergy to excessive consumption. He says Alice "believed in the principle of enoughness." Hers was not a crusade for a minimalist way of life (not that those aren't admirable) but merely an innate sense of when people crossed a line of decency when it came to material goods and other luxuries.

I guess it all comes down to one's definition of "luxury."  And of "enough."

When I was a child my mother told a story about seeing a man with a shirt that read The One Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins. 

On the Upper West Side a store recently opened  that's intended to be a kind of  patisserie meets Willy Wonka candy factory. The menu prices would exclude Charlie Bucket  from eating there. Parisian toys lining the bistro walls  had me calculating exactly how many hours a child would need to be amused by them to justify their expense. (The answer: an infinite number. But actually, that's not accurate. No amount of hours could justify the price tags.  Besides, a  child is happier with a  modest toy, a point I won't dwell on as it's been discussed enough elsewhere.)

Living in Manhattan is a tricky business. I used to joke (only half-joke, really) that I would rather have my future child keep company with heroin addicts than with Upper East Side private school children. I had spent enough time in the lobby of Nightingale Bamford, overhearing tidbits about vacations to the Caribbean to celebrate a one year old's birth and the helicopters that would transport the family to and from their daily jaunts to know that in their bones, these tiny wealthy kids were damaged goods. They were spoiled. Badly. Their parents had lost their way, lost their souls, lost their dreams and their youth and their consciences at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street, or maybe on Madison Avenue, where they paid eight dollars for an ice cream at the old fashioned soda shop on the corner. (There is nothing old-fashioned about an eight dollar ice cream.)

"And what are you going to buy for that penny?" 
"We thought we'd buy some crackers -- the broken kind." 
The children turned over their penny to Mr. Basch and prepared to depart with their bagful.
"Wait a minute, children,"  Mr. Basch called. He walked over to the back of the store where he kept slabs of smoked salmon and cut off two pieces of moist, salty skin. This was a rare treat. The children sat down on the stoop in front of their house and sucked away at the bits of of salmon which still clung to the skin. Afterward they would be very thirsty, but right now there were enjoying themselves greatly. 
"Good, isn't it?" Gertie said between noisy sucks. 
-Sydney Taylor, All of-a-Kind Family

It's the turn of the century and Gertie and her sister have stumbled on a penny. A single penny and they spend an hour debating how to divide it among a variety of candies and crackers at shops where they normally buy only necessities for their mother.  The many hours of anticipation before eating and the subsequent joy of stretching the candy's existence tell of a very different value system. Literally. One penny had much value and even that penny is a find, not a right. 

When I see pre-teens lining up at the boutiques on Amsterdam after school, dough from the nearby cookie shop still moistening their hands, their mothers standing by approvingly as they choose sixty dollar shirts with their names monogrammed in sequins on request, I look at my two year old and my heart sinks. 

How long can I hide in the park with her? How long before her values begin to sync with those she sees all around her? Already she knows that a dollar has value. She loves to play with commerce -- it's a transaction with another person and a responsibility to hand over a dollar for an apple at the store. It's a social impulse that can turn quickly into materialism, because  usually humans are both acquisitive and addictive by nature. Perhaps that's redundant. 

 It's Christmastime in the city. 

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

I am giddy in September. The summer sun  has finally been beaten back like an R.O.U.S. that must be repeatedly bludgeoned before it succumbs. The flat, brown landscape of August, the determined panic-inducing heat is vanishing and the apples have arrived! It's time to gaze at Tasha Tudor's depictions of Halloween nights and children sleeping in the barn to make room for visiting guests and of a year's worth of candle-making and gifts made in secret by the children for their siblings.

 It's all to come, and it culminates in the festival of lights. Chanukah! Christmas! Pine trees scenting nearly every street corner and medieval crab apple wreaths at The Cloisters. It's the anticipation that is so delicious.

The Cloisters' Christmas crab apple wreaths. (2009) 

 How do I give my child Christmas without taking away her happiness?  How do I allow her the thrill of a few new toys and a glowing tree without being sucked into the maelstrom of too much everything? And even if I'm not, even if I practice the utmost discipline, how do make the holidays about excitement and not materialism? And how do I let her know that most people aren't fortunate enough to do even that (without being a complete killjoy.  What a balancing act that is!) When December arrives, the joy of its anticipation has been replaced with the anxiety of its arrival. 

The first thing to remember is that it isn't about Christmas. When I worked as a nanny, Christmas was all year in that world, for those kids. I saw many beloved children become spoiled - I saw the spoilage: the change from gentle and questioning and full of wonder to expectant and demanding and overwhelmed by choices. Clothing, toys, activities, vacations. The more they had the more they wilted like bad lettuce. 

My grandfather used to say "You can be with them but not of them." It's useful, if abstract. When I see my child playing with the old wooden blocks at the table of the expensive boutique, unashamedly not purchasing anything nor having any interest in doing so, I exhale and hold onto the sensation of observing her in that state. I return myself to that state when I think that a casual purchase on a stressful afternoon will ease my mind. A brief hit of dopamine wears off fast and results in a crash but living outside the bustle of commerce provides a constant flow of pleasurable serenity. 

My daughter knows who Santa is. After I read her the poem and she examined the illustrations, she said: "No like Santa Claus." I was heartbroken. How could she reject any whimsy I had enjoyed as a child? I told her that was fine, of course, and I put the book back on the shelf. I have become the master of the soft sell. Later, she reconsidered: "Santa is a woman, Mama. He is a woman." 

I took this to mean that Santa was welcome, or at least that she had brokered a peace with him (her.) So I'll take another lesson from my child: Christmas is what you want it to be, not what Bing Crosby or Bergdorf Goodman tells you it should be. 

Not that I would miss a trip to show her those windows this year. 

A photo I took a few years ago of a Bergdorf Window at Christmastime. I got lucky and she looked like a ghost floating in front of The Plaza. 

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