Saturday, January 11, 2014

Maternity Clothes (A Nanny Says "Goodbye")

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Sometimes the best place to start is not at the very beginning, with all due respect to Maria Von Trapp. Sometimes the event that completes a story is the best way to introduce the story. I'll get to the beginning and the middle soon enough.

I recently pulled out a little Net Book that my husband purchased for me as a Valentine's Day gift in 2011. I wanted very much to write some stories about my life as a nanny. We found the smallest, no-frills baby laptop Staples offered and took it home. I remember shifting on my heels and asking for a seat while the salesman showed us our options. I was aching. My hips were sore. I was tired. I was impatient to get home and go to bed. I no doubt had the flu.

I was pregnant. I wouldn't find out for another week. My husband was about to leave for three months of work in a small town three hours from NYC by train. The morning he departed I started to count the days. Was it really five? A week earlier I had been babysitting for a client I loved and became desperate for bacon at 11 at night. The kids were asleep and I found myself madly frying bacon when their mother was due home in ten minutes. I ate it virtually raw out of the pan. I hate bacon. No bells rang. Perhaps when we want something very much we are afraid to believe it has happened.

The morning my husband kissed me goodbye and headed for a 6am train I was beginning to feel that something was off.  I fell asleep folding laundry. I ate Chinese food and thought I must have developed an allergy to MSG because I was so breathless and thirsty. I felt bricks in my intestines and pain in my joints. My eyes weren't focusing.  I was five days late so at last the potential began to sink in.  By the evening I had worked up the courage to go to Rite Aid. They had a sale and I got two sticks for ten dollars. I called my husband in his lonely hotel room and listened to the day's events. Then I told him of my day. And then of his impending fatherhood.

The next night I ate some ice cream and ran to the bathroom to bring it right back up. My old hip injury flared from the surge of hormones I suppose.  I was too excited and too frightened to sleep. I was breathless because of the drastic increase in blood volume. My uterus, which was later diagnosed as irritable (yes, that's the clinical term and I have to admit a perfectly chosen one) was contracting and aching and heavy. I watched anything on TV. I have no idea. The nights were lonely. I couldn't sleep because my skin crawled. I began losing weight from nausea. I took shards of Dramamine to be able to get a little nutrition in. I listened to Benny Goodman and watched School Ties and any other beautiful movie I could find on cable on a loop to drive the demon of hormonal depression away. Still, every minute was an hour and every morsel of food was a test of my determination. And my husband was so far away...

But I had this shiny laptop. It was lovely and new and I was supposed to write my stories about caring for other people's children. I had envisioned typing at Starbucks or a diner and spreading my notes out the way the cool kids do and clicking away on my tiny keyboard.  But pregnancy made it hard to leave the house. By 16 weeks I couldn't work much any more, my uterus spent so much time contracting. So much for taking ballet classes up until the moment I went into labor--I had assumed this would be my trajectory.  So much for working and earning a living -- I couldn't lift a child much less push a stroller.

So I sat up in bed and typed on the laptop that I had hoped strangers would admire in the local coffee shop. I had wanted witnesses to my being writerly. Instead I had to type whatever I could in solitude and then close the computer and lie in bed watching Judging Amy reruns.

Still, I wrote a fair amount.

I wrote about the families I adored and I wrote about the social problems in the families I had great difficulty respecting or understanding. I wrote about the interior moment-to moment world of being a nanny and I wrote about the children I had loved and those I had found baffling. I wrote about the potential psychopaths and the neighborhoods one was most likely to find them raised in.

I loved a family on the Upper West Side. I was their nighttime babysitter and their wonderful nanny used to pass the children to me at 6 pm on the nights that the parents were going out. The little girl and her brother were imps defined. Their father was Irish, as in real Irish accent Irish and their mother worked in something corporate but was also a painter. On one of my last nights working I lay in bed next to the little girl, whom I'll call "Mary." I was trying to soothe her to sleep -- she was the night owl type. And I felt a kick in my belly. It was an early kick but still quite clear. I told her that the baby had kicked. She asked me if I was having a girl or a boy. Her mother was nearing the end of a third pregnancy and the gender of that child was to remain unknown until his birth. I told Mary I was finding out the next day. She told me she hoped I was having a girl. I told her I was hoping that too.

The next day the technician looked over the heart and the kidneys and the various measurements and said in her thick Russian accent, "You don't want to know, do you, the sex?" Yes, we did! She looked at the screen again and said, "Oh yes, I see. Okay." I thought she must have seen a penis. I thought about all the boys I had loved and cared for over the years. "You see here? It's a girl."

Even after I couldn't work, Mary's mother treated me as a friend. When I was about 20 weeks I made it up the small hill to her apartment building and drank some water to try to slow the contractions. She had a big bag of maternity clothes for me. She had just had her third and final child, whom I had cared for at ten days old, and she was ready to part with the clothes. We went through the piles and she told me to take anything I might want because I could always pass it on if it didn't end up working for me.

I remember sorting the clothes. Tennis sweaters and spring coats and knit dresses and even a bridesmaid dress specially made for my client at nine months pregnant! My employer was passing the baton on this gray mid-June morning. Her six week old lay gurgling next to us and if you tickled his cheek you elicited that early lopsided grin. His arms waved wildly and he cooed. He was a baby. I had a fetus but if all went well she would grin one day too. The clothes felt more real than the baby. Pregnancy and motherhood have nothing at all to do with each other. I loved the clothes. I was amazed that I would fit into them, that my body would truly grow that much in the next 20 weeks.

My Irish family was moving to the west coast at the summer's end. I was familiar with the feeling. All New York City families seem to move once they have two children. Sometimes they last until the third is born. I had long known the clock was ticking and that this was their eventual plan. But the sting is still sharp when a beloved family leaves, leaving the nanny behind. Even though I was not a nanny anymore. I was an unemployed woman with a complicated pregnancy. I was a future mother and I had a husband and I was an actor and a dancer. Still, when a family leaves, a nanny feels unmoored.

This sunny apartment at the north end of the Upper West Side had always vibrated with the energy of a temporary residence: a perching place that a young and prosperous family would flop in for a while but never settle in permanently. it was homey and lived in -- they were the sort of people who had no worries about their coffee table being scratched by cars and games or their couches being wrestled on or being filled with Cheerios. It was also colorful and fully decorated. I had wandered in that apartment for two years, pondered the clues every family home offers: photos, choices of artwork, paint colors on the walls and book collections. I had put two children to bed in this apartment for two and half years. We had trudged the length of the hall from the renovated kitchen (it was an owned, not rented space!) to the kids' bedrooms, where we ate crackers and they drank water from sippy cups and we read A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss and then scoured the shelves for more because Mary was never ready to sleep.

But I always heard the clock faintly ticking. Perhaps what I was hearing was my own clock: I did not want to be a nanny forever, it was meant to be a cash job in between acting gigs and somehow a decade had gone by. It is an old story for performers, especially in NYC, where the cost of living is prohibitive. There were a few small black and white photos of the Golden Gate Bridge on the wall in the living room. They had family there and California is more spacious than Manhattan, to be sure. When the kids are bigger... this is an oft-repeated phrase among one's adopted families. It was like the sounding of a bell whose ring intensified instead of dissipated with time. That bell's jangle signaled the coming tidal wave that would carry all my families out of the city, one by one.

Manhattan was a way-station: a train platform to wait on between their gay twenties and the wide-lawned, sprinklers-at-dusk and parties-on-the-4th-of July permanence and solidity of the suburbs. (In my imagination, the suburbs to which people move are always a meeting of Barry Levinson's Avalon and Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, without the traumas and melancholy and with an extra dose of children staying at the neighbors for dinner and rocking on porch swings in the summer and fall.)

Every time I lost a family, I felt the ground shifting beneath my city-slicker feet. I lost the certainty that a "real" life could be built in the dense metropolis; I wondered if such a life was a dream based on unrealistic hopes of creative and financial success.

A sense of the finite pervaded my last year with the family.  I was a static foil in a dynamic environment. I lacked momentum. The apartment also awaited abandonment. How odd it now seemed to admire the granite countertops and the black and white tiles in the sunny bathroom with the claw-foot tub and the study off the kitchen which was carpeted and housed a whole counter of desk space and a window looking into a European-feeling alley across which other families could be seen making dinner. This apartment was no longer the prom queen. Its moment had passed and it would soon be replaced by a proper homestead in a leafy glade.

I, too, would be replaced, but this didn't bother me. I never felt territorial despite my fierce familial affections for these certain families whose offspring I had bathed and sang to and picked up from school. When I was with them, that was our time and once out of my sight they existed primarily as symbols. Their impending flight more than the resulting absence was what loomed.

And then just before spring, I was pregnant. As Annette's belly grew improbably large I began my journey into nausea and dizziness. I envied her being nearly finished with pregnancy as I endured fairly common first trimester events: bleeding, fainting, sleeplessness and depression. By June I was in my second trimester and I was sorting those well-worn but new-to-me clothes. I held a polka dot jacket I had seen Annette wear over her growing belly one date night a few months earlier. I had admired it and now it was mine for a time.

I watched Annette's newborn third child for a few hours one night in May. Annette said: "What do you think of him? You realize this is going to be you, right?" I did realize it. For some women the baby is an abstraction: pregnancy is fairly easy and they are preoccupied with their work and at some point tidying the nest and looking at layettes and some even feel the baby is coming too soon, they haven't had enough time to prepare! With my ever-contracting abdomen and uterus, with my relentless second and third trimester nausea, I had to focus on the baby part right away. I couldn't wait for eviction day! Also, because I was a nanny, babies and children were already my daily life, they were not an abstraction. If anything was surreal it was that for the first time I would be the baby's first choice of arms, of comfort, of solace.  I was not to be the baby's nanny, but her mother.

Annette drove the sacks of clothes to our apartment the next day, my birthday. Her belly seemed to have all but disappeared. Her hair was as blond and freshly cut as ever and somehow her post-birth glamour infused me with hope. (Alas, it was not to be for me. My body took many more months to break down the tissues and structures of pregnancy.) But on my birthday, my husband took me to lunch and the movies. I peed 12 times in an hour and a half. The movie was about a road trip. I am not sure I saw any of the actors' stops along the way, but I became very well acquainted with the bathroom tiles at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on 63rd Street.

My Irish family departed in July. I went down to meet them at a hotel on Amsterdam where they were spending their final night in Manhattan, after their apartment had been packed up and their belongings shipped west. Mary and her little brother were playing as I entered the Hotel Lucerne and Mary patted my stiff belly and asked if there was still a baby in there.

And then they were off. And so was I. Their family had a new adventure calling, and I was about to begin the adventure of having one. A family, that is.

And here you have it. One of my entries on that shiny laptop. I called them Nanny Notes.


And here is a post about the relationship between nannies and their employers and why it often goes wrong:

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