Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Nanny Recovers from PTSD

Don't make a quick judgment, I told myself as we rode the elevator to my daughter's dance class this morning. We were sharing the ride with another mother and her little girl. She had lots of bows and a pink chiffon sweater to match her pink chiffon hair bows and her perfect pigtails. A pink chiffon skirt trailed from underneath her jacket.

You know that you have no control nor desire to control your daughter's preferences, I told myself. Why assume this woman has any say in what her daughter wears? You are a mother now, you know better. You have known since you were a nanny that children like to dress themselves. Don't make assumptions. 

The mother wasn't warm. My daughter and I are so chatty that I am quick to dislike someone who isn't immediately effusive or generous with conversation or clearly desirous of forming some sort of we're-in-it-together bridge with a stranger. Perhaps I try too hard. Perhaps others don't try hard enough. Perhaps both. I know I'll ponder that for days despite knowing there's no objective answer to that question.

The mother was blond and her hair was blown-out and her jeans were tight and her boots were untouched by months of brutal weather. I felt small next to her, partly because I am small and she was tall but also because silence feels like a reproach when one is eager to converse.

A child is in my daughter's class who happens to be a television star's offspring. The star came the first day, with her nanny, and tried to hide behind her ski hat and glasses. She just wanted to be able to attend the class with her baby like all the other parents. I wish for that problem on some days, but that day I felt her pain and the compromises of stardom.

After class that first day, the blond, tight-jeaned mother, while clutching her chiffon princess's hand, went up to the television star. A frisson ran through me and I hadn't even heard the gambit yet. But I knew. I knew. 

Our children seemed to hit it off, I should have my nanny call your nanny to set up a play date.The television star was polite. Sure, was all she said. I didn't see much of the interaction, because I was consciously trying not to look and because I was so dreadfully embarrassed to witness it.

Oh, how this blond mommy wanted to mingle with the stars! In a world of status and ambition, catching a celebrity's child in your golden net is the ultimate coup! Don't judge, I told myself, maybe the kids did play well. Except none of the kids interacted at all. It was a bald-faced lie, a bald-faced attempt to ingratiate and get in in in with the television star. Status. Status. Status. How many rungs are on that ladder, anyway, and what is the destination?

I heard the blond mother talking to her chiffon daughter before class today. "Maybe __ will be in class today and we can have her nanny bring her over for a play date, wouldn't that be nice?" The little girl with chiffon bows stared into space.  I saw her mother's projected and vague fantasies float through the air and land on her daughter's head. At some point when she's older, they'll penetrate and enter her brain. And the cycle will continue.

The "famous" child wasn't in class today, as it turned out. But I shivered several times as I replayed the moments in which the status-seeker sidled up to the television star or her nanny over the last few weeks, because those moments  embarrassed me profoundly. I seem to absorb the shame of someone else's ridiculous act instead of being able to observe it from a peaceful distance.

I realized today it was more than embarrassment. It was post-traumatic-stress-disorder. After class, some of the mothers were chatting. I heard phrases like feeder school and waiting list and then I heard the name Episcopal and my blood ran ice-cold through my veins.

How many children had I picked up at The Episcopal School on East 69th street when I was a nanny? I don't remember. I do remember the parents, though. I remember the Hermes scarves and the Chanel ballet flats and the Gucci quilted tote bags and the Burberry headbands. I remember being ignored violently and I remember trying to bury my nose deeply in the scent of a Victorian novel to block out the feelings of confusion and dissonance that standing in a crowd of wealthy lost souls chatting about vacations and summer houses can evoke.
Episcopal School on East 69th Street. 
My daughter loves to play after class. While she romped in the sunny empty space of the dance studio, I tried to collect myself from what felt like a gut-punch. I heard my daughter singing and asking me questions, but fuzzy panic was filling my ears like cotton balls and flashbacks were making me dizzy and tense.

I was back on the East Side, in the land of monogrammed Pottery Barn chairs for one-year-olds and tennis lessons for four-year-olds and private schools for two-year-olds and thousand dollar cashmere throws on four thousand dollar sofas and lectures about giving a child a banana from a fruit stand because it wasn't organic.

Status, status, status... Like a vulture, the concept preys on the wealthy mothers of the Upper East Side and they crawl and climb toward anything that dangles the dream. To try to have a meaningful conversation with one of these mothers is to tilt at windmills. You can't fight the dragon. Maybe in the few hours you spend with their children you can make some small difference by discussing some things that matter, but the beast of status is more powerful. It feeds on long lists of toys at Christmas, birthday parties at the Plaza and visits to Dylan's Candy Shop on Third Avenue.

The mothers have their butterfly nets ever poised to catch what truly matters-- play dates with yet wealthier parents whose older kids are at the "right" schools, a spot in an art or violin class starting at two years of age so that admission to a "top" nursery school is assured, and invitations to elite dinner parties and children's birthday parties.

It preys on us all, to some extent. Who hasn't wanted at one time to be a famous actress who needs to hide behind sunglasses? Who hasn't wanted to be admired from afar, to possess Gisele Bundchen's golden tresses and have her army of beauty specialists attending to her as she nurses her infant? To be a social creature is to be aware of hierarchy and it is part of being human.

But it's the bad part. Especially in places like Manhattan. Status, status, status... You hear the whisper like Gollum's whisper of "my precious" in the cave when he can't bear to lose the magic ring to Bilbo.

As the stroller brigade headed to the elevator, my daughter and I stuck around for a while to play in the empty space. I had to get my head back on straight. I was, drowning in memories of East Side castles. (It isn't only the East Side. I've worked in the Hotel des Artistes and enormous brownstones off Central Park West and towering penthouses overlooking the Museum of Natural History and five-star luxury hotels and houses in Gramercy. Actual houses in Manhattan. I've seen every form of renovated kitchen that springs from a limitless budget and a very limited imagination.)

My daughter ran down the hall to watch the African dance class. I heard the steady beat of the drums and I followed her. I turned the corner and her tiny face was pressed to the glass while she bent her legs in time with the dancers on the other side of the door. They were sweaty and pumping to the music and I wanted to fling open the door and jump in with my daughter and lose myself in the beat of the drums and shut out the images...the frilly comforters and the silk sheets and the professional photo shoot pictures mounted on those endless East Side hallways and my desperate ten year search for humanity in those photos, a search for some expression of  genuine joy or whimsy in those cookie-cutter portrait shots in Restoration Hardware gallery frames.

I should have my nanny call your nanny. I am trying to block out the memory. I wish I hadn't heard that desperate blond mother scratching and pulling her way up the ladder because she thinks one exists.

Don't judge, I tell myself. Maybe she's a theoretical chemist. Maybe she's a poet. Maybe she's a good person who just happens to be friendly only with people who have status.

My daughter is a child now. We are starting our interactions with the world. When I was a child and stymied by a value system alien to me, my mother would repeat one of my grandfather's favorite expressions: You can be with them, but not of them. And you don't have to be with them most of the time. There are lots of other people in the city. You only need find them in the dense metropolis. You just have to be able to manage it, like finding specific grains of sand on a beach.

Let go, I told myself. You are ships in the night, our daughters share space in a sunny dance studio for forty five minutes a week. She has no power over you. You don't need to report to her what you and her child did all day.You don't need to deliver or show up at her house tidy but not glamorous, articulate but not chatty, obedient but not self-consciously submissive. She's just another mother now and she can't hurt you.

So I let Episcopal and the Burberry headbands go. We listened to the drums and watched the dancers sweat and then we trailed home through the snow. I contented myself with the thought that I will never be picking up another child at Episcopal School again.

Now I just need to get my husband to agree to pull up stakes and move to that imaginary cottage in Devon I keep dreaming about. The one where there isn't a Pottery Barn or a Madison Avenue for miles and miles and miles.

Related: A Nanny Says "Goodbye."


  1. Ooooh! I loved this. No, "loved" isn't the right word (I loved the writing, though), because I felt the pain and discomfort. I'm not in that sort of world of TV stars and nannies, but I can certainly understand the huge disconnect.

  2. I had a scholarship to a prestigious private high school, which is how I came to this country. I lived with two host families for two years and went to school with these really, really rich kids who have all been through that system more or less. I've seen what you've seen and basically felt the same, but the school was amazing in terms of the educational/art program and the second host family was very sweet, genuinely. For the most part this world is ridiculous to the extreme, but that does not mean I won't buy a monogramed chair for my kid .... just as long as everyone is clear that I never did nor do I ever wish to become 'one of them,' we'll be fine. :)
    So interesting that we share similar experiences in general.

  3. Wow. What a fascinating, and certainly rare, perspective you offer. This post was so intriguing and eye opening, really. I hope to read much more of your POV from your nanny days relative to how you now find yourself in the role of parent.

    1. Kristen, I definitely have a lot of stories and I do intend to share them. I want it to be clear that I had a lot of lovely and loving families in my ten years as well, and learned immensely from them and their children. But there was a dark and dreary side that was toxic to my soul, and I think that story should be told too. I think other nannies have written about this before, but maybe mostly in fiction form, I am not sure. I guess you could call it a reverse nanny-cam? :)


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