Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Across the Divide

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This nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog, called Nana...There is a room in the basement of Miss Fulsom's school where the nurses wait. They sat on forms, while Nana lay on the floor, but that was the only difference. They affected to ignore her as of an inferior social status to themselves, and she despised their light talk. -Peter Pan

After ballet class today, the nannies were talking. One little charge wouldn't eat anything but pasta, the other refused to sit down in the bath, that sort of talk. Chit-chat. No different from the chit-chat one hears among mothers conversing about the world's most boring topic: their own children's foibles. They strolled their charges toward the elevator as my daughter ran ahead and pushed the button. I kept hoping that the elevator would take long enough to arrive for us all to share it. I really wanted to take part in the tedious nanny chat.

I have always wanted in, but no matter which side of the divide I've been on, I've never managed it. When I was a nanny, most of the other nannies assumed I was a mother, because the tables were turned and I, being white, was the minority in the group. To be white meant I was a mother, surely, and therefore an invader, spy and judge on the playground. There are other Caucasian nannies, but I would estimate that we make up about 10-20 percent of the Manhattan nanny population.

Somehow the mothers always knew I wasn't one of them, either. I wore no wedding ring, I usually wore sweatpants and the rumpled look of someone who had arrived to take the children at 7:30 am. Or they knew because they knew the real mothers and fathers. Conversations with parents were as abbreviated and curt as those with the nannies, try as I might to pick up a thread of dialogue and sew myself into their tapestry.

Maybe I'm just not very good at conversation and it has nothing to do with social status. But I can't help thinking that appearances seem always to matter so much to people. Assumptions cling despite our efforts to break down walls and share something of ourselves, to let the other person who is spending the often lonely day of childcare know that you want to be friends and make the day go faster together.

I speak only from Manhattan experience. Perhaps being guarded is a survival trait ground into our bones here, our very DNA mutating in our cells to harden our exteriors that we may survive our underground commutes and near daily-run-ins with people screaming at us on the bus or with cars determined to flatten us with one quick right turn. Perhaps people here are very tired and it is far easier to assume that a person sitting next to you on the playground is your enemy because it saves you the trouble of vulnerability, of effort, of making small talk with someone new.

I have some friends from the time my child was a newborn, a "mommy group" that used to meet regularly. I consider them my friends, but I have been troubled at times whenever the conversation turns to the topic of babysitters and nannies. Can you BELIEVE the cost of sitters? Can you believe they charge you if you are home, just getting your child used to them -- I mean, we are right there! Can you believe the base charge the agency has for New Year's Eve? Yes, yes, and yes. Childcare is hard work, and mothers should know this better than anyone.What is it that hardens the hearts of so many mothers on the topic of sitters? What makes reasonable pay for an exhausting job that demands so many skills so difficult to fathom?

On the flip side, why can't a nanny of the same or a different race let me in? Has she had so many bad experiences with her employers that I have no fighting chance of becoming friends? (Perhaps.) How much do I long to tell these nannies, who take their charges to ballet class each week, that I know how long their day is, that I know how relentless and dull it can be, that I want my child to be friends with their charges and I want to be friends with them. We are all in the embarrassing position of trying to get toddlers to "gallop" in a circle. We are all mortified when the teacher comes in and sings the "Duckie Song" and the Thumbkin Song" and scolds us when our child leaves the tedium of the circle in pursuit of some actual exercise and adventure.

Maybe it's that my own assumptions are incorrect. Maybe no one else is mortified by our teacher's antics. Maybe no one else does have need of as much human interaction as I do on a daily basis. Before I had a child I think I was about the same, but it's possible my need for community has increased since spending most of my hours alone with a toddler. And when I was a nanny I certainly longed to share conversation and resources with other nannies and parents.

I did form a few fast friendships with other nannies and some mothers over the years. I crossed paths with people from both sides of the divide who were willing to talk about interesting things: books they had read or their fantasies of where they'd like to live or what their dream job would be or how much they couldn't wait to get a haircut. I treasured those intimacies.

Childcare should not be as lonely as it is. Something has gone terribly wrong in our part of the world, where the work place and the home is divided by an iron wall. If that system is too entrenched to tackle, perhaps we can at least work toward a bridge among caregivers. I'm willing to talk about the superiority of rice pasta over white flour with any nanny or mother as a starting point. Just let me in and one day we could be dishing about our wildest dreams or our most frustrating experiences, domestic and otherwise.

Doesn't everyone need more close friends?

As my daughter and I meandered home after class, she spotted a black nanny and her white charge: a little girl in pigtails of about four years old. They were holding hands, waiting for the light to change before crossing the street. I, meanwhile, was making a mad dash through the crosswalk with my child in my arms. My daughter pointed and said, "That Mommy and her little girl are waiting for the light."

"Yes," I said. "That Mommy is much more responsible than yours."

Alice B. Woodward, 1923 illustration of Michael riding Nana.

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