I guess it had to happen eventually.
I was a nanny for ten years. I have been a mother for nearly three. Inevitably, my loyalty would have to cross the divide, falling decisively on one side or the other.
A friend told me today what she pays her nanny, who has a degree in child development and years of experience. Her nanny is a grown woman and lives in NYC, where it costs about ten dollars for a bottle of coke and the selling of a kidney to buy a monthly Metrocard. I expressed surprise before I had the chance to stifle my reaction. Or perhaps I didn't try hard enough because I was annoyed, which was decidedly immature and impolite on my part.
But I have been down this road before. Every time mothers start to complain about the cost of childcare in the city I have to make a decision: to get into it or to ignore it. Sometimes I want to shout:
"You know I am right here, people? You know that my side job for ten years was caring for the young of others? You know that you are all crazy and ungrateful and selfish, right?" But I don't. They cannot comprehend. It isn't worth the argument.
My husband and I can't afford much childcare; my toddler is approaching three and we have only just now enlisted the services of a sitter for 4 hours a week. Still, I pay the going rate, despite my babysitter quoting me a lower figure.
Because I know. I know what sitters and nannies do and I know how hard they work. I also know that people think that if one wears dress shoes to work, one has a "real" job, and if one wears sweatpants (in order to chase after a toddler all day) one has a "pretend" job. Parents seem to develop instant amnesia the second they hand a child over to a sitter, forgetting how incredibly hard their task is in raising kids.
Let's take a look at what a nanny does every day:
1. She arrives at a stranger's house with a smile on her face and a stability that cannot waiver from one hour to the next: her job is to be emotionally available, loving, a guiding influence and a boundary-setter.
2. She must be BORED for many hours of the day. Childcare is tremendously rewarding but it can also be the loneliest of tasks in our segregated modern world. She must summon emotional courage and stamina in order to endure the sheer number of hours of playing with a child that she faces every day.
3. A nanny gets sunburned every summer. She schleps tired children over her arm, she pushes strollers over long hills and city sidewalks, she stands for hours awaiting a child at the top of a burning hot slide. However slathered in sunblock she is, a nanny gets burned every summer. As a bonus, there is never anywhere to pee on those playgrounds.
4. A nanny soothes. A nanny chats. A nanny wipes soiled bottoms. A nanny dries tears and sings lullabies. A nanny rocks a child to sleep. A nanny reads with her best character voices out loud from the same books over and over. A nanny bathes and applies baby lotion and puts on diapers and sits with a child who can't sleep, stroking a sweaty head. A nanny cuts the crusts off of bread. A nanny cleans the kitchen if she gets an hour during nap time. A nanny parents.
5. A nanny forges a bond with a stranger in order to give that little stranger the comfort and love that their parents are unable to provide while they earn a living (or in some cases go to the gym or to the movies or go on a date or clean the house.)
It is in many ways analogous to prostitution: nannies offer up their bodies and souls to make an hourly rate; they pretend to love sometimes unlovable children because that's their job. More often than not, they pretend hard enough that they end up loving them for real.
A nanny is someone who knows intuitively and through experience how to take charge, how to love, how to nurture and how to hold a tiny sticky hand even when she is desperate for five minutes alone, just five minutes to urinate or have a snack.
So anyway, my friend got mad. Real mad. She sensed my surprise and all of her insecurities came tumbling out in a volcanic heap of mother exhaustion. She threw every bit of pent-up disapproval she had for my mothering at me. She "disagreed" with my choice to let our child co-sleep, she "disagreed" with not having a completely routinized day, she "disagreed" with me that I didn't like the idea of cry-it-out, she would never let a child stay up late, etc...
It was pretty awful. It turns out that like every other issue to do with parenting, how much you pay your nanny is a hot button item.
I don't regret the loss of the friendship. Sometimes things just don't work out. I also couldn't care less what she thinks of my mothering. What I do care about is that mothers aren't the only ones who are tired, defensive, much maligned and unappreciated. Those people you see caring for kids who aren't their mothers and fathers? Those are nannies and daycare workers and babysitters. And they have to pay for the Metrocards that bring them to work every day to care for other people's young.
If you live in an expensive city, you should be paying your nanny a wage appropriate for the cost of living in that city, and appropriate for the exhausting physical and emotional effort of her job. You should be making sure your nanny has food and drink, you should be asking your nanny how her day was and not just if the kids are all right. She is a person who lives in your home for much of the day, and therefore she is family. And if you don't respect her needs, she will find a family who does.