The Nanny Chronicles
There is a wonderfully funny novel called “The Nanny Diaries” written by two former nannies charged with the job of making sure the Upper West Side wife who doesn’t work, cook, clean, or raise her own child has a smooth day. It is an amusing drama that illuminates the lives of absurdly weathly families who exploit young women to do the work of raising their children for meager pay and ridiculous hours.
I was fortunate to be financially able to hire live in nannies when I was discharged from a rehab hospital following a severe stroke during pregnancy. I arrived home in a wheelchair, and had a two year old son and a newborn baby. The baby stayed with my parents and a baby nurse while I spent 6 weeks in rehab learning how to walk and take care of myself.
There was a tiny bit of attention given to baby care while I was in rehab for things like trying to change a diaper with one hand, but it was mostly futile. I did figure out how to nurse him using one arm and a pillow to hold him.
Simone was in place in the baby’s room when I got out of the hospital. She started a few weeks prior to my discharge to get oriented in the house, and to help my husband with the two year old. She was originally from Trinidad, and had a pleasant accent and good communication skills.
I remember sitting at the dinner table the first few nights at home observing our two year old stare at Simone like “who the fuck is that?” He had been severely traumatized and confused already by my seeming disappearance from his life for three months while I was hospitalized. I returned home in a wheelchair with a disability, a new baby, and a black woman to start taking care of him. He was not yet verbal at 22 months when I had the stroke so he wasn’t able to process his feelings with words.
Having a live in nanny was a luxury for the women in “The Nanny Diaries”. In my case, I was physically unable to work, cook, clean or raise my own children. I’m sure there are families who manage somehow in difficult circumstances without help, but we were financially secure enough to afford help so we had it.
I was home full time in a wheelchair charged with managing a stranger who was taking care of my kids and my home. I went out in the town’s senior citizen transportation to outpatient physical therapy because I was not cleared to drive for seven months following the stroke. I did have limited walking ability. I was independent as far as self care in short order.
Simone was a kind mother of two girls. We got along well. It was just agonizingly frustrating to have to sit and watch her do what was supposed to be my job; one I had been planning to do for years. She was an excellent cook. There were practically zero issues as far as how well she took care of the children. She was not hired to take care of me, but she would pretty much do anything I needed.
My husband had the distinct impression that she did not like him. He was only around her for a few hours in the evening after he came home from work. I thought she treated him the same as the rest of the family.
If there was an issue with Simone, it was her lack of engagement with the children. I don’t know why I expected her to do what I envisioned myself doing in an able body. She wasn’t their mother. It was just a job for her. She cooked, cleaned, did diapers, laundry, kept the kids clean, clothed and fed, but I never saw her play with them or read to them.
When my mother in law visited, she was appalled to see Simone lock the sliding doors when the toddler crawled toward them. She also had an expectation that the woman would take the kids outside to play and get some fresh air, not lock them in the house. Simone was just trying to keep them safe, if lacking stimulation.
Simone was pleasant to have around during a dark period in my life when I was trying to rehabilitate myself and still be a mother to the best of my limited abilities. We tried to talk to her about engaging more with the kids, and she didn’t quite get it. After about a year, my husband and I started to look around for someone else who might do a better job.
My mother told me about a woman who was supposed to be great having worked in New York City. She came out on the bus for an interview. We liked her well enough. Her references checked out. It is easier to trust a nanny with your children if you are around all day to supervise as opposed to leaving them home while you are at work. We let Simone go, and hired Millie.
Millie was originally from St. Vincent. She had one daughter who still lived in the West Indies. Her Engish was good, but she definitely had a strong accent. She seemed to yell when she spoke. She had interesting ways of pronouncing certain words such as saying “electric city” instead of electricity. She once pointed to a squirrel in the yard and told the kids “Oh, look at the RACK-coon!” I was so glad I was around the house at times like this to be able to set things straight for my kids.
One of the biggest challenges for me with having live in help was trying to breach the vast cultural divides. I don’t think Millie finished school, and I am a graduate of NYU. She subscribed to all manner of superstitious beliefs that were totally foreign to me.
Millie was an extraordinary housekeeper and cook. Sometimes I felt the house was clean at the expense of physical and intellectual stimulation of the developing children in the house. Millie made good use of the television as a babysitter since my kids would gladly sit and watch hours of Nickelodeon while she cleaned house. I was able to read to the kids if they would sit still long enough.
There was one activity which Millie engaged the kids in on a consistent basis. She carried a pencil and paper all day, and asked them to “give me a number”. She would furiously scribble the numbers down to play in the lottery. It was one of her superstitions that the kids knew the magic numbers. She often left me alone in the supermarket so she could go to the lottery counter to buy her tickets. She also did her own shopping sometimes because the prices were so much better in our large suburban supermarket compared to the bodegas she frequented in Brooklyn. She kept a running tab that was added to her enormous long distance phone bills to be deducted from her pay.
Talking on the phone was another of Millie’s distractions from the kids. I was frequently unable to use the phone in my house because she was on it. This was not only inconvenient; it was annoying because she was so loud in her conversations. I could hear her yelling from anywhere in the house. She had a boyfriend who called and always said, “Hi, hello, good evening, can I speak to Millie?” She usually spent a few hundred dollars a month on the phone. I mentally converted the amount of time she spent on the phone not attending to my kids.
Millie had been with us about a year when one evening my husband and I were watching tv downstairs and we heard Millie call my husband. She started yelling ,“Is there a hospital around here?” He went upstairs and found her doubled over in pain. She wanted to go to the emergency room.
We drove her to the same ER I was taken to for the stroke. My husbsand was a little freaked out. I had arrived unconscious in an ambulance when it happened so it didn’t bother me.
Millie was admitted to the hospital to have surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. This trip to the hospital potentially saved her life. She stayed for about three days during which time we had to punt as far as child care.
I was amazed that a grown unmarried woman who was clearly not planning to have a child was not adept at preventing an unwanted pregnancy. When I asked her about birth control, she simply said, “I didn’t think I could get pregnant fifteen years after I had my daughter.” I got into a conversation about if she is still having her period…
It wasn’t especially troubling when Millie informed us that she had found another job. We just needed to scramble to find a replacement.
We hired Ritva, a very young woman (about 20) who was originally from Finland.
She didn’t have much experience with cooking so we pitched in helping get dinner prepared. This was a fair trade off because the kids seemed to really like her. She took the time to try to do things with them. She was also the first nanny we had with a valid driver’s license which was very positive in that she could drive the kids around, and also negative beause she could take off in my car. I still wasn’t medically cleared to drive, and it felt awful to watch someone drive away to go shopping or to parties when I was stuck at home. Ritva was an occasional smoker. She smoked outside on the front porch or the patio, but never near the kids.
This nanny knew how to play with the kids and went in the sandbox and on the swings with them. She also spent a fair amount of time using our house phone to keep in touch with her mother and her aunt in Finland. She paid us for the phone calls, too.
Our two year old started preschool while Ritva was working for us. She got him ready and drove the 1/2 mile each way to the school in a neighboring house for children ages 2–4.
The school would not change diapers. Their policy for kids who weren’t potty trained was that they were required to arrive in a fresh diaper, and unless there was a catastrophic mess, the child could wait to be changed until after the 2 1/2 hour school day was over. The school was aware that I was disabled and the woman who was driving my son was hired. I got calls at home about my son’s diaper not being fresh upon his arrival. Ritva assured me again and again that she changed him before she dropped him off. It was pointless to argue with the school because I had no control over this. I simply chalked it up to one more thing I couldn’t do better by myself in my current state.
As my older son moved up in school, I would occasionally attend school plays and the like. The other mothers knew I had a younger son, and were always curious about where he was when I was at school by myself. When I explained he was at home with the nanny, I was often told I was so lucky I had a nanny to watch my younger child. Of course I was. What these women didn’t understand was how lucky they were to be able to take care of their own children by themselves.
Ritva was a mostly positive experience until the day came when she told me she needed to leave because she had to return to Finland to help her mother with her aunt because she was gravely ill. She had been spending hours and hours on the phone so I asked her if there was a problem. She told me her aunt had cancer. We wished her well, thanked her for her service, and started the search once again for a replacement.
I saw Ritva six months later at our local post office with someone’s children.
Enter Marie. Marie was also from the West Indies. She was very fit and seemed bright. She said she was married, and I remembered thinking it was extremely odd that she was living with us Monday through Friday.
Marie was also not a cook, but knew how to engage with the kids, and they seemed to like her. I liked her, too. She could carry on an intelligent conversation. It seemed like we had our best one yet.
Marie used her own cell phone and spent a good deal of time on it, but never picked up the house phone. It made some sense that she was trying to stay in touch with the husband she supposedly had.
Things were going great with Marie until the Monday morning I was waiting at the bus terminal to pick her up for the week, and the bus arrived, but Marie did not. It was unlike Marie to not communicate. She would call or text any change in plans. I started to worry. She didn’t answer her phone or respond to text messages.
When the next bus came and went an hour later, I assumed she was not coming. I let my husband know I would be home alone with the kids. They were out of diapers by now and were generally more manageable.
It felt odd to be home alone with the kids for an entire day until my husband got home from work.
I got a call at home later in the day from a woman who said she was Marie’s friend. She was calling to let me know that Marie was in the hospital because she had tried to take her own life. I never had any indication that she was depressed. I didn’t freak out too much over the possibility that she could have attempted this in our house because she didn’t. I asked her friend a few questions about how she knew Marie, and where she was. I asked about her husband. She said Marie did not have a husband. This made sense. Still, over the course of about six months Marie had told me about many conversations she had had with her husband on the phone, and things they had done together on weekends. Evidently, Marie suffered from mental illness.
We began the search again. This time proved more difficult. I was managing on my own somehow, but it was a big struggle.
When Marie contacted us about wanting to come back to work, we were conflicted. On one hand, we didn’t want to discriminate on the basis of her being mentally unstable or ill. On the other hand, we were thinking about someone who would be suitable to live with us, and take care of our children. Thus far, if not for the mental health crisis, Marie was the best we had seen.
After a month of searching for someone else to no avail, and considering Marie’s good faith offer to come back to work and based on her track record before the incident, we hired her back.
She picked up where she left off, and the kids still liked her. She had a lot of energy, and was nimble and fit.
Things were running smoothly and we felt comfortable with our decision to give her another chance.
There were no signs of mental illness. I don’t remember if I ever asked her about her “husband”.
The winter wore on. We lived at the top of a hill at the end of a long, steep winding driveway that generally became nearly impassable in icy conditions.
One severely cold and icy day, Marie and I had an argument. She decided she was leaving right then and there. I offered to drive her to the bus station at the end of the day when my husband got home, but she told me she had called a taxi and was leaving right away. I counted on the taxi not being able to get to the top of the driveway because vehicles without 4 wheel drive couldn’t make it. Of course, the cab drove right up to the front door and took Marie away.
It’s important to understand that throughout the years of going through different nannies, I was making huge strides in my recovery and my kids were maturing. They were toilet trained and learning how to dress themselves. I had completed driver rehabilitation and was back behind the wheel. I was walking better all the time. In fact, it was arguable that I didn’t need help anymore around the house.
We hired Dianne next. She was a little older than me and lived within driving distance and came to work in her own car. She was more of a housekeeper because the kids were older and didn’t need as much attention.
My husband was in Florida on business during the middle of the week, and Dianne got into a discipline issue with my older son. I took my son’s side, she got furious, and told me she was leaving. I asked if she could stay at least until my husband got back to help me, she said no, and left.
It was four long and interesting years that I spent rehabilitating myself and managing domestic help. When Dianne left, we decided it was time for me to figure out how to run the house by myself. I remember being so glad to not have the presence of an outsider in my house. It was a lot more work for me, but it was what I had signed up for when I decided to be a mom.
When I had been managing on my own for a few years, Millie called and said she had once told my kids that if she ever won the lottery, she would buy them an electric motorcycle they had seen in Costco. She said she had won $10,000, and wanted to know when I could pick her up at the bus station with the motorcycle. I was amazed. She carried this really big motorcycle on the subway from Brooklyn to the Port Authority in Manhattan, then got on a bus with it to the suburbs of New Jersey. My kids remembered she promised she would buy it for them if her “numbers” ever hit. Maybe my kids really did know the magic numbers.