Received Thursday, September 28, 2006
My wife and I have been through some interesting... processes... with several nannies.
Our longest relationship with a nanny -- whom our four-year-old son adored, and, still, years on, remembers frequently -- included helping her deal with the truly bad behavior of her drug-dealing, drug-using partner-of-choice, and her own drinking, which -- while it did not take place while she was with our son (as far as we know) -- did on a weekly basis cause her to 'call in sick', setting off that cascading chain of schedule failures among me, my wife, and our clients that I'm sure other readers know well.
I have sympathy for the 'be positive about nannies when you can' position, and very little for the holier-than-thou position parents like to adopt with nannies.
When we decide to bring a nanny into the care-giving process for our children, we are not hiring an employee. We are adding a member to the family, a member with the emotional authority and responsibility of a parent -- and I think we have a moral obligation to accord that member of the family the same care and understanding (and, yes, tough love, too) we accord to any other family member.
I am still not done sorting out what I observed about, and learned from, this particular nanny, but I can say this: in our case at least, my son had three parents, and we had an odd sort of intimate relationship with our nanny. The nanny's close and loving relationship with my son threatened both my wife and me, at times, and we reacted badly on those occasions, usually. We didn't want to be usurped. The nanny herself got confused from time to time about who my son's mother was, and felt it was appropriate, more than once, to tell my son that in essence his mother was clueless. Our nanny made rather overt attempts to compensate for what she saw as our 'failings' as parents, particularly our failure to bring our son up within an established religion -- she snuck my son off to the local church at least once a week.
And, like me, and like my wife, she carried tons of baggage from her childhood and rearing into her work as a nanny, and, when in doubt, did what was done to her as a child. She lied to us, repeatedly, was unreliable in the extreme, and caused huge amounts of emotional discord between me and my wife.
And we depended on her, utterly. And gave into her charge our son.
Our nanny left us, after almost three years, when -- at 35 years of age, mind you -- she decided she needed to get off the sauce and get a 'real job.' She went home -- to her father. Everyone cried for hours the day she left.
We've had other nannies since then. Our current nanny likes taking our son to the Dollar Store (every day, nearly), and so our house is filled with plastic toys made in China, and my son's head is filled with all the basic rules of American consumerism. She also likes to spend time with her mother-in-law, who's a professional foster mom specializing in the care of kids whose parents are doing time for meth convictions, so my son runs with a pack of older kids from broken homes (some of whom have two parents in the can), who have taught him about guns (verboten in our house), police, jail visits and other things we'd rather not have him exposed to.
Just the other day -- our current nanny relates to us in a breezy tone -- our four-year-old held a six-year-old in his arms while the six-year-old bawled because, the night before, both his parents were hauled off by the cops for dealing.
My wife is a perpetually furious with our current nanny as she was with our alcoholic no-sense-of-boundaries nanny. Yesterday, she suggested we call our long-running ex-nanny at her father's house and offer to bring her back, house her, help her get back on her feet, just to have her back in our lives, and our son's life. And the idea appealed to me. Better the Lutheran God than the Dollar Store. Better booze than meth. For sure.
A nanny isn't an employee, to whom you can hand a (however detailed) job description, and whom you can correct, discipline, fire. The contract we offer our nannies is the contract a family offers a family member -- mostly unspoken, hard to interpret, frequently violated. And I also know that I could chose to live another way -- a way that put my son not 'first among equals' with job and marriage, but actually first. I could stop working. I could be his primary, daily caregiver, and then he'd be surrounded by the neuroses and bad habits and failings of his father, not his nanny. My wife could make peace with the ambitions and plans that motherhood has delayed or altogether thwarted, and be that primary caregiver. She -- or I -- could spend all day, every day, focused solely on the well-being of our son.
I readily admit that I personally cannot make the change I know to be possible. I am too selfish. Perhaps there is a saint among us who can cast that sharp and heavy stone, and say to me, with complete authenticity: you shouldn't have had a child, then. But I doubt it. Nannies are the embodiments of our selfishness, our desire to have time for other things, and as such they are a constant reproach to us, just by being, by standing there holding our children while we pack our bag for that quick trip out of town. We load our own guilt and freakishness onto them, as surely as they bring their failings and frailties to their work.
My wife -- for whom this is a serious, daily, issue -- periodically decides to boot the nanny-o'-the-moment and immerse herself totally in care-giving. I convince her not to do so. I don't want my wife to make a change, because I want life-after-childhood for her, and with her. Each day, I want her to have a few hours to dream, screw around, plan, create. Otherwise, I am afraid she will emerge from that first period of intense mothering so drained of herself that I will have lost my wife, in some material ways, forever. This idea is intolerable to me, in part because I saw such a terminal exhaustion happen, in my first marriage, with my elder son. He had no nanny. And by age 8, he also had no mother. She had been....evacuated. And in my estimation she has never recovered, may never recover.
So we have a nanny. Several nannies. We're serial nanny-izers, really. And our son will pay whatever price there is to pay for these decisions of ours, and perhaps when he is older he will take us to task for those decisions, in one way or another. I watch closely for signs that the price is too high, and I see no signs that he's paying any significant price so far -- no bruises, no strangeness. He trips down the streets of cities in foreign countries, introducing himself to strangers and babbling about his new puppy and his rugby ball. All seems well.
But I'm sure he's had a lot of soda, and times when he ran amok on playgrounds and in shopping malls while his nanny screwed off. And I am sure that he's seen a thing or two that no child should see.
I read these blog postings -- of nannies dangling shoes as toys and slipping soda into sippy cups and being otherwise human (along with the postings about monsters, I'll grant you) -- and I wonder if the posters incensed by the soda and the shoes ever reflect on the fundamental salient fact that nannies enter our lives because of choices we make, and remain there (or not) because of choices we make.
Everyone is culpable. Only a few are ever, truly, guilty. And anyone telling a story in which one party is wholly innocent, and the other wholly guilty, is not to be trusted.