For weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about my current form of employ without sounding like I’m bitching terrifically about a job that is generally a lot of fun and full of learning and play. While all these things are true, it is also full of moments that challenge who I am as a human being and force me to acknowledge things I’d rather hide from, about the world, or about myself. But mainly, I’d like to write about my clients, and on the chance (a slim one but not without possibility) that they, or someone who would recognize them, read this blog, I want to be perfectly clear that any moments of struggle I have are not due to them or their precious cargo, but only the journey and alchemy of what’s going on inside me.
So in addition to being a writer who is seldom paid for plying her craft, and an editor who is always paid for her craft, but by a teeny tiny handful of writers, I also provide private child care at an affordable rate. How do we define this?
Ah, oui. Au pair. (Cue adagio emotional accordion music here.) The word elicits an image of a young single girl, doe-eyed and naïve with the values of the old country, who’s come here to gain a better education, to land a good job and make her grandmother proud, perhaps to fall in love with an urban man of the New World, and tending to your children will help her do that. She is a mere slip of a girl, but possesses an impossible battery of strength and energy when necessary. She lives in your basement, which you have cozily fixed up for her and promised is off-limits to the children. She has long hair, a tiny waist, and breasts that are so full and perky that they must be an inheritance, because nothing else on her body is formed with such curve and grace. She is aware of her own old-fashioned, classic beauty, and so she demurely avoids the gaze of the master of the house, and his fiercely loyal to her mistress and her brood.
Yeah.That’s not me.
Neither am I a nanny, a pasty-skinned, shelf-breasted matron who always knows what to give your kids when they’re constipated or when they’ve got the runs. She banishes monsters in the closet and she dries tears from skinned knees without even having to kiss them and get blood on her lips. She knits when they’re napping, she hates cable TV, and she occasionally uses your phone to call her girlfriend Gladys and talk about the upcoming or just passed bingo game at the Catholic Church in her neighborhood. (Unless of course, she is Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, in which case she is as unpredictable as the weather; but I never met this woman, except for in the brilliant bewitching guise of Julie Andrews.)
Then there’s the mammy. Oh, god. A massive, broad-nosed black woman with skin the hue and similar shine of polished onyx. Beneath her whimsical red-and-white-polka-dot kerchief knotted atop her head she wears cornrows or twists, but you will never see them because she knows how much nappy hair offends your sensibility. She laughs at all your jokes, she is constantly apologizing for herself, and she takes better care of your children than she does her own; in fact her own kids haven’t seen her in six weeks, she is so devoted to yours, her “li’l darlin’s”. (I’d love to say we left this stereotype in the Antebellum where it belongs, along with hoop skirts and the Confederate flag, but alas, I fear it is just as present as it ever was.)
So I am none of these: I am a sitter: decidedly not a live-in, on a separate career path, hoping to supplement one income with another. I am not a gum-chewing rocker chick who will make out with my boyfriend after you leave, and I will not spend the entirety of the night on the phone, telling your child, “get back in bed!” after a nightmare that sends her in my direction for a cuddle and a glass of water. I’ll do my best to engage your kids on their level, to take them seriously, to look silly when required of me, to answer any and all questions with an appropriate level of honesty, and to report to you any pertinent information. I’m a sitter, but the above images are paradigms with which I tangle. One archetype or the other, or often all three, are at my heels as I clap with babies or chase four-year-olds across their houses, or allow them to dress me up so we can put on a play, or wheel them out into the world to go and look at something cool, silently reminding me of what I could be, or might be or should be, instead of who I am.
I work for several families, all of whom have brilliant, gorgeous daughters. They range in age from 7 “and a half” to almost two. I have spent countless hours with these young women: I have been convicted by the frankness and joy with which the Only Child will speak to any passer-by, a friendliness that forces me to consider and treat people on the street as if they are as human or more so than me, and not just hurdles between me and a destination; on January 20, 2009, I have discussed with the Little Flower that she, like our incoming president, is the product of at least two races and even more cultures, and now that he had been sworn in, that there was nothing in this country she couldn’t do or be if she didn’t want it, and I have turned Big Flower’s living room floor into a veritable city, covered in block homes, offices, stores and worship houses; I have allowed Little Star to make me “magic ice cream, that I can actually eat that won’t make me sick, that will also give me special powers” out of a dishcloth and a spay bottle full of water, and I have read stories to Big Star and considered her eyes, transported by an artist’s glowing illustrations. I really love spending time with these children, and their parents make me feel like I am a valued human being, like the whole of who I am matters to them, and not just whether or not I can provide a service.
So for today I will say that while I absolutely love the time I get to spend with these women, that it is a difficult thing for me to do some days. Some days, despite joy with kids and best intentions from families, I don’t forget that I don’t fit. Some days I feel like an au pair, who is a means to an end; some days I feel like a nanny, who is old-fashioned and completely not of the culture of the home, a relic with a different process; some days I feel like a mammy, constantly mortified by her own presence, and trying desperately and unsuccessfully to conform, or to shrink, or to fit better into the mold.
Some days it is hard taking care of other people’s kids.