Thursday, August 6, 2009

Part II: so, are you related?...

What I didn’t say in part one is that it is hard to be a black woman taking care of white children.

Forget, just for a moment, that I might be worried that I’m using up my reserve of mommying capability on kids that aren’t mine, and by the time they do come along that I don’t know if I’ll want them (or if I ever did).

Forget that I have a degree from Northwestern University and an MFA, and instead of making art, I spend my days making snacks and silly faces and pretending to be rapt by songs made up of gibberish. Forget even that sometimes the kids are rotten, that they don’t always listen or share with their siblings, that they always, always prefer their parents to me—quite naturally, of course—and that they take the slowest and most roundabout way to perform the task you’ve set for them, such as washing hands before lunch, or picking up toys.

All I can think about is my flesh.

I have learned in recent weeks that I will almost always prefer the safe, cozy chrysalis of my charges’ homes, with their toys and puzzles, and Dora the Explorer DVDs. I did not know how much I preferred home before, it often never occurred to me to take kids out of their homes; home always seemed the best place. Homes have all the solutions to what problems kids have. They have the favorite toy and the first aid kit and the pudding cup you forgot to bring with you, and what’s more they are not the world. I do not like to take the kids out, to the park, to the movies, to the neighbor’s house. I never like to leave the house because I get the look.
It happens that I am old enough to have a six-year-old daughter, but I am too dark for that light-skinned child in my tow to be mine, biologically. So I get the look, sometimes gently masked in politeness and interest, sometimes nakedly nosy. It’s a quick glancing, sizing-up kind of a look that happens—incidentally, the look a man gives a woman as he’s walking past her and checking her out is similar, although tinged with a different agenda. Moms, other nannies, kind strangers, the girl behind the ice cream counter, they all let their eyes land on me, flit down to the face of the white child whose hand I am holding, slide up over my own body, and come to rest again at my eyes. Sometimes they look at me as if to say, “Oh that’s nice, you’re the nanny, you two seem so sweet.” Sometimes they don’t look at me, the same way you avoid meeting the eyes of any hired help, like the gardener or maid. Sometimes they can’t quite figure it out, and they look at me quizzically, saying, “So what’s the relationship here? Are you two blood? Or what?”

The first caveat I have to make is that I stare--just as much as anyone else, and probably more--at children and their caretakers. Whether mom out with the brood, or Ms. Lupe playing with Pete at the playground, or Aunt Terrie with her niece and nephew, I stare with interest and delight at the relationship between adult and child. I like kids, and I like watching them do life with grownups. They walk funny, they say exactly what’s on their mind, they are the only people I can rely on to need and want things as passionately as I do. So when I am the caretaker I think it’s reasonable to expect a certain amount of being watched. I take care of some really bright, funny and entertaining young women, and if I were someone else, I’d love watching them interact with an adult.

But something different happens when I get the look; it’s not a look of entertainment at the joy and discovery of relationship between adult and child; it’s a sussing out of what a black woman would be doing holding hand and taking care of a white child. When I get the face, the “hmmm… is it, ah, I see” face, I feel my flesh in an intense way, as if of course, of course, I am the hired domestic to take care of the young’uns.

Years ago, I worked in childcare at a non-profit in Southwest Florida, and my supervisor there noticed that I was having a ton of problems connecting with the young people at one of my schools. Her advice, simply put, was to black myself up.

“Adele!” she exclaimed, only she pronounced the first syllable long, so it sounded like Ay-dell. “What you need to do is make yo’self mo’ like Ay-dell!”

“Ay-dell?” I repeated, utterly confused.

Her round white face beamed, and her speech pattern fell into a sloppy English. “Of COURSE, Ay-Dell! She use to take care a me when I was a chile, and she was black, and she had a special way a talkin’, when she use that voice on yuh, you knew not tuh mess wid her. You need to start talkin’ more like Ay-Dell, that’s the way to get this young’uns heah.”

Shit. At the age of 23, I thought it was a reasonable expectation that in the real world, out of high school, away from college, that I’d be able to be the woman that I was without needing to fall into someone else’s stereotype of what black or woman should be. The real world is full of adults; they don’t buy into all that horseshit, right?

Wrong.

Now, when I run the streets with Big Star and Little Star, or when I’m tugging the Only Child along in a Radio Flyer, and I get the look that’s trying to figure out who I am and what I am to these children, I feel reduced. I feel like the stereotype. I feel like after hundreds of years and all the struggling and climbing and marching and sitting and beating and murdering that my ancestors were party to, that I’ve come absolutely no farther than continuing to take care of white folks’ kids.

Gosh, I wish it were just that simple, but I know it’s not. I don’t have to provide child care to people as a means of supplementing my income: I could sling coffee, or beer, or stock shelves, or any number of comparable things. I could choose to leave this world behind, as a matter of pride, or a matter of artistic integrity, and devote myself to taking the best writing job I could find, even if it means I’m editing newsletters about pet stores or surgical tools. There’s a reason I keep saying yes when moms and dads keep asking me to look after their kids. There’s a part of it that I really like. My best friend from high school says that spending time with children can be very healing, and sometimes she’s right: when I’ve been embroiled in major conflict, or been up to my ass in writing that just wasn’t working, the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with a girl who wants nothing more than to color with me, build a fort out of squishy blocks and hear me read Caps for Sale over and over, it just feels nice.

This work gives me the opportunity to meet other women who make the same choice. I’ve met women who’ve come to this country from others, who have been working as personal childcare professionals for years, quite like Mary Poppins or her international down-to-earth equivalent. I’ve seen other black women like myself, my mother’s age, my grandmother’s age, pushing strollers with cherubic white children in them, slung off to one side in sleep. How does a sixty-seven year old black woman wind up taking care of someone’s kids, I wonder. What about her own kids? Where is her family, and don’t they miss her if she’s spending all her time with Charlie and Dakota? And what about me? When, where, how do I make a clean break out of the childcare industry? Teaching is one thing, and I’ll probably teach the rest of my life; but I can’t do this forever. It means sacrificing too much. My family, my writing, my self will begin to miss me if I allow myself to get sucked in to this industry. How do I work here without feeling less, and how do I get out when the time is right?

I have not figured this out. I do not know how to solve this discord. I don’t resent the children, because they can’t help it that they need so much. I don’t resent their parents, because they treat me so well; any struggle I face of being someone’s domestic has never come because a mom asked me to vacuum and dust, and pick up her dry cleaning while her daughter was down for an afternoon nap. Maybe I’m angry with the fact that I live in a country that can’t pay a teacher and a writer a wage she can live on. Maybe I’m mad at myself that I can’t seem to take the leap of faith away from supplemental income, that I’m not working hard or fast enough to support myself as a writer; you know, if I were a more dedicated artist, I wouldn’t need to take care of anyone’s kids. Maybe I’m mad at myself because providing personalized child care is a great way to earn a wage, and there’s no reason for me to want to do anything better or more, and if I didn’t have such racial or artistic pride, I wouldn’t have any problem with it at all.

I love the children and families that I work with.

But sometimes it is hard taking care of other people’s kids.

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