Aspen, Colo., on vacation: The room is brightly decorated with red and yellow balloons. I've got presents and cards ready on the table. It's a Kodak moment when she walks in, eyes wide with surprise, smile stretching from ear to ear. Our 1-and-a-half-year-old, Isabelle, grabs the presents but they aren't for her. They're for our nanny, Ada, who is traveling with us. A good sport, my husband, Bill, joins in singing "Happy Birthday." I completely forgot his birthday this year.
Miami, 10 a.m.: The phone rings. Ada has had a car accident and can't come to work. Bill, a professor, has meetings all day and teaches in the evening. Suddenly I have 11 hours to fill with Isabelle. My adult voice echoes solo off the walls. I build blocks, read "Hop on Pop." Isabelle and I have our magical moments, but not 11 hours of them. Instead, my day unravels like a ball of string. I skip my shower, let the calls pile up on the answering machine. It starts to rain. Ada has some special technique for getting Isabelle to nap, but I don't know what it is and so she won't sleep. By late afternoon, I sit parked at Miami Beach in tears, baby finally dozing in the car seat. Will Ada return tomorrow? The next day? At all?
Home, relatives visiting: "Oh, isn't she smart! Isn't she wonderful!" Our toddler can dance, chase birds and identify "bow wows."
"And -- what did you say, Isabelle?"
"Aqui! Mommy aqui!" she says, thumping my chest.
"Listen! She's saying, 'Here's Mommy' in Spanish!" I tell my husband.
It took me years to learn Spanish. I'm excited that Isabelle is learning the language from Ada. I have bought children's books in Spanish for our nanny to read to her. Still, I'm keenly aware that the more Spanish Isabelle learns, the less she sounds like my daughter. My Midwestern relatives look perplexed.
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I am a mother with a full-time nanny. I do not feel displaced. I feel privileged. Hiring Ada is some of the best mothering I've ever done. I'm proud of having found this Latina Mary Poppins, with her sunny disposition, boundless energy and sense of fun. If Isabelle loves her nanny, that's great. I love her, too. Ada is one of the best things that has happened to me in years.
Yet the mommy-nanny tie is also complicated and full of contradictions. Ada is the rock on which I've rebuilt my writing career and she's quickly become part of our family, but she can leave any day. Ours is the strongest and most intimate of ties, born of mutual love of a small being. However, we are also distant, an employer and employee from different worlds. I entrust Ada with the most important person in my life, but I pay her less per hour than I pay the handyman. We are friends, but I am the boss. I am the mom, yet she sometimes knows more about my daughter than I do. She works for us 9 to 5 weekdays -- she doesn't even live with us -- but she affects my life profoundly.
My husband, for instance, has been displaced not only by our baby, but by our nanny. It's no coincidence that I forgot Bill's birthday this year but remembered Ada's. I often try harder to please my nanny than I do to please my spouse. Even in my worst moods, I compliment Ada's new hairstyle and thank her for cleaning the floor. I'm not always as grateful when Bill takes the car in for service. Figuring that my husband is mine to have and hold forever, I take him for granted. In contrast, foreign nannies' lives are unstable, subject to changing immigration laws, disasters in their home countries and the needs of their extended families. I try harder with Ada than I do with Bill, because I fear losing her more than I do him.
It's also hard for a man to compete with another woman. My husband doesn't speak Spanish, so he can't talk to Ada or join our conversations. But there's more to it than that. Bill isn't good at chitchat -- that great stuff that greases the wheels of daily life. Like many men, he focuses on one thing at a time. If I mention that Isabelle kissed a boy in the park while he's reading the paper, I interrupt his concentration. In contrast, Ada and I discuss everything from Isabelle's escapades to the difference between Latin and American men while she's peeling carrots and I'm brewing coffee. Working out of the house, I chat with Ada on and off all day. I haven't had this much female companionship since college and had forgotten how nice it is. When I buy a new outfit, Bill says, "Nice dress." Ada compliments the color and appreciates the cut. When I talk about motherhood, Bill listens. The mother of three grown children herself, Ada understands.
The nanny-mommy relationship is also refreshingly clear-cut. I pay Ada. She takes care of Isabelle and cleans. She works regular hours. Her responsibilities are clearly defined. In contrast, Bill and I are constantly negotiating over domestic chores and child-care tasks, and sometimes we argue over them. Ada sees a dirty dish in the sink and she cleans it, without my asking. That's her job, of course. But her presence has so transformed my daily life that some days I can't help but love her more than I love my husband.
Then there's Isabelle. I expect my husband to love his daughter. But Ada's devotion to Isabelle has come as a surprise, like the compliment of a perfect stranger on your baby's special smile. I had hoped that my nanny would like my daughter. But I hadn't realized the extent to which nannies can fall in love with their small charges. Ada posts pictures of Isabelle on her refrigerator and sends them to her family in Honduras. She brags about my daughter to other nannies -- insisting, to my delight, that Isabelle is the best and brightest of them all. The other nannies counter with similar claims about the children they care for. Like parents who go to dinner without their kids only to talk all about their kids, Ada and her friends never really leave the children they care for behind.
And there lies the great Catch-22 of the nanny-mommy relationship. I wanted a nanny who would be wonderful with my daughter. And so that's what I got. Though I'm still No. 1, Isabelle is fond of Ada. She calls our nanny's name sometimes when she's not around. She runs into her arms with delight. While it's largely a relief and joy to share Isabelle's affections with another woman, I admit that at times I have been jealous. I've scrambled across the rug on my hands and knees, growling, trying to be as much fun as Ada. I've mastered "Los Pollitos Dicen" and other Spanish children's songs. But competing with Ada is a game I can't win. At 5 p.m., my nanny is still dropping to her knees to chase Isabelle across the rug, as energetic as she'd been eight hours earlier. Being Mary Poppins exhausts me. With Ada, I've had to learn to be myself as a mom.
That's not good enough for some, who believe women with nannies are copping out on motherhood. Our culture sanctifies the mother-child bond. Daddies are dispensable, rarely mentioned in any discussion of child care. Mom is always at center stage. When a mother seeks to share her starring role with another woman, she sometimes gets criticized -- unless, of course, it's Grandma. One hears, disparagingly, of children being "raised by nannies," the implication being that Mom has failed in her duty (Dad, again, is not mentioned) and that the nanny's presence is damaging. The press chronicles horrifying cases of nannies beating children and encourages parents to secretly videotape the women they hire. It's enough to make any mother hiring a nanny head to the Spy Store.
Bad things do happen with nannies, just as they do with parents. But the real lesson these women offer is about love. The nannies I know don't steal affection from the families they serve; they add it. Love is not a zero-sum game, in which one bond always comes at the expense of another. There is plenty of room for other adults in Isabelle's life besides her parents. It's a tremendous pressure as a mother to always be the center of your child's world. Ada takes the pressure off, giving Isabelle things that I can't give her and providing our toddler with another positive claim on the world. When Ada's grandchild asked if her grandmother loved Isabelle more than she loved her, our nanny said, "No," and explained that love is not divisible, that there is plenty to go around. You need to be comfortable with that idea to be happy with a nanny. Because the nannies I know are more likely to shower their charges with too many kisses than to lock them in the closet.
There are tradeoffs. I do miss some of Isabelle's experiences. Yesterday, when I returned from two hours at the copy shop to hear about the latest nanny-baby party, it was obvious to me who has the more fun job. And even when the words are flowing and I get an accolade or two, it's clear who has the more important one. My articles may or may not be read. I have to write them. And I'd find it difficult caring for Isabelle full time. So I tap away, compiling paragraphs. Today I shower. I return my calls.
And below I can hear Ada singing about two elephants balancing on a spider web, making the future laugh.