United nations of nannies

I wanted to be Lady Liberty, but my nannies from foreign lands never became part of the family.

Published February 11, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I didn't intend to hire nannies from so many different
countries. I started out believing in the perfect nanny just as I
had believed in the inevitability of true love. And I pursued my
nanny just as vigorously, bringing to my search optimism,
determination, perseverance and, perhaps most important, an open
mind. Unlike some mothers, I didn't have a preference for, say,
West Indian or European nannies. There was no continent or region
that I wouldn't consider. My only criterion was that the nanny I
hired come highly recommended.

So come they did. There was Loretta from Panama, Sophie from
France, Georgette from Ghana, Samantha from England, Yasmine from
Sweden and on and on. Looking back on it, I must have felt like
Lady Liberty and perhaps went on a suitably sized ego trip.

Yes, ego too was involved. I didn't just feel I needed a nanny,
I felt I deserved one. Even now, having been around the block a
few times, I feel envy toward the professional mothers who have
their nannies call me to arrange play dates. My thinking was: If
I've got the most important job in the world, where's my
secretary, my girl Friday? It seemed to me that a nanny was an
indispensable accouterment of accomplished motherhood.

My competitive streak made me a ready patsy in the nanny shell
game. But there was also inside me the girl from Cleveland who
had never convinced herself that she was a woman of the world. I
remember hearing one mother rattle off a list of the countries
from which her nannies had hailed: Turkey, Italy, Greece -- a
veritable travelogue of exotic locales. She sounded so
cosmopolitan, so superior, and it seemed that the next best thing
to visiting those countries was having a nanny from one of them.
Maybe better. After all, this approach saved time and money.
There was no jet lag and no need to pack light. I imagined her
children as little polyglots who, having soaked up all that
culture, would be advantageously situated for 21st century
globalization. And I thought: If she can do it, so can I.

When Yasmine came to us she seemed fertile with cultural
provenance. She had been born and raised in Sweden by her Swedish
mother and Nigerian father. Although they divorced when she was
5, she seemed proud of her mixed heritage. Yasmine was 13 when
her mother remarried and moved the family from Stockholm to a
small northern town close to Finland. There, Yasmine and her
sister would negotiate the difficulties of growing up
half-African in a world almost entirely blond and blue-eyed.
Their little half-brother, Peter, would have none of these
difficulties; he not only "looked Swedish" but was also blessed
with a family more stable than Yasmine had ever known. (Peter was
about the same age as my oldest son, Sam.)

Yasmine chatted nervously in the car on the trip to our house.
She had heard of lots of successful black Americans, like Oprah
Winfrey and Bill Cosby. Did I know any of them? I laughed. It
seemed that the cultural education would go both ways. She showed
me a picture of her mother. "She is not a blond," she said. "I
want her to dye her hair, but she won't. Don't you think she'd
look better if she were a blond?"

"I think she looks great as she is," I said.

Perhaps I should have taken the next U-turn back to the airport.
But I didn't. I expected Yasmine to have insecurities. I know too
well what it is to grow up not being anybody's idea of
perfection. And I know what a great opportunity that can be, with
the proper support. I thought I could actually help her, that we
could help each other.

Then we passed a local college. "I was never much good in school.
My brother is very smart, everyone says. And my sister is
pursuing her studies."

I brightened. "What is she studying?"

"Makeup artistry," she said.

In time, Yasmine introduced me to Swedish "culture," as she
experienced it. She showed me photographs of a favorite
springtime activity. The teenagers in town would each climb on a
huge floating piece of ice in a nearby lake. Using
gondolier-style poles, they would ram these small icebergs into
one another. "It's slippery, so you have to be careful, but it's
so much fun."

"Yasmine," I breathed, "that sounds so dangerous."

"Yes, if you fall between the icebergs, they won't find you until
late summer. Maybe never. There isn't a lot to do there, though.
That's why I'm here."

With every nanny I hired, there was the Story, one they mentioned
in casual conversation, in a perfectly normal tone, that chilled
you to the bone. It's not a story they include in their
curriculum vitae or even, I suspect, one that they tell their
other employers. The nannies I've had are more open with me
because I'm a black woman; they assume I'll understand and,
probably, that I've even been through worse. In their eyes, what
I might think or feel doesn't really count.

My invisibility makes the Story a double-edged sword: If the
nannies are more likely to share with me the true elements of
their experience -- the neglect, abuse, self-destructiveness --
they are also more likely to act out their anger at my or my
children's expense, with the expectation that I will understand
and forgive.

Yasmine herself was double-edged: She had the yin and yang of
someone who never fit in anywhere. Her cheerfulness hid her
anger; her friendliness disguised the withering contempt she held
for everyone; her acts of thoughtfulness masked a desperate
selfishness. Yasmine had been betrayed by everyone; of course,
she would betray us.

I was putting away laundry one day. My baby son, Spenser, was
asleep, and Sam was jumping up and down on the bed. Yasmine was
out of the house and I was basking in the sense of relief that
always accompanied her absence. I was putting clothes in Sam's
drawer when he stopped jumping and said, "Yasmine calls me
stupid." I looked at him. "She calls me Sam Stupid."

I thought of all the times she had said she wasn't smart. I
thought of how underneath the admiration she'd expressed for
Peter's abilities, I sensed her jealousy. I thought of all the
times I'd been in the house with her and Sam, and that she had
never, ever called him such a thing when I was around. I knew
that she was more than wounded: She was sneaky and dangerous and
determined to demean my son, as she had been demeaned. I didn't
understand. I didn't feel compassion. I wanted to kill her.

In the fall, Ruth came. She was Israeli, in her early 50s, and
her nearly grown children were well-situated: one in medical
school, another in graduate school studying physical
rehabilitation. She valued education, seemed practical, confident
and mature -- the antithesis of Yasmine.

But then came the Story. After a couple of weeks, Ruth told me
that her mother had been a Holocaust survivor. After the war,
whenever Ruth came home just five minutes late from school,
perhaps without a button or a handkerchief, her mother would lock
her in the closet beneath their staircase for hours. As a result,
she told me she was a claustrophobic and couldn't play with Sam
and Spenser in their tent.

Of course, I understood -- or tried to. It must be both a miracle
and a curse to have had a mother who was brave enough to survive
the horrors of a concentration camp, yet remained so haunted and
fearful from the experience that anything less than perfection in
her daughter deserved cruel punishment. I am amazed by what a
strong chain cruelty is, how it can create a hidden culture of
its own. The abused become abusers, that much is clear. In the
back of my mind, I knew my sons could easily become a link in the
chain that had imprisoned Ruth.

So I worked from home, slipping downstairs at intervals to peek
and to listen. Then, one day, as she was leaving, Ruth suggested
that maybe Sam was experiencing some separation anxiety at
nursery school because he was a manic-depressive. She adjusted
her glasses like Freud in discourse. "These things run in
families," she added.

I laughed, "I think it's just a stage."

The next day she tried again. "You should have him looked at,"
she said. I assured her that I had nothing but the utmost
confidence in both of my children.

But she wouldn't drop it. She was angry because I wouldn't listen
to her. So she went to a white neighbor of mine, who later told
me that Ruth had said my 3-year-old was having a breakdown. "She
obviously doesn't have the qualifications to make that call," she

I fired Ruth. I suspect that she was the manic-depressive and
that she was projecting her own emotional crisis onto my son. She
was also trying to isolate him from me, to get me to reject him.
Then she would have been free to inflict on him abuse similar to
that which she had suffered.

"There is nothing for us in France, no work, so my father got me
a job with a family here." Sophie spoke matter-of-factly, with
such self-possession that the Story was hard to identify. I think
it lay behind what she said next, with a frisson of emotion. "But
that family was terrible. They treated me like nothing. The
father would walk into my bedroom while I was dressing."

With the help of a French couple she'd met, Sophie had left her
first job and eventually found a nanny position in a nearby town
known for its affluence. She seemed to have recovered from her
initial experience and was happy with her current family.

We hired Sophie for the two-week Christmas break. Initially, the
children enjoyed playing with her. It irritated me that she often
bragged about her other family's wealth, as if she had to let us
know that they had more than we did. I didn't get too concerned
though. I was impressed that she was so active with my sons,
helping them construct the toys and puzzles they received during
the holidays. She had constructed a 3-D Eiffel Tower. I asked my
sons, "Wow, did Sophie do that with you?"

"No," they said, "she did it for us."

That bothered me. Then I found a K'nex model, a Lego set, a
Robotics toy, all done by Sophie -- alone. "I'm going to have to
talk to Sophie about this," I said aloud.

"Yeah, right," Spenser, just 2, said.

It dawned on me that he'd been saying that a lot. "That's not
very nice, Spenser. Where did you hear that?"

"Sophie says it all the time," Sam said.

I didn't have to fire Sophie. She just didn't show up one night.
Later, with impressive sang-froid, she called to ask if she could
come baby-sit the next day. I said, "Yeah, right."

It's still hard to look back and to realize how dangerous these
women were. People think that nannies pose only the threat of
physical violence or sexual abuse, and beyond that, you're
home-free. That's not so. There are many kinds of abuse; violence
lives in many forms all over the world. This is the understanding
that I lacked, the sophistication I wanted and now have.

Cultural exchange is a marketing tool employed by agencies. Among
bourgeois mothers like myself, worldliness exists as a value unto
itself, making us easy targets. But when it comes to caregiving,
the strength of the individual is all that counts. It's easy to
imagine spending a lifetime looking for that needle in a
haystack: the one perfect person of all those who apply, the
person who is most capable of caring for one's family.

I've stopped looking for that person. Now I am strangely
possessed by a need to advise other mothers: Hang out with the
new nanny for a couple of weeks. Listen for the Story. Then
you'll know what scars you're dealing with.

Most of the time they ignore me. They write me off as bitter: I
didn't luck out; I'm probably a victim of my own bad judgment.
And I suppose I am still bitter. Because when they tell me
that their nanny is "wonderful," a "dream," a "member of the
family," my eyes flash darkly as I hasten to inquire: "Where's
she from?"

By Cecelie S. Berry

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