Mother for hire

I wanted Marta to love my children like her own. But to see the growing bond between them was to experience the silent confirmation that my role as mother had potentially been usurped.

By Debra Ollivier

Published May 3, 2005 3:13PM (EDT)

Over a decade ago I married a Frenchman and moved overseas. Our oldest child spent his early toddler years in a public nursery school in Paris. Like many French citizens I took for granted a social infrastructure of family support so extensive and cherished by the French that any threat to its well-being sent millions to the streets in protest, virtually paralyzing the nation. Beyond free public nursery schools and long-term education, this infrastructure includes numerous affordable day-care options, national health-care plans, pediatricians who still make house calls, and a lavish amount of vacation time that allows parents to have a life, not just make a living.

During those early French days I'd visit Los Angeles and marvel at the army of Latina nannies tending to this white-collar oasis: the Guatemalan with her long braid pushing a Dylan or an Ashley in an ergonomic stroller. The Salvadoran doing laundry; bringing order and shiny surfaces to the chaos of the patrona's world. I was reminded of a peculiar antebellum era of landed gentry. Comfortably rooted in a French system that instead of paying lip service to family values actually underwrote them, it was easy for me to scoff at mothers who toted their nannies around like accessories. And then a curious thing happened: Shortly after my second child was born I inherited a house in California, moved back to the States, and became, for all intents and purposes, one of those mothers. Full disclosure: I grew up in Los Angeles with two latchkey siblings, a single working mother, and a live-in Mexican woman named Maria. But Maria was as much a "nanny" as she was Mary Poppins. Back then she was called a housekeeper. The only difference I could note in the decades since Maria was in our life is that the nanny has become a more pervasive fixture among American families. Even the at-home mom seems to need her these days, not necessarily to spend more time with her kids but, ironically, to spend more precious time away from them. As we outsource the chaos that comes with children, the nanny provides priceless relief, filling in the gaps cleaved out not only by our own parenting anxieties, but also by the black holes created where our public institutions have failed us.

These observations hit me with a particular vengeance when we moved into our house in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I found myself with a two-income family, a husband who worked overseas, and a paucity of child-care options, each as problematic as the next. Barely settled back in the States, with the social benefits of France far behind me, I realized that I needed, quite simply, a nanny.

But where to begin? I could transform a spare bedroom into a new living space, with cable TV and five Hispanic channels (TelemundoLA, Alegria y Movimiento) but I was still clueless: How much should you pay your nanny? What about vacation time? Or sick days? Does she eat dinner with the family every night? What constitutes a full working day? When does it begin? Or end? No clear-cut answers emerged -- just a vast gray zone of conflicting views capped on one end by the mother who earnestly tried to bring the nanny into the family dynamic and, on the other end, by the mother who operated from a position of distrust. "Nannies talk among themselves," said one neighbor. "If you pay more, you set a precedent. Word gets out. Then we all have to defend our pay scales. Start low, cut your losses. Those are the unspoken rules of the game." Of course the rules of the game were not only unspoken; they also seemed largely unwritten. Because despite various books on the subject, no one seemed to have read the literature. In this frontier of domestic help there appeared to be no ultimate constitution, no code of ethics. It was every woman for herself. Which might explain why what seemed antebellum from the outside, suddenly seemed more Wild West from the inside.

I decided to accord my future nanny the rights she'd have if the politics of exile weren't working against her: Two weeks of vacation time, sick days, national holidays, and a Christmas bonus. It was wildly extravagant for us, but somehow the idea of striking a bargain with someone who would care for the most precious beings in my life seemed base to the point of repugnancy. Equally pressing was the notion that a well-paid nanny is a happy nanny -- one who, presumably, will pass that happiness on to my children. I had only to put out a quick word. Within days, countless job-seeking Latina women were at my disposal. I met Marta and, one week later, she moved in with her blue gym bag and her Libro Catolico de Oraciones.

Marta's first day: My kids clamored to the door to meet this person who would become a new presence in our lives. We'd already looked on a map, found the tiny slice of land tucked under Mexico called Belize. "Can you get there on a spaceship?" my son asked. When the bell rang we opened the door, and there was Marta: short dark hair, pink sweater, faded jeans. She stepped forward and opened her arms with a slightly awkward air. My kids stood close to me, a bit wary at first. There was a moment of curious anticipation -- a breath held, a second of mutual scrutiny. Then, slowly, with all their big-hearted innocence, my children walked into Martas arms.

I showed Marta around the house, tried to elaborate on her duties. It was a colossal process in part because I hadn't even articulated them myself. Where some mothers are consummate masters of their domestic universe, others, like myself, are bushwhackers living in a forest with a life of its own. So what kind of expectations to set up here? How many times should she vacuum the floor or clean out the fridge? But as Marta followed me through the wilderness of our home, it was the psychological landscape that loomed larger, the inarticulated world of this communal space we now shared. Because while I hadn't decided how much Pine-Sol to use (in large measure because I simply didn't care), I also hadn't defined in explicit fashion the rules of parenting. Aside from a few basics, when it came to raising my kids I still vacillated between the more straightforward French approach and the onslaught of parenting dogma that assailed the American parent. So where, in this vast playing field, would my parenting end and hers pick up? Life together began with a tentative play at pretending that this forced intimacy was natural. Are we roommates? Family members? Employee/employer?

When my son Max began kindergarten, Marta lavished her attention on my daughter, Celeste, doing things I'd never had the time or skill to do: She spent fifteen minutes working Celeste's hair into complex braids or multitiered ponytails that stayed remarkably in place. She sorted through piles of clothes to find things that were frilly and feminine. "Why do you dress her like a boy?" she asked when I'd throw a generic T-shirt on Celeste. "You must dress her pretty." Every morning, as I bid farewell to my well-dressed, well-coiffed daughter, I was a mother divided: part of me had already mentally departed, my mind focused on the pressures and distractions of my job. Meanwhile, Marta seemed unfettered in this way. She was free to focus all of her energies exclusively on my daughter, because my daughter was her job. I tried to ignore a certain inchoate emotion that I couldn't quite place. It was a vague emotion, fuzzy but not warm. Later I would realize: that emotion was jealousy.

In this sisterhood of mothers with nannies that I had unwittingly joined, mutual grievances were shared and a sort of homespun, do-it-yourself legislation was constantly in flux. "Why should I pay my nanny when I go on vacation?" asked one. "My nanny needs back surgery and has no health insurance. What happens if I don't pay for it?" asked another. Among the talk, one horror story inevitably emerged that set off a tsunami of paranoia. A child drowned in a pool while his nanny looked on. It was her fault because, as one woman put it, "the nanny didn't know how to swim." I found out that Marta didn't know how to swim either and, wondering what else she might not know how to do, I immediately enrolled her in a Spanish CPR course. It was an ironic gesture because I'd never taken one myself, and God forbid I should have to, say, perform the Heimlich maneuver. But Marta was now spending more time with my daughter than I did (a sobering reality), so what if Celeste plummeted down a cliff? Or got burned? Or needed mouth-to-mouth?

However, CPR was the least of my worries. Because while a surface wound could always be dressed -- a skinned knee, a broken bone -- an emotional one lasts forever. And it was here that the NannyCam asserted itself -- that wireless hidden camera with 2.4-Ghz video transmitter and receiver stuffed inside a fluffy teddy bear. Never mind the suspicions that a nanny might steal, lift, or somehow lick the frosting off our hard-won cakes. "I caught my nanny screaming at Cindy. I fired her on the spot and got a NannyCam," said a neighbor. "What's more important, your nanny's privacy or your child's well-being?" Familiar prime-time horror stories of abuse and abductions floated in the ether here. But when does simple discipline -- a stern voice, a time-out -- turn into actual abuse? (In France, a little slap on the rump will raise eyebrows only if those brows belong to Americans.) And what mother left to care for toddlers and clean house for eight hours a day (or more) wouldn't scream from time to time, let alone pull her own hair out?

Oblivious to the irony, we shuttle to parenting workshops to figure it all out while the nanny stays home with the kids. And perched in a crib there is the NannyCam, a mechanical eye patrolling a static corner of the nanny's world. Meanwhile, the nannies get the big picture of our lives. Marta, who'd joined a sisterhood of her own in our neighborhood, came home with stories from the front: tales from the nanny who worked in the messy "piggy house." There were the hair-raising fights, the piles of dirty underwear, an unlocked gun found in a dresser. I was intrigued by the dirty little world behind the closed doors in this preternaturally calm suburb where we lived. And then I wondered: what does Marta tell other nannies about us?

But what unsettled me most was not that Marta was witness to the private inner life of our home -- it was the growing intimacy that she shared with my daughter. One night I returned late and tiptoed into my daughter's room, where a mobile of bright fish slowly turned. But when I pulled down the sheet for a silent good-night kiss, there was Marta, her face nestled against my daughter's as they curled into one another, both asleep. Though I'd fallen asleep countless times putting Celeste to bed, I was vexed by the image. For Marta and Celeste were clearly a duo now, partaking in their daily routine -- moments of joy and disgruntlement, the stuff of life. Here was a web of emotional exchanges that the NannyCam could not pick up: invisible bonds that for many mothers are the hidden source of deeply charged and complex emotions. For to see these growing bonds between nanny and child is to experience the silent confirmation that a mother's role has potentially been usurped: her role as the child's one and only mother, the one who should be tucking the kids into bed at night, the one who should be doing the disciplining. Perhaps that's why the nanny exercising normal discipline becomes unacceptable to a mother.

I had implicitly asked Marta to love my child as she would love her own. And she rose to the task with an almost swooning attachment to my daughter. So why shouldn't my daughter love her back? Let her exercise her own heart muscle, I thought. Let her learn to spread her love around. Still, there was lingering discomfort. Possessive mother, guilty conscience. I roused Marta awake. "Sorry, Marta. It's late." She woke, bleary eyed, and shuffled into her room.

By now Marta was fully entrenched in our lives. I'd grown used to the luxuries of a nanny as well: the conflagration of messes that were instantly cleaned up, the beds made, countless gestures and chores that I was spared, that would have weighed me down immeasurably. One day, nearly a year into her job, I stumbled on a photo of Marta from her early days and was shocked to see how much younger she looked. She had clearly aged while taking care of my kids -- new lines on her face that were meant for my face, the toll of this life. Meanwhile, we continued to live together, waking up and falling asleep at the same hour.

Every night after her bath, Marta spoke with her husband, whom she saw on weekends. She sometimes talked for hours, and I wondered what on earth she could possibly have to say after a long, repetitious day of caretaking. And then I'd feel shame. Because, of course, beyond the walls of my home, this woman had a life. They all had lives. Like kids who are surprised to discover their teachers outside the classroom ("What are you doing here?" my son asked when we bumped into his kindergarten teacher at a supermarket one day), we're surprised to see our nannies in their own personal habitat. In fact, we rarely do. But my daughter was now supremely interested in doing so. "Can I go to Marta's apartment?" she asked. "Please?" I am loath to admit that my first response was conflicted. If I let my daughter spend time with Marta at her home on weekends, would I shift the emotional barometer in Marta's favor, give her too much power, too much latitude? But the implications of not letting Celeste see Marta's world were just as inglorious: my daughter, growing up in a lily-white world, with private patrol cars, suburban values, and no clue as to how the "other half" lives.

"Mommy, Marta lives far away," my daughter said. "She lives very, very, very far away." This was true. I had dropped Marta off at her place on weekends but had never met her entire family. On her dresser in our home the faces of her two children were framed: her son standing in a colorful but shabby living room, her daughter in a blue satin dress posing for her Sweet Sixteen. They were both being brought up by sisters or aunts thousands of miles away, and Marta had not seen them in six years. I could not imagine the economic hardships that had compelled her to leave them, never mind the emotional ones she now had to shoulder. I probed only tentatively, protected by our language barrier, because I was certain that the truth would be too painful.

Could I blame her if there was a transference of love from her children to mine? For she had become like a second mother to Celeste, responded to her with effusive affection, indulged her with candies and tortillas despite my protestations. "It is good when little girls become gordita," she said. But I didn't want my daughter to become a little fatty. I was aware of a contemptible sentiment, but there it was: I adored Marta for her effusive love, but I was wary of our worlds overlapping.

"Can I go to Marta's house? Can I?" my daughter continued to ask. "One day," I said. But one day we traveled to a different place. It was the dinner hour, and Celeste was having a tantrum, with all the fiery histrionics of a two-year-old on a rampage. She threw her food across the kitchen. I spoke to her in a sharp voice; Mommy was clearly not happy. She ran out of the kitchen and headed for Marta's room. Before I could grab her, Marta had scooped her up. "Chickie-tita," she said. "Mama-linda." She stroked her hair. "What is wrong with my baby?" Celeste hung onto Marta with a defiant look as if to say, Come and get me. And that is precisely what I did. "Marta," I said. "Give Celeste to me." Celeste wrapped her legs harder around Marta, then strained past her at the lure of the TV. Marta held Celeste and did not move. "Marta," I repeated. "Give me Celeste." And in that fleeting moment Marta did the one thing she should never have done: She did not give my child back to me.

And so we were finally at this place: a pinnacle where the slippery slope of love and power divided us, the ground zero of our true distrust and suspicion. All of the sociocultural complexities behind our relationship fell away, and what was left was a weighted sense of loss and displaced motherhood. I had implicitly asked Marta to love my child like her own but never to cross that invisible line. But she did. Could I reproach her for that as well? Later we spoke at length and found a truce, but something had definitively shifted. There was distrust on both sides now: not only mine of Marta, but Marta's of me. For what mother makes her child cry like that? Perhaps, underneath it all, there was also the unconscious questioning of our mutual predicament, in all its cruel and relentless irony. For what mother lets her children be raised by other people? And the answer is: mothers just like us.

The ensuing days were strained. I felt like I'd ripped out a little piece of Marta's heart, and this sadness moved me to do something I'm loath to admit: One day I went into her room and rummaged through her affairs. Why was I here? Was I trying to understand Marta in some way? Or get closer to her? There was her faded blue purse. A half-used tube of Ben-Gay (a reminder that caretaking is backbreaking work). I pulled open the drawer of her bedside table, and there was her Libro Catolico de Oraciones. I don't read Spanish well, but I got the drift: the prayers, the yearning for salvation and God-like intervention. I imagined Marta at night, exhausted after a long day cleaning house and watching Celeste. With her Bible and her Ben-Gay, she was praying for a better life.

I didn't know if she would get this better life. But inevitably the time came: Celeste was rapidly approaching preschool age and soon, I would no longer need Marta's services. I dreaded the moment, for I'd grown to care deeply for this woman -- even the confrontations and the strain had become a source of connection between us. But now there was the queer sensation that she was already fading into memory even as she stood in front of me; that she was already moving into that oneiric place where all Martas and Marias and Anas went -- dark-skinned women and mothers who shepherd our children through some of the most pristine moments of their lives. I had my own memory of our housekeeper, Maria -- a strange but faded confluence of images from the sixties: there was Gilligan's Island, Black Panthers, flower power ... and Maria, ironing, chasing us through a messy house. What would happen to Marta? What would Celeste remember of her as she slowly dissipated from the urgency of the moment?

Six months after she stopped working for us as a live-in nanny, Marta still comes by to clean our house. When she crosses paths with Celeste en route to preschool they are overjoyed to see each other. Paradoxically, a new closeness has developed between the two of us in the absence of our live-in relationship, with all its emotional gray zones. Marta has still not found a new full-time job and she worries. She needs the money: Her son in Belize has health problems. Her daughter, who was accepted to medical school in Juarez, is pregnant. Now Marta wonders -- and the irony does not escape her: Who will take care of my daughter's child? Marta sighed. "It's a lot of work." "Yes," I said, "but at least you know exactly what you're getting yourself into." She smiled as if it were consolation, though we both knew that it was not.

Excerpted from "Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves," edited by Kate Moses and Camille Peri, former editors of Salon's Mothers Who Think. Copyright (c) 2005 by HarperCollins. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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