Letters

"Can you please stop publishing articles about how hard, complex and difficult it is to be a white, upper-middle-class, educated mother?" Salon readers take issue with Debra Ollivier's essay about nannies.


Salon Staff
May 6, 2005 10:13PM (UTC)

[Read "Mother for Hire," by Debra Ollivier.]

How many times does it have to be said before people get it? Do not have children if you do not plan to raise them yourself.

A nanny is absolutely right to feel that she is the actual parent of a child in her care. She does the "work." She reaps the benefits. Genetic data does not a parent make.

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-- Aaron Batty

I was greatly moved by Debra Ollivier's piece about her nanny, mostly because I had expected to hate it. I am the 30-something middle-class African-American descendant of dark-skinned women who cared for other people's children while their own were raised by other people, or by their own mothers after hours. I am the great-grandchild of those women, whose lives outside their employers' daily grind is a mystery. And I have resented the musings of women who seem to forget that these women are people, with families and lives and souls and dreams. They are not accessories. And Ollivier's regret, jealousies and, finally, her acceptance that she had to put her foot down and claim her authority as her child's mother, was beautifully, achingly real.

I have, among the papers and photos of my long-dead great-great aunts, a letter written to one of them by their former employers. And they talked about missing her, and about how the family was doing, and about how they regretted not keeping in touch. I remember asking my mother if she ever met these families, if she thought they ever wondered about my aunt's family at home.

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No, she answered. They probably didn't. Ollivier's eloquent musings make me yearn to believe that they did, that for one moment, my aunts and great-grandmother were real, whole people to the employer families that they loved like families, in lieu of their own -- at least until it was time to go home.

-- Leslie Streeter

I was Celeste. I had a nanny I loved more than my family. I went home on weekends to dirty slum houses with her (this was a long time ago and in the Middle East, where the working class really lived in hovels). I got bit by bedbugs and ate fried eggs and feta cheese sitting on the floor. I accompanied her as she ran away from her home in the dark of night from another of her abusive drunk husbands. I still remember sitting on her lap (when I was maybe 3 years old) as we rode in a horse-driven cart, carrying their few earthly belongings in a trunk in the back.

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One day when I was about 4, my mother and my nanny yelled at one another, and she left forever -- without saying goodbye to me. I remember howling as she shut the door. I remember getting punished for howling. I remember being anorexic for a year from the grief of my loss.

When I noticed the South American nanny phenomenon in Los Angeles, I started to worry about the children. What about their love for these women -- women who could disappear forever following a wage fight, or a dishwashing argument?

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For the most part, I notice people in my neighborhood change nannies often to prevent such attachments as mine. And maybe the mothers here really love their children, so the children do not form unhealthy attachments to their nannies. But I still worry about them. The pain of my loss has never left me after all these years.

-- Sylvia Sur

Oh God, it's that time of year again: dispatches from "the Mothers Who Think" (aka "The Overprivileged Mothers Who Obsess and Fret Over Their Overprivileged Offspring" of which "Mother for Hire" is only the most egregious example as of late). How about for once writing about the parents out there who manage to work and raise their own children and exist below the poverty line. How about -- gasp! -- an article that's written from the point of view of one of the nannies who must leave their own children to raise the overprivileged darlings we hear so much about?

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I love Salon and am a daily reader, but I've had it up to here with the way your authors turn parenting into an exercise in neurosis and conspicuous wealth.

-- Karen S.

I was a child raised by a nanny. My mother was quite young when she had me, and nary three years later had my twin brothers. Even though she was a stay-at-home mom -- and a mother of epic proportions at that -- she needed help with three little ones running around.

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My nanny was not Hispanic, as so many are these days, but African-American. I didn't get fresh tortillas but fried chicken, collard greens, poke (picked fresh from the yard), and chitlins cooked especially for Sunday church.

Nanny lived with us when we were babies. I barely remember those days. As in the story in Salon, once we became of school age, Nanny was our baby sitter while my parents went on vacation, and those are the times I remember best. She had special rules when my parents were away, secrets that were just between the four of us and stayed that way until just a few years ago when we all, now in our 20s, started telling Nanny stories. We would have "camp-outs" in the living room and were allowed to fall asleep in front of the TV, piled up on every sleeping bag and blanket in the house. Nanny would give us each $10 to spend on whatever we wanted at the grocery store, so long as it was all eaten and gone, no trace left behind, by the time our parents got home.

Nanny was there for all the firsts a child has in life, first plays, first boyfriends, first heartbreak. Nanny was a parent, a confidant, a dear friend. She did not replace my mother, how could she? Nor could my mother replace Nanny; they were totally different entities in my life. I do not remember a moment of misplaced loyalty to either, nor do I know if my mother had the same moments of doubt that Debra Ollivier had about letting someone else into our lives and our hearts. Quite the contrary, I am so grateful for what I learned at Nanny's bosom and I wouldn't trade one of those memories, one of those lessons for all the money in the world.

Nanny passed away earlier this year, New Year's Eve to be exact. I miss her so much that writing this has made me cry from the ache of missing her laugh, and the warmth of the memories she gave me. I'll cry again when I miss her at my wedding later this summer. To all the moms out there looking for answers to the "to nanny or not to nanny" question: yes, be cautious. Yes, have rules. Yes, open your hearts and your homes to someone who will show your child another perspective in this life, one different, but no better or worse that the perspective that you offer. What harm can an extra dose of love do to a child?

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-- Jessica St. John

I found Debra Ollivier's article on the "dark-skinned" women who raised her and now raise her children utterly disgusting.

Am I, as one of the "dark-skinned" women of the world, really supposed to feel some sympathy for Ms. Ollivier in all her lily-whiteness?

Her writing proves to me that certain attitudes and perceptions will never change.

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It's a shame Salon deems such writing worthy of being published.

-- Madhuri Blaylock

I came at this article from a different angle for a couple of reasons. One: Thanks to a proliferation of close relatives in my neighborhood my mom never had to resort to hiring a nanny. Two: I worked as a nanny in college. For me, being a nanny was glorified baby sitting. My employers adjusted themselves to my schedule and I looked after the little ones for several hours, several days a week. I gave them snacks and dinner, drove them to their various classes and helped the oldest with his homework.

And yet. I would talk about those kids all the time. The little girl with her shy brown eyes and bouncy red curls. The older boy whose green eyes burned with intelligence. Even now, 10 years later, I still feel a pang as I write about them. I also recognize the cultural divide. The awkwardness of how, exactly, you as the nanny fit into this family's life. Are you and mom friends or is she just your boss? For me it was somewhere in-between. Also, though I came from a background as solidly middle class as that of my employers and I knew I would go on to live a similar sort of life, I was (and still am) black and they were white. I still remember an occasion when my car was in the shop. I got a friend to drop me off at their place, but they had to drop me off at the end of the evening. It was summer session and I was living at home. As they pulled into my driveway they were visibly nonplussed. They weren't expecting my neighborhood to be so quiet, my house to be so comfortable -- for everything to be so much like their world.

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-- Wahrena Pfeister

I honestly don't mean to belittle the thoughtfulness with which Debra Ollivier has written about her emotionally complex relationship with her nanny. And her description of France's safety net for parents sounds heavenly. But the idea that hiring a nanny is somehow a "pervasive" practice in the United States as a whole reveals an incredibly restricted worldview based on a life of extreme priviledge. I know that almost everybody in this country, both rich and poor, thinks of themselves as middle class, but surely Ollivier realizes that only the very upper end of the economic scale here can afford full-time live-in child care. I live in what (in my opinion, of course) does seem like a middle-class milieu, full of young couples having their first kids, and nobody I know is considering the nanny option.

-- Josh F.

Can you please just stop publishing articles about how hard, complex and difficult it is to be a white, upper-middle-class, educated mother. It must be so hard to have a Guatemalan housekeeper. As much as your readership might indentify with their plight, it seems like all the pieces you run about women are either about sex or how hard it is to be successful and have children.

How about writing about the real problems that mothers who are not self-absorbed and privileged face -- like awful public schools, violence and racism?

-- Mariana Aguirre

I was only a few paragraphs into "Mother for Hire" when I realized that I was subjecting myself to a type of article that is all to common on Salon: one more well-off person whining about how awful it is to be well-off. "The nanny has become a more pervasive fixture among American families"? What families? What America? Some advice for the editors of Salon: Why don't you seek out writing by people who have lived in the real world, instead of all of these spoiled whiners?

-- Stephen Perpitch-Harvey

It seems that if you can afford to hire a live-in nanny, you can damn well afford to stay home and raise your children yourself. They'll be in school and then grown and out of the house in the blink of an eye. No one said it would be easy, raising children. And no one is saying you have to sacrifice yourself to raise them. But you do need to be willing to sacrifice enough of your time to bond with them. So what if the messes don't get miraculously cleaned up?

-- M. Hiers

With Mother's Day drawing near, I'm bracing myself for an onslaught of articles on the Web, and in other media, about the difficulties facing the modern, privileged American woman who decides to have children, yet finds spending time caring for them to be tedious and unfufilling.

I am a nanny. I have already raised my own children as well.

Why can't we just admit the truth. In this country, many coddled, privileged women have children and then realize how difficult parenting is compared to the cushy, overpaid work they are used to. At that point they decide, I am going to find someone who can't earn as much as I am able to, and get her do it instead.

-- "Normal Nanny"

Please, can we stop hearing about the plight of upper-middle-class white American women? Please? No matter how self-aware they pretend to be, no matter how much they regret the role "society" has "forced" them to take -- these women live off the blood and sweat of other people. Their sympathy ultimately extends only to themselves. And I am genuinely tired of being asked to sympathize with yet another patrona who wants to have her cake and eat it too. As my mother would say, "Pobrecita".

-- Elizabeth S. Eguia

Ms. Ollivier forgot to note that the French also like to bring their dogs into restaurants. As another child-care advantage in France, what child would not delight in seeing Fido at the table?

Seriously, I don't know why Ms. Ollivier had to take the reader through the inventory -- I should say a veritable warehouse -- of motherhood angst. But it's the sort of angst that only the well-heeled can really appreciate.

It reminded me of what Barbara Holland has said about Washington, D.C., in the 1940s. It was a time when mothers had to worry about their children contracting polio at the local swimming pools. Indeed, the threat was so real that many pools were closed down.

Talk about issues that mothers faced in the not-so-distant past! Let's be grateful, after all, that we have the luxury to write about nannies and not childhood illnesses.

-- David Levine

As an avid reader of your site, I must say that I am dismayed at the amount of time and space you have been devoting recently to the angst of well-off (presumably) white mothers.

Do their nannies get more respect than they do? Should they add to their brood? Should they post their suidical tendencies on internationally accessible blogs? Are they overworked and undersexed (like most of America)?

I, for one, do not care.

While I agree that there is an audience for this stuff, the energy spent on the trials and tribulations of the upper-middle-class mom really seem like some kind of Betty Friedan throwback.

I never warmed to the idea that the best thing American women could do for themselves was to hire (darker but just as female) domestics in order to enhance their own white womanliness.

I'm all for "Mothers Who Think," but quite frankly, as a single black woman who looks to Salon for political and cultural analysis, I feel like I am currently outside the site's demographic and should be seeking my news elsewhere.

So, please, enough with the "I'm a rich Mommy with all the resources in the world, but ..." stuff and back to highlighting the horrors of the Bush administration, which is taking much more of a toll on working-class citizens than anyone else. I bear no grudge toward the women in these articles but, quite frankly, rather than write about it, I'd rather they cry me a river.

-- Ann Mitchell

I have never read an article on your site that filled me with such disgust.

Part of my outrage may be that as a Latino, I empathize with the trials and tribulations that many (much too many) of my fellow Latino brothers and sisters must endure thanks to our overly commercial, "everything for sale" society. It is truly in conflict with many of the values that are so inherent in the Latino culture.

Last year, many of my white liberal friends encouraged me to view the movie "A Day Without a Mexican," a fictional account of how California grinds to a halt when all the Latinos in the area mysteriously disappear. I hadn't the courage to tell them that in my heart of hearts, I would prefer to see a movie called "A Day Without White Folks," where the true value of the Latino people and our culture would be allowed to bloom.

-- Conrad Cordova


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