My kids like the nanny better!

I knew I'd need help to be a mom -- but didn't think my kids would ever pick the sitter over me

By Lauren Slater

Published November 29, 2013 11:00PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>selimaksan</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(selimaksan via iStock/Salon)

Excerpted from "Playing House"

Before my first child was born, I knew I would need help. Even with the sixty-forty or seventy-thirty split between my husband and me, I knew assistance would be required, especially because, as time went by, that split dissolved, not all at once, but slowly, like sugar corroding a tooth. Cavities opened up, empty spaces, requiring that someone step in. Work came back to claim my husband and love came forward to claim me. Love takes time and resources and tactics, and that’s why I knew I needed help.

Given my precarious mental state, I already had help, a doctor with ink-black hair and a massive desk and a thick prescription pad he wrote on with a flourish. Though he had been enough before I had my first, I now saw that I needed a different sort of support, someone in-house, someone who knew how to sew, perhaps, or draw a warm bath or pat the baby on the back. I needed . . . I needed . . . a nanny. I hate the word “nanny,” smacking as it does of British privilege. I also hate the word “babysitter,” because it always conjures for me the image of a woman sitting on a baby. I could say I hired “help,” but that has an antebellum sound, snotty and antiquated. I hired another mother. Yes. This is exactly what I did. It was a decision based at once on total necessity—both my husband and I were back to working full-time—and also rooted in a deep sense of my own inadequacy. Though not quite admitting it to myself, I was pretty sure that whoever took the job would be so superior to me that I would step to the sidelines while she took center stage. In a sense, I would be the other mother, offering help, holding out tissues, while the real drama went on without me.

I didn’t want it this way, especially because I had come to adore my daughter, but adoration does not come with built-in confidence, of which I possessed, as a mother, very little. From my own mother I had learned . . . very little. I believed, I think, that my childhood had destined me to be an anemic sort of parent, lacking in essential instinct. When I look back into my past, I often cannot even see her face, my mother’s face, muffled by mist and then suddenly, swiftly appearing, like the sun burning brightly on an otherwise cloudy day, an instant of saffron brightness, and then gone. Gone! Who had been there, then? In truth, I was one of those kids raised on babysitters, so hiring one seemed absolutely natural to me. I was raised on the knees and by the sides of hired help. Corita taught me to sew; Jane nursed me through my illnesses; Angela, the Irish nanny, with hair the color of apple cider and a lilting way to all her words, Angela taught me to ride a bike, to pray (Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name), and to name the wildflowers, things I still do today, by instinct or, rather, by habit, echinacea with their bulging centers, columbine in the woods, the purple spikes of chive, and the weedy strawflowers that rise from the ground in August. In fact, yesterday, I went to the woods with my daughter, and we named the wildflowers, studying their leaves and their corollas, and it was Angela who was there, in spirit, my own mother nowhere near.

And I was my mother’s daughter, of course, similarly stunted, serrated, and rageful. My mother, her fists, her hitting. My father had told us that before my mother had children she was “a different woman, really,” but the pressures and conflicts of motherhood had done her in, changed her irrevocably and for the worse. Indeed, early photographs show my mother smiling on a Cape Cod beach with a red scarf around her wind-blown hair; by the time my sister, her first, came along, her face had narrowed, her eyes small and fierce, screwed into her skull. I never knew exactly why having children caused her undoing, her mad chatter and terrible violence, but not knowing made it all the more potent, more possible.

“You are the most like your mother,” my aunts always told me, ominous indeed. In order to avoid her female fate, I got a doctoral degree, published pounds of books, acquired prizes. I studiously avoided anything maternal, claiming a mannish incompetence, an inability to do baby talk and all of its equivalents. On the other hand, I held onto a sliver of hope, and my babies were born on this sliver.

* * *

Our first nanny did not work out. She came to us three weeks before my daughter was born. She was only nineteen, whip smart but boy crazy. Within a few weeks of her job she met a man, got engaged, broke up, and then got engaged to someone else. Therefore, she was, of course, preoccupied, all this yes and no, back and forth. My husband and I had no specific complaints—she didn’t shake our baby or leave her thirsty—but there was something distracted in the sitter’s eye, something rushed in her ways. She could barely wait for five o’clock, at which point she would race out of the house, rouge swooped onto her cheeks and her bitten lips bright with carmine. We didn’t have to decide a thing. Within a month or so she left us, a white wedding gown over her arm, on her way to Pocatello, Idaho, to walk the aisle with a man she met over the Internet.

Our second nanny, Ceci, came to us from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. She was thirty-six—an excellent age, we thought—new to this country, with shoe-polish-shiny black hair and a beautiful face. She spoke very little English. Not long after she started, our newborn baby got sick. Clara corkscrewed her body and screamed. Her stomach felt hard and lumpy. We stretched her, thumped her, cycled her little legs, but still she screamed, her tiny tongue extended.

I remember one night when I’d been up with her until the daylight came. Ceci was living with us in a room down the hall. The baby howled. I turned on the fan to block the sound so Ceci could get some sleep. The baby yowled, one long painful skein of sound; it just went on, and on. There is really nothing like being with a screaming baby dead in the middle of the night. Her room was lit by one small bulb, shedding shadows so that my hand looked huge raised between the light and the wall. I held up the baby, and she too looked huge, her mouth a flapping, monstrous thing, her arms like wings, going nowhere.

At five in the morning, when I hadn’t caught a wink of sleep, it started to get light outside. The air got grainy and gray, the lawns visible, veiled with dew, and far in the distance a radio tower blinking its red light on and off, on and off. I started to cry right along with my daughter. Perhaps I cried even louder than she, for Ceci heard, and came to get us. Mussed and sleepy, she said, “Here,” and held out her arms. I gave her the baby. She said, “Go get me some lettuce leaves,” which I did. She then ran a warm bath and told me to drop the lettuce leaves in. The water turned pale green; the leaves looked like lily pads, charming. She lowered my daughter in. “In our country,” she said, “we know if you put lettuce leaves in a warm bath, it calms the child down.” I thought this was sweet and very lyrical. Lettuce leaves! Who knew what other neat herbal cures lay in wait for us, delivered fresh from her Mexican culture—a bath of apple blossoms, a cup of hot pomegranate juice? I have never been a big believer in anything outside of Western medicine. But let me tell you this: Presto. The baby quieted down. A cynic would say it was the water, not the lettuce leaves. Who cares? She quieted down, and soon after, she fell asleep. From that day on, Ceci made our colicky daughter a bath of lettuce leaves, and from that day on the other mother, she took my baby in and always, always knew exactly what to do. She had a gift.

* * *

It did not take long for Ceci to become famous in our neighborhood. Everyone wanted a piece of her. She was too good to be true, but let me tell you, she was true, the real deal, the best. It was not so much what she did—although she did a lot—but more who she was, her competence mixed with kindness, her sheer energy. In the five years she worked for us, she never once was late for work. She never took a sick day. Amazing. But perhaps she is best described by what she did outside of her working hours. Ceci took kickboxing, English as a second language, cooking classes. She was a gifted photographer and painter. She had her degree in marketing from the University of Mexico, but her interests leaned more towards the arts. She knit elaborate blankets, used a loom, could crochet a piece of intricate filmy lace. She found a beat-up bike in the trash and single-handedly restored it to working order. She loved jigsaw puzzles, huge four footers with thousands of scrambled pieces, and she had the patience to put it all together, day after day, until a coherent scene emerged. Once she was finished, she would spray her creation with clear glue, hang it whole on the wall. It always delighted my daughter, the image at once cracked and solid, a seeming impossibility, but there it was.

I could go on. She was from a close family in a small town and had come to the States to learn the English necessary for her career. The oldest of five children, the only girl, she had been both a daughter and another mother to her siblings from her own youngest years. She was full of mystical folk cures but also common sense to the extreme. Once, my daughter had a high, high fever. She thrashed and muttered and tore at the air with her hands. I, new to all this, did not know what to do. My hands shook and I could not measure out the medicine. Ceci took the bottle from me, drew the liquid up, grasped my thrashing daughter’s chin, and squirted her mouth full of cherry, all in one seemingly seamless move.

Months passed. The presence of Ceci in our family was like a light but firm hand arranging our shape in ways we could only see in retrospect. She was shocked to find out my husband and I celebrated neither Christmas nor Chanukah. My husband had been raised rigorously atheistic and anticapitalistic. I am Jewish by birth, but once I left my mother to live in a foster home, I soon lost touch with my family, and its traditions, for good. “No tree?” Ceci said that first year she was with us. “No presents? El niño. What about el niño?”

“Clara doesn’t care,” I remember saying. “She’s only one.”

“Clara cares,” Ceci said. And that afternoon she came home with a tree, tinsel, a plastic star, all those silk globes. My husband looked uncomfortable, but then after a second, he smiled. By the week’s end we were all zooming around town, buying up toys and trinkets, festive bows, shiny wrapping paper. “I’m Jewish,” I kept saying to my husband; “I’m a communist,” he kept saying to me. Then we shrugged. We were on a roll, and loving it. On Christmas Eve, Ceci took us all to Mass in a tiny basement church in the inner city. The priest was bedecked in some kind of crown and glossy robes, waving his incense stick so the whole church filled with the smell of frankincense and myrrh. Clara could not take her eyes off the princely looking priest or the children in the choir, all of whom were dressed in bright red ruffles and whose ears were pierced with tiny hoops of gold. Music started playing, something salsaish, and then a clip-clop hip-hop version of “Deck the Halls,” and before we knew it the whole church was dancing, skipping after the skipping priest, who waved his wand of smoke high and low. We skipped too. The air was so thick and cloying I could barely breathe. I felt I would choke. On the other hand, it was a lot of fun.

It was for reasons like these that I felt enormously grateful to Ceci and continuously lucky to have her; she brought humor into our tight little lives. However, I also know that her confidence and kindness, the charm she had for children, her easy engagement with them, and her steadfast love of the things I did not love—the dressing, the hair combing, Chuck E. Cheese’s, and swimming pools— only deepened my belief in my own inadequacies. I allowed it to. I felt I simply could not compare.

Here is a scene: It is early morning, and Ceci is brushing my daughter’s hair. She draws the bristles through in a single sweep, hefts up a skein of the champagne-colored locks, and braids them, her fingers flying. Moments later, Clara is ready for school, immaculate, clothes matching, her hair a complex series of plaits and twists all miraculously held to her head with only a single bright barrette. Later on, after school, I find Clara in her room and tentatively approach her. My own hair I have always worn in a mop, too busy for conditioners, just a quick scrub and a brisk, business-like rinse. “Let me do your hair,” I say. I say it softly, shyly, almost like I am in seventh grade asking a boy to dance. “Why?” she says. She doesn’t look up. She’s playing with a doll. “Because,” I say, and I don’t know how to go on. I pick up the brush with its flat-paddle handle and, standing over my daughter’s head, I see the pink seam of her scalp where Ceci has perfectly parted her hair. I bring the brush to it, drag down, and my daughter screams. She gives a loud, dramatic murderous yell and operatic tears fill her eyes. All I did was one tiny tug. I know, I know I haven’t hurt her. I stand there with the brush, frozen. She eyes me warily. I eye her right back. Then I cautiously slip from her room.

* * *

It is winter, shredded snow falling everywhere, muffling the mountains, bandaging the winding slopes, the skiers in their bright-red parkas looking, from a distance, like tiny beads of blood sliding down. I am twelve. I am full of holes. From across the kitchen, my mother snarls at me for reasons I cannot understand. Suddenly, she flings a spoon in my direction; it bounces off my cheek and lands, clattering, on the tiled floor.

Two years later we will sit together, my mother, father, and I, in a social worker’s office on the second floor of a psychiatric unit, where I have been temporarily placed, much to my relief. My mother’s left hand is badly bruised from where she put it through a wall. I, too, have various bruises, although the real problem, the relentless decimating daily humiliations, is harder to describe. The social worker tells me I will not be going home. My mother, who has become psychotically paranoid over the years, says, “You have abused me past what I can manage,” a classic example of projection. I nod, not knowing what else to do. Precipitating my removal from the home was the fact that my mother tried to push me down a gorge in Vermont. I survived, saved by the soft snow. I remember standing where I had slid, hearing the sound of her receding footsteps in the forest, tasting the cold on my tongue. I was fourteen then and had just begun to bleed. The trees were black, scarred. I saw them, and I understood that my mother wanted to kill me, that she always had. What was different, today, now, post-push, was that I wanted to kill her too. This, I saw, was what it meant to be a daughter, a mother. It is about blood and all the steep slopes.

* * *

Children are not subtle. They throw their arms around you or haughtily turn away. They answer you or don’t. My daughter is no different. At the end of every day, during Ceci’s tenure with us, I would come home from work. My briefcase was always bulging, my mind cramped, my stomach aflutter from all I had left to do. I was, at that point in my life, working full-time as both a psychologist and a writer. I sometimes worked sixty hours a week, trying to outrun my history, building walls with words.

I remember one homecoming in particular, not because it was better or worse, but simply because a single memory becomes emblematic, standing in for all the rest. It was winter, and when I opened the door a cold gust of air blew in. Ceci and Clara were absorbed in a book, Clara on Ceci’s lap, Ceci rocking the chair back and forth in time with the Spanish sentences. I could hear the words—leche, bebé, perro—but I did not understand. I saw my daughter’s sleepy eyes, how Ceci held her. “Hi,” I said, an interruption. Ceci smiled, beckoned me forward. Once she had brought me a beautiful blue vase from Mexico, and after my mastectomy, Ceci had filled my room with fresh flowers, helped me with my bandages. Now, I knelt down. “Hi, Clara,” I said, holding out my arms. Clara looked at me. “Go,” Ceci whispered, giving her a little push. “Besitos para mama.” Obediently, my daughter came forward and gave me a quick kiss.

Lest it be misunderstood, I love my daughter. I love her with my whole damaged heart. Her face has always filled me with a sense of the miraculous, for it is a beautiful face, fair-skinned, green-eyed; her limbs are lithe; she seems the expression of all that could be good in me, all that I have that is healthy. At night I often dream of my daughter. We are carrying flowers towards each other, big armfuls of fragile lupine.

Years passed this way. Clara spoke Spanish before she spoke English, and when Ceci’s friends came over they laughed and remarked, “She sounds just like a little Mexican,” my blonde-haired, green-eyed girl. Even so, I had moments with Clara, many moments, that were easy and unfettered, moments writing poetry together, a story called “Ick I’m Sick,” discussions about stars and god, Linnaeus and reptiles. We bought a vinegar-propelled rocket and shot it off together, our heads tipped back as it nosed straight into space. But her first love was not for me. Her first love was for her father, and when it came to women, her first love was, in truth—is this the truth?— for Ceci, and while I really grieved that, I also understood that I had set it up that way, a safe distance, space between mother and daughter, this dyad dangerous, rife with rejection, sick. And yet, it hurt my heart. It hurt my chest, my breasts. When Clara was three years, they found my ducts were crammed with cancerous cells. I had both my breasts removed, tiny, squishy saline bags slid into the sagging spaces left. In clothes I looked fine, but naked I looked maimed. Ceci, on the other hand, was whole and healthy. I know my daughter knew that. Sometimes she would come to me, pull down my shirt, peer in. “Ceci has nipples,” she would say. “And you don’t.” I’m sure this was just a statement of brute fact, but I could not help hearing it as more.

And so we went on. My husband, I hesitate to say, did not help the situation. He sided with Ceci, unconsciously, subtly, giving her his credence and confidence. For this I have not decided whether or not I will forgive him. Of course, I am largely to blame, for I had impressed upon him my image of myself: the ratty foster child, the progeny of insanity, the work a defense against it all. At one point my second-born developed a pustule-like rash on his tongue and palms. Ceci hypothesized an immune response due to a recent fever. My husband agreed. They stood in the kitchen talking together while I watched from the sidelines, and they decided that if it got any worse, they would call the doctor tomorrow. Give it a day, they said. “Are you kidding me?” I said. “It’s on the tongue.” I called the doctor immediately. “My child has white oozing spots on the tongue,” I said. My child. The pediatrician diagnosed hoof-and-mouth disease. For me, this was a twisted triumph.

Clara started pre-school. Here is where things took a distinctly downward turn. At the end of the day, while I was still at work, Ceci would pick her up and take her to a museum or to Chuck E. Cheese’s, and bring her home at five. Eventually this became common enough that Ceci no longer needed to tell us her plans ahead of time. Autumn turned into winter. One day, their usual arrival time of five o’clock passed, and they hadn’t come home. Ceci had been with us nearly four years then. The afternoon ticked on into evening. Where were they? Cars rumbled by on the road outside my study, but none of them stopped. The day grew dark. Frantic, I called my husband at work. “Clara and Ceci aren’t here,” I said, and I think I heard just the tiniest pause before he said, “They’re fine.” I called the school. It was closed. The church bells gonged. I thought crazy thoughts about Ceci: How do I know who she really is? Would she kidnap my girl? Of course not, dummy! But how can I know? And indeed, how could I? We had hired her years ago, based on a reference check and gut. It suddenly seemed careless, negligent; I pictured telling detectives, “She comes from Mexico,” but not being able to say more. Hometown? “Cool-ya-can?” Something like that. Address, copy of passport, visa, we had none of it. On a deeper level, I realized we knew almost nothing of her. Her plans, her hopes, her fears, her lovers, her enemies, nothing. We knew Ceci intimately, day after day, year after year, we knew her laugh, her voice, her hands, her hair, and yet we knew her not at all. This, I believe, is common.

At six o’clock I heard a key in the lock, the dogs barking, and when I raced downstairs I saw them standing together, mittened hand-in-mittened-hand. “Where were you guys?” I said. I was nearly wheezing with panic.

“Field trip,” Ceci said.

“Field trip?” I said.

“To Foss Park. I chaperoned. It was fun, wasn’t it, Clara?”

And Clara looked up, smiled, nodded. “Fun,” she said.

“But I didn’t . . . You didn’t tell . . .” And then I stopped. I held tight to the banister. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Aren’t parents supposed to sign a permission slip before their kids go on a field trip?” “Yes,” said Ceci, and if she thought her next comment was strange, she betrayed it not a bit. “I signed that slip weeks ago,” she

* * *

I did what any woman at once indebted and enmeshed would do. I said not a word to Ceci. The next day I called the school. “All permission slips,” I said to the teacher, “must be signed by me. Not Ceci. Me.” I paused. The teacher didn’t say anything. Her silence sounded accusing. Where was I at the end of every day, during pickups? Working. Working. Working. Where was I? “I’m Clara’s mother,” I said, and I heard it echo down the line.

* * *

When I became pregnant with Lucas, Ceci, who had lived with us for four years, moved out. She found a fantastic apartment in Harvard Square, just minutes away. It was not a big change. She left most of her clothes, her bed made, her pictures up on the walls. “What are we,” I said to my husband, “a storage facility?”

“You’re just jealous,” he said.

“Picture it,” I said. Suddenly, I was speaking slowly, newly aware of an anger. “Picture it. You and I have a child. We hire another man to move into the house and be the nanny. Your child falls in love with the man-nanny, this other father. I come to love the other father too, and I listen to all his child-rearing advice.”

“I don’t listen to all her child-rearing advice,” he said.

“If I think she has an ear infection and has to go to the doctor and Ceci doesn’t, you always agree with Ceci.”

“I’m just being polite,” he said. “She’s still a guest. You’re my wife.”

“Exactly,” I said. “That’s exactly my point. I’m your wife. I’m Clara’s mother.”

“Clara loves you a lot,” he said.

“Of course she does,” I said.

“You have to have more confidence,” he said.

“You tell me,” I said, and I was surprised by the depth of my anger. “You tell me how you would feel having another father around for your kid.”

“I would hate it,” he said thoughtfully. “It is something I would never allow.”

It was full-blown winter when I gave birth to my son, the trees splashed and mottled, my newborn’s face patchy with different hues of reds and blues. When I looked into his brand-new face, I saw nothing of my mother and nothing of myself. In part because of gender, in part because of experience, I approached my second with much more confidence, lifting him up by his armpits, swaddling him deftly, bathing him both swiftly and softly, and he felt it, my calm hands. He stopped crying whenever I picked him up. I picked him up as often as I could. Ceci seemed to like him less. “Boys,” she’d say and sigh. “Girls are fun,” she’d say. “The clothes . . . Boys are . . .” And then she wouldn’t finish. From his earliest days Ceci dressed him in little baseball shirts and high tops. She called Clara “mi amore” and Lucas “señor.” “It’s a cultural thing,” my husband said. “It’s Latino machismo.” Sometimes she let Lucas cry and cry. “Oh,” Ceci said to me one day. “Oh, he is a big bad boy. He has a terrible temper.” At the time, Lucas was two months old.

I see this gender bias as one of Ceci’s unintentional gifts to me, for it left a space, and I slipped in. I held my boy. I called him “mi amore.” He grabbed my nose, felt my face. I know he saw me, looming large over him, as someone safe. And I learned, from him, that I was safe, that I was not my mother, that I did not have claws or cruelty, that I could never hurt a child, my children, never, never, ever, girl or boy, no matter, these were indeed my children. My life. The best I had to offer.

* * *

Every child changes you in different ways. Clara curved me towards my past and, in doing so, forced me to consider its complex intersection with my present curving relentlessly towards my future. Lucas revealed for me the beauty of the single dimension. As a writer, unidimensionality is something I have always avoided. The worst thing that could be said about one’s work was that it lacked facets, was flat. Clara and I are two pieces of a single prism that keeps catching the light at an infinite number of angles. With Lucas, the surface is smooth. It is smooth, peaceful, a lake without wave or ruffled ripple, a lake whose very depth is implicit in its liquid skin. I could float here, catch my breath. I sang silly songs to him:

His name is Lucas
Lucas Palookas
And he’s the best
Lucas in town

I heard my voice. I saw the soft skin of my hands. He pressed himself against my chest, put his mouth on me, found a way to suck in the sound of my heart. “Come,” I said to Clara one afternoon, as I held him, as she watched us, saw me, mother. “Come here, Clarita.” She came. I pulled her close. We stood together, the dyad now a triad, three points, the triangle nature’s strongest shape.

* * *

A year after Lucas’s birth, Ceci’s visa expired. In order to renew it, she needed to return to Mexico, submit an application, and wait for a response from the embassy there. Her chances of getting a new visa: fifty-fifty. My husband and I did whatever we could, sought legal aid, attempted sponsorship, suggested she marry her American boyfriend. In the end there was no choice but for her to leave us for many months, maybe forever. I cried and cried. I cried mostly for Clara, such a huge loss, so early on, and I cried for the girl I once was, standing in front of my house on a hot summer day, waving good-bye to my own mother as the car drove me far away—forever—and who knew when, if ever, we would see each other again. I cried in relief and fear, the sense of something opening, something ending. Clara cried too. That night, she slept with me, in my bed. Dreaming, she moved towards me. “We are finally finding each other,” I thought.

* * *

Ceci had left behind her clothes, her shoes, her artwork, she was everywhere in our home, her plan to return obvious. But a few days after she left, I found myself packing up her clothes, slowly at first, and then picking up speed, boxing the dresses and skirts and shirts, moving her toothbrush and cosmetics into storage, taking down the puzzle pictures, the lacquer shiny, the cracks everywhere.

“What are you doing?” my daughter asked.

I knelt down, took her chin in my hand. “I know Ceci is your very best friend,” I said.

She nodded.

“But she is not your actual family,” I said. “Ceci has her own family, in Mexico.”

“I know,” she said. She looked straight at me. “I know you’re my mother,” she said. “And Ceci is my stepmother.”

“No,” I said. “Ceci is your nanny. She loves you with her whole heart. But nannies do not stay forever, even though they love you forever.”

“Do mothers stay forever?” she asked.

“Most mothers do,” I said. “Some don’t. But this mother,” and I pointed to myself, “this mother will stay with you for as long as you want.”

“Until you die,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Until I die.”

“When will you die?” she asked.

“I hope not for a long time.”

“I know you will die before Papa,” she said.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“You’re forty-one,” she said. “And he’s only forty.”

“You never know,” I said. “But don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried,” she said. “I’m not the worrier. You are.” “You’re right,” I said. “I worry.”

“Someday,” she said, “Ceci will have her own baby.”

“I hope so,” I said.

“And you know what I’m going to be when I grow up?” she said. “No,” I said.

“That baby’s nanny,” she said. “I’m going to be Ceci’s baby’s nanny and a mama too.”

“That’s a great plan,” I said.

“My plan,” she said, “is to have four babies of my own, plus take care of Ceci’s. So that’s five,” she said. “That’s my limit.”

* * *

We hired someone else to take Ceci’s place during the months she was in Mexico. Vanessa was not nearly as good. She lacked Ceci’s keen competence, her motivation, her spark and humor. She lacked the enormous blessed love Ceci had to give, and this too was, in its own way, fine with me, for I felt I had more room, more say-so, more authority and simple space. There were small tasks Ceci had always done without ever being asked, like making Clara’s lunch for school each day. Now that fell to me. It is important to make your child’s lunch. It is important to cut the bread, wrap it, arrange the lunchbox, tuck in a sweet snack. It is important to know that when, the next day, she opens it, she will briefly see that in the arrangement and choice of foods, you have loved her, and always will.

It is important to claim the tasks of motherhood, even when time or trauma makes it difficult. You must, of course, sign the permission slips, shop for shoes, cook when you can, do her hair, with or without the knack. How one balances this with the competing demands of career or long-standing insecurities, I really have no idea. No advice. Only that it must be done, here and there, wherever you can. Motherhood is at once a great and sentimental abstraction and, in its true nature, a series of tiny tasks, not a lifetime but a day, which brings you to another day, which brings you to a third, and so you go. It is all dirty work, full of germs and life.

I gave my mothering away, and for too long a time. I did it one-eighth out of busyness and seven-eighths out of fear. I did it because I had the great good luck and simultaneous misfortune to find another mother so willing and skillful, so comfortably maternal, that I could not quite find my way, my voice, so to speak, the silly songs, the lettuce leaves. I did it also, and paradoxically, out of a keen desire to protect my girl, my best girl, my great love, from the badness I believed was in me. My daughter, my son, I owe everything to them. They have given me more than anyone could ever ask for. They have proven, by their very ruddy and vigorous existences, that even though my own mother gave me up and found me flawed, I had at least two good eggs to give the world, and I gave them.

Ceci was, after several months, granted a new visa and wanted to return to work. But I knew it could not be. I knew I had stepped into some new space and wanted not to step back but forward, enlarging my maternal role, helped but not too much. To say we “fired” Ceci would be wrong, but we did let her go, the perfect nanny, Mary Poppins, who in the end drifts up on an umbrella, leaving the children to their parents’ care. Ceci had no umbrella and the rupture was painful, her sense of betrayal enormous and understandable. “No,” I told her over the phone, “no, Ceci, we love you absolutely, but we just don’t need . . .”

* * *

“It is up to you,” she said.

“We will find you another job,” I said. “We will find you a rich family who can pay you more.”

“I can take care of myself,” she said. We both hung up, in tears.

* * *

Every once in a while now Ceci visits us. She is, indeed, working for a far wealthier family, earning much better money, so all’s well that ends well. Sort of. “You know,” Ceci said to me a few weeks ago when she was visiting, “Vanessa is not keeping up Clara’s Spanish. Since I’ve been gone, Clara’s Spanish has really degraded.”

“I will talk to Vanessa,” I said.

“Clara doesn’t like Vanessa,” Ceci said.

“Clara will never love another nanny the way she loves you,” I said.

But the strange thing is, while that is true, it is also too dramatic. For Clara, the transition was terrible, but she has moved on. When Ceci comes to visit, she spends less and less time with her, wanting to leave after only a minute now, to play with her best friend next door. So Ceci and I are left together, sitting in the kitchen, watching the girl we both love best out the window, playing on the green grass of our neighbor’s yard. Upstairs, Lucas, the boy I love best, churns in his sleep, the monitor crackling, full of the sound of him. “I have always wanted to ask you,” Ceci said to me one day, “why did you fire me?”

“I didn’t fire you,” I said, then began to stammer: “I didn’t need as many hours . . . we were . . . the money . . . expensive . . . I didn’t want to work so much—”

“Were you jealous?” Ceci interrupted.

Brief pause. “Yes,” I said. “You were always the better mother.” “That is not so,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears. “I am thirty-eight,” she said. “Clara may be the closest I ever get to having my own daughter.”

“She belongs to both of us,” I said.

But it was clear, looking out the window, that Clara belonged to no one but herself. There she was, leaping up to catch a ball, dancing in a clown costume, holding hands with Maya, her best friend. I tapped on the window. Clara looked up, briefly waved at us, went back to the business of her life. Ceci and I sat together in the kitchen. It was so quiet. We could hear the heat turn on, the furnace tick and fire. We boiled water on the stove. We filled our mugs, peppermint and chamomile. In the end, the unbreakable bond was perhaps not between Ceci and Clara or between Clara and me, but between Ceci and me, two women, two other mothers, knowing without words how hard and fierce and fabulous mothering can be, understanding the inherent losses of it all, soothing ourselves together, here, in the kitchen, at the very end what is left: two women taking tea.

Excerpted from "Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother" by Lauren Slater. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Lauren Slater

Lauren Slater is the author of "Welcome to My Country," "Prozac Diary" and, most recently, "Lying."

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