True Parent 8
We’re at the bookstore where Eleanor, edging on two and dangerously bright, gropes the staff weekly picks like summer fruit. Touching her back, I remind her again to look with her eyes, not her hands.
“That’s great parenting.”
It’s the cashier—a woman with a short bob and blunt bangs.
“Thanks,” I say, yanked toward the fiction section by a small forceful fist. Eleanor feels about bookstores the way most kids do about toy stores, which I adore.
“My son was so wild,” the cashier says. “I always told him what not to do: Don’t touch this, don’t do that. It’s great you tell your daughter what she can do.”
Eleanor’s grabbed The Best American Short Stories off a display, which she wants to read and possibly damage, so I’m only half-listening to Blunt Bangs.
I’ve grown adept at responding to the attention that precocious Eleanor attracts. My system: If the interaction consists of a single exchange—e.g., “Your daughter is just darling!” “Thanks.”— I keep the mask on. But once it veers into conversation, I take it off. It’s like a compulsion.
“Oh, actually, I’m just the nanny.” (I always say “just.”)
Blunt Bangs: “That makes much more sense! I was looking for a similarity, and didn’t see any.”
I shrug and smile, but feel injured by her scrutiny, which reveals the unfair assumption that relation and morphology are always linked. There are so many situations in this day and age where a parent and child may not “look alike,” but are no less parent and child.
But of course, I’m not the parent.
Eleanor and I return home. I give her lunch, and we collect the necessary accoutrements for a nap—four dolls, a couple of books, the pacifier. As I cycle through the usual repertoire of bedtime songs, Eleanor, a fervent cuddler, knees me in the bladder, elbows me in the throat, and head-butts me in the kidney. Yet amidst her peevish mauling, a hand always finds my breast; a poignant reminder of what I cannot provide.
Eleanor entered my life when I desperately needed her. Fresh out of graduate school, I was unemployed, and wrecked by the dissolution of a relationship. I received the usual advice from friends—get out, see people, distract yourself—for me, this meant a baby.
This might sound insane. But in the chilling despair of no structure, community, or partner, I knew I needed to pour myself into someone; knew that a small warm body against mine would be the only way to heal my heartbreak and realign my sense of purpose. And I was right: Eleanor saved me.
But for all of its healing, nannying has its own heartbreak as well. As a single woman well into my childbearing years, there’s no denying that taking care of other people’s children triggers my own, very present, maternal instinct. I experience acute moments of grief and longing in caring deeply for children who I say goodbye to each day. In a way, I’m playing house—funny, since as a child I’d always choose the roles of “dog” or “rug”—each day running off when the “big kids” get home.
A couple rooms over, Charlotte, Eleanor’s mother, is working. Once Eleanor is asleep, we convene. I report the day’s happenings: Eleanor refused blueberries at breakfast, we had a tea party, then read the entire Sandra Boynton shelf at the bookstore. I do not mention the interaction with Blunt Bangs.
We begin to discuss the upcoming transitions in her toddler’s life: upgrading to a toddler bed, potty training, weaning off the beloved pacifier. Charlotte looks exhausted and bewildered by these prospects.
“What would you do if you were me?”
I can tell by the way she waits for a response, eyes focused on mine, that Charlotte is not looking for an answer she could find on a parenting blog.
But I’m not her. I don’t know what it’s like to be married, or a mother, or a working woman entangled in the complicated pulls of domesticity.
I’m just the nanny. Which was never the plan.
When I earned my MFA in creative writing last spring, this was the last thing I wanted to do. Before grad school, I had spent years covered in spit-up, glue, and glitter as a nanny, camp counselor, and school aide. I had sought out a master’s degree as a means of career growth, and a renewed commitment to the writing life. As graduation approached, I thought, do anything, anything, but go back to childcare.
A return to nannying felt like a regression. Like it would discount the work I did in graduate school: lesson plans prepared, college classes taught; books pored over, analyzed; the thesis defended. I feared that despite efforts to cultivate a more “adult” life (literally, a life with more adults), I was destined to nurture.
Sure, I have thoughts on potty training and transitioning out of a crib. But looking at Charlotte, slumped in a chair, I know that my stance on three-day potty training is relatively inconsequential compared to her need, as a first-time parent, for my compassion.
“I don’t know what I’d do,” I say. “There is no one way.”
In this moment, we’re not an employer and employee; we’re two women who don’t know what’s next.
Being a nanny grants you intimate access to the life of a family, a powerful position to be in. As such, I take great care with what I disclose to parents. It’s not that I have anything to hide, per se—I love the babies I work with, I love their families. But I am terrified of hurting them.
Which is why I don’t mention Blunt Bangs. And why I say Eleanor ate two pieces of toast, but leave out how she nuzzled her head into my leg, and sighed, “I love you,” as I buttered the third crustless slice.
How would a mother feel if they saw a stranger mistake me for them? Would it hurt her to hear I don’t always “disown” their child forthright? That I don’t always pause to explain my employment status? Or is this role-confusion a mark of my competence as a caregiver?
Of course, there’s a certain thrill in “passing,” but because I have an almost theistic respect for motherhood, I feel compelled to pay due homage to those who are true practitioners—which is to say, not me.
I’m not the one pacing the halls with an inconsolable baby, or hooked up to a breast pump. I don’t get woken up in a barfy bed, or step on Legos in the dark.
I go home. I sleep alone. I eat Girl Scout cookies for dinner and scroll through the day’s pictures of dimpled hands clutching daffodils to a soundtrack of my housemate’s shitty shower music.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Charlotte doesn’t care if strangers think Eleanor is mine. This is all a masquerade I’ve created to protect myself. To hoard these moments as placeholders for a day when I’m not just the nanny.