For all of us who have ever left our children with a caregiver, last year's story of a nanny who stabbed to death two of her adorable charges while their mother was shepherding her third child to a swimming class was a nightmare of unspeakable fears. The grief that reverberated across the nation for the parents and the surviving child was tinged both with the terror that this might have been any of us and the conflicts we all feel about the inherently complicated and messy relations between even the most ideal caregivers and employers.
Psychologist Susan Scheftel, who has worked with many families who employ nannies, notes that parents often have a striking absence of curiosity about their caregivers. Dr. Scheftel argues that parents, overwhelmed by anxiety about their children's vulnerabilities and by ambivalence about leaving them, can experience a paralysis when it comes to even thinking about their children's caregivers. In the same way that we might cover our eyes when passing a car crash so as not to see the details, there are parents who don't know where their child's caregiver lives, children who don't know their nanny's last name. Not infrequently, parents block their awareness of shifts in their nanny's physical or mental state, push out of mind their understanding of the profound power the caregiver holds in their family, or bury their knowledge of the enormous income and social privilege disparities between their nannies and themselves.
For most of us, when we hire a nanny, our focus is on how the nanny will treat our child. This was certainly the case when I first hired a nanny, a warm, soft-spoken and impeccably dressed woman who'd been a school teacher in her native Caribbean island. I felt the "fit" from the moment she picked up my infant son, cooing at him with the baby whisperer language -- foreign to me as a nervous neophyte mother -- born of raising not only her own four children but other children for whom she'd been paid to care. That first day, she gently showed me how to properly burp my own baby, and in the months and years to come, guided me through the introduction of mashed peas and pears, play dates and pull-ups.
Despite all of this, there was a not entirely welcome something else that I'd not anticipated: the relationship between my son's nanny and me became as deep and complex as it was between her and my son -- a tangle of affection and resentment, respect and criticism. As intimate in many ways as marriage, there were unspoken wishes and desires on both sides, baggage from both of our earliest years. Beyond the honeymoon of kindnesses lurked harder realities: the multitude of days in which her needs -- as unpredictable, I learned, as my own but, with fewer resources on her end to draw upon, often more overwhelming -- conflicted with mine. Her love and concern for my child did not end when she closed the door in the evening. If he was sick, she would call the moment she got off the subway to see how he was now an hour later. How could I not write letters when her landlord turned belligerent? How could I not let her take a three-week leave to visit her ailing father despite it leaving me in a childcare lurch?
When my son began full-time school, it rankled to have our nanny, wonderful as she was with our child, spend 20 of her 40 hours essentially unoccupied. I feared, though, not being able to function without her: the plethora of scheduled school holidays and unscheduled childhood illnesses, losing the utter peace of mind I had with my son in her care that he was safe and happy. Hoping for a solution, a rationale for maintaining her full-time employment, which she needed to support her own family, I asked her if she would take over the housekeeping as well. She couldn't bear the idea of leaving us either -- but for her, with her college degree and her years of experience as a teacher, with her hairdos born of long Saturday afternoons at her Queens hairdresser and her elaborate manicures, foreign to the women in my neo-bohemian community but important markers of status in hers, housekeeping felt like a demotion and, in some ways, even an insult.
The solution we arrived at was vague: she'd do "light housekeeping." Vague can be good -- but not as an employer. We bumbled along with this no buckets, no dirty water program until the eve of my family's move into a temporary sublet apartment. While my son was in school and I was at work, I asked our nanny if she would vacuum the sublet with an old vacuum cleaner I'd been told resided in a hall closet before I moved our things over that evening.
Arriving a few hours later at the sublet with our suitcases, I discovered our nanny with a scarf wrapped around her hair. The apartment was covered with what looked like dust from Middle Earth.
"The vacuum's not working properly," she informed me, motioning at crematory remains on the floor.
I bent over to look. Somehow she'd attached the hose the wrong way so she'd blown the perhaps 10-years worth of contents of the ancient vacuum bag out into the room. A look passed between us. I knew she'd not done this purposefully -- but in that dust were both of our unspoken words, words it would take us another 18 months to articulate when we finally tearfully faced the necessary end.
In the great great majority of cases, everything goes pretty well between nannies and families. Our nannies love our children and take good care of them and we love our nannies back and extend a helping hand when needed. At the heart of this love, though, is a painful paradox: it can be our very affection and concern for the person who cares for our children that can make it hard to function as employers. When a caregiver who has come to feel like a member of the family grows out of her job or, more alarmingly, begins to unravel, what is best for our caregiver may conflict with what is best for our child. Who would not find it hard to let go a beloved nanny who has fallen into a depression -- or worse -- at precisely the time when stability and leeway seem the kindest and most helpful course?
There's no one-size-fits-all solution. It's a big job, bigger than most parents anticipate, this thinking about our nannies, their life circumstances and psychic and health states, the reverberations between us, our communications spoken and unspoken. The bottom line, though, is that the responsibility for monitoring these relationships, for reflecting upon them, has to fall with the parent, who is, in truth, that word we all wish we could avoid: boss.