Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Nanny State Or: How I Learned To Stop Thinking And Trust My Wife


We hired our first nanny (a term that makes me deeply uncomfortable) when our daughter was 12 weeks old. There is a special place in heaven reserved that lovely woman.  Beautiful, bright-eyed, freckle-faced, and Salvadoran, she was preternaturally tender and loving. She had a deep wellspring of patience for our colicky nightmare of an infant who alternated almost exclusively between crying and screaming, with only occasional breaks for chest-to-chest naps in the Baby Bjorn. She rode the bus to our house four mornings a week, every week for nearly nine months. She was our daughter’s second mother, fourth grandmother, third aunt, and closest companion. We trusted her with keys to our home, access to petty cash, the code to our garage door, not to mention the daily watering and feeding of our most precious possession. She called Emma her “muñeca,” her doll. And 13 years later, I can almost remember her name.

When she gave notice, my wife and I were devastated. You don’t realize how much you’ve come to trust someone until you have to replace her with someone you don’t trust at all. Our daughter was not easy. She transitioned poorly, slept fitfully, bucked at new people and environments, and vomited like Phi Delt during pledge week. It had taken her days to stop crying when she heard our first nanny climb the stairs to our third-floor walk-up. The prospect of, as my wife put it, “breaking in” a new person left us terrified and disconsolate.

Nevertheless, we began the extensive networking and mother’s group message board scanning that are part and parcel of any nanny search. I don’t remember how much we discussed the candidates, if at all. Eventually, a young woman arrived at our door to meet us and our daughter. I don’t remember much about her either, except for her most striking feature. She was white.

When I was a child, the concept of a nanny (of any shade or stripe) was foreign to me. My single mother dragged me to work or, when I was older, left me at home. Those were my options. But as I aged and earned unwitting membership in the UMC, I began to meet people who had (and often had growth up with) au pairs; Swedish or Danish twenty-somethings who brought their tight jeans and Nokia phones and superior attitudes to converted basement bedrooms where they spent six to twelve months pretending to like children before hightailing it back to Scandinavia with a promise to keep in touch with you and their skeezy American boyfriend, only one of which they had any intention of keeping. When I pictured a white nanny, this was my vision.

The young woman who arrived at our door was none of that. She was American, earnest, energetic, personable, and comfortingly homely. She clearly loved children. She had a background in early childhood education. She wanted the job. And our daughter instantly hated her.

During her visit, we helped her initiate play with our daughter. When things seemed to be going well, my wife and I stealthily left the room only to have our daughter erupt in angry tears the moment she realized she’d been abandoned with a stranger. We hid outside the door, speculating in hushed tones about our potential hire as though she were a Navy Seal candidate. Was she up for the challenge? How would she handle the pressure? Could she kill at close range?

Ten solid minutes of crying later, we went in to rescue her. She seemed unfazed.

“Sorry about that,” we told her.

“Oh, it’s no problem. It’s totally normal for a kid to cry when she’s left with someone she doesn’t know. I don’t take it personally.”

“Well, we have to talk a little bit, but before we do, we figured we should make sure you’re still interested.”

“Oh, totally. You guys seem great and I’m sure Emma and I will get along once we find our rhythm.”

She departed convivially, our still sniffling daughter clinging violently to her mother like a frightened lemur baby. 

We proceeded with an extensive background check, contacted her references, verified her identity, address, and contact information. She wasn’t a criminal. She came recommended. She was who she said she was.

Maybe we hired her because we admired her pluck. Maybe we figured Emma would hate anyone at first. Maybe we just didn’t want to keep looking. Whatever the case, she showed up at the appointed hour on the correct day and we left our screaming child in her care.

Eight hours later, we arrived home and our daughter was still screaming.

We peppered the nanny with sympathetic questions.

“Was she like this for you all day? Did she nap? Did you guys even leave the house? Are you exhausted?”

She recapped the day in detail. It had been tough. Emma had slept in brief spurts. She’d cried much of the time. Her stomach seemed to hurt after she ate. They tried the park, but it didn’t go well. It was hard, but she was sure tomorrow would be better.

It wasn’t.

And neither was the next day. Or the day after that.

Every day for a week, we came home to a snot-encrusted, red-faced, exhausted, angry baby, and a brave young woman who insisted it would get better soon.

Having a baby, especially one like ours, introduces a parent to a particular form of helplessness; the impotent awareness that there is nothing you can do to assuage the suffering of someone who depends entirely on you to assuage her suffering. I wasn’t prepared for, nor have I fully recovered from the heartbreak that accompanies this feeling. Whatever insecurities haunted me in the past paled in comparison to the very real inadequacy I experienced when I could not comfort my child.

But granting the same responsibility to another person – a stranger, no less – is a uniquely disquieting experience. My daughter was doing to this young woman the same things she did to me and her mother on a daily basis. In her own, non-verbal way, she was saying, “Hey lady, I have bad news for you. It’s your job to make me feel better. But you’re not going to be able to do it. No matter what you try, I’m still going to be miserable. And if I’m ever not miserable, don’t make the mistake of thinking you had anything to do with it.” As someone who suffered a similar fate, my empathy for our new nanny was compressive. At the same time, I found myself irritated that this woman, to whom we were paying a not insignificant amount of money, seemed no more capable than I of making my child happy. After all, she was the professional. I was just a clown who, twenty-one months earlier, had signed up to go skydiving without a parachute.

Needless to say, my wife and I had many anguished conversations during that week. How long should we let this go? In our addled memories, it hadn’t been this bad with our first nanny. By the fourth day, my wife’s patience was waning. If my greatest parental guilt was tied to my inability to adequately comfort my child, my wife, a full time working mother, grappled even more painfully with her inability to be with her child at all.  Knowing that her daily departure fated her baby to nine hours of misery was too much to bear.

At the end of the week, my wife said, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

“We have to give her a little more time,” I comforted. “If we start over with someone new—”

“Emma doesn’t like her.” She was crying gently.

“It’s hard to really know because she always like this. She really just wants you, and it’s hard when she can’t have you.”

“No. I can tell. She doesn’t like her. It’s not fair to leave her with someone she doesn’t like.”

“Let’s give it one more week.”

“No. I’m not going to put her through another week of this.”

This assessment, and hundreds more that would follow in the coming years, represented a fundamental difference between my wife and me. My wife’s instincts were taking over. This was no longer about critical thinking, reasoned assessment, or dispassionate decision making. Where I was thinking, she was feeling. And her feelings told her that she needed to protect her child. When this happens, it is much more than a hunch or gut reaction. It is not optional. It is a full body response that cannot be controverted. By this, I do not mean to paint a picture of an irrationally crazed woman going into stereotypical she-bear mode. Rather, my wife simply took one look at her child and knew. There is no hesitation or equivocation. No right or wrong. I cannot even call it a decision, because “decision” implies that there was a choice, another side of an equation to be considered. 

When my wife reaches this state, I become largely irrelevant. She does not listen to me. She cannot be reasoned with. There is no conversation left to have (though I often try). I am left to acquiesce to her will. And it doesn’t really matter how long it takes me to come around because my wife isn’t waiting for me. And I am grateful.

She called the nanny on Saturday and informed her that we wouldn’t be needing her services anymore. I wasn’t on the call. From what I heard, the nanny was shocked, even devastated. I supposed it’s hard not to take something like that personally. Plus, she probably needed the job.

On Sunday, a lovely Salvadoran woman arrived at our door. She’d been recommended to my wife by someone we didn’t know who was friends with someone we kind of knew who worked with the sister of someone my wife had once met (or something like that).

She climbed our stairs and looked at our daughter, who regarded her with curious suspicion as she clung to my wife’s torso. She didn’t say a word to us. Instead, she spoke to Emma in saccharine Spanish tones. After a moment, she reached out her arms. And Emma went to her. She held Emma and rocked her whole body gently side to side, as all people who are good with babies know to do. She continued to coo at Emma for another minute or two. Emma smiled. Finally, she looked at us.

“Hola, me llamo Norma.”

She was hired.

The next day, Monday, Norma arrived at our house at 8am. She scooped up Emma like she was her own child. We went off to work. A few hours later, I called my wife.

“How do you think it’s going?”

“Fine. I have a really good feeling about her.”

“Have you checked in at all?”

“No.”

Her certainty was comprehensive.

“Hey?” I asked. “What’s Norma’s last name?”

There was a long pause of the sort that suggests bad cell reception.

“Honey? What’s Norma’s last name?”

Still nothing.

“Honey, are you there?”

“Yes.”

“What’s Norma’s last name?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you have an address for her?”

“No.”

“You have no idea where she lives?”

“No.”

“So we have a first name and a cell number for the stranger with whom we’ve left our only child?”

“Yes.”

We’d conducted no background check, contacted no references, hadn’t bothered to verify her identity, address, and contact information. We knew nothing about her or even if she was who she said she was.

And neither of us was remotely worried.

My wife had a feeling. And that was good enough for me.


Monday, May 20, 2019

Life Becomes Her


Life Becomes Her

By Jesse Pearson

It typically begins in 7th grade. Sometime in March or April. Unfamiliar feelings. Wandering eyes. Vague insecurities. Burgeoning cases of FOMO. A dim awareness that other people are watching you, wondering what you’re thinking.

This isn’t the first sign of puberty. These are not the hormone-induced emotions of fragile 13-year-old egos. They are the sudden preoccupations of a group of confident, self-actualized 40-and-50-somethings whose children are about to begin of the high school admissions process. For the next 12 months, this small but elite group of adults will forget everything they’ve ever believed about good parenting. They will tell half-truths and outright lies about their own children. They will controvert their own values, ethics, and financial self-interest. All in the service of getting their kids into schools that will charge them up to $250,000 in exchange for a piece of paper that will not qualify their children to cut hair for a living.

I know about this because I’ve just been through it. In fact, I go through it every year. I am a middle school teacher at an independent school in Marin County. I am also the father of an 8th grader who just received an acceptance letter from the private high school we forced her to apply to despite her stated long-standing desire to attend Tam High, the well-respected public high school a half-mile from our home.

As I reflected on our application process, and in the wake of the recent college admission scandal, I began to realize that even the most decent, child-centric parents are a few self-serving rationalizations (and a couple cosmetic surgeries) away from Felicity Huffman. My students are not the children of William McGlashan Jr. or Todd and Diane Blake, the Marin County residents who were indicted for mail and wire fraud. But they could be. My daughter is not a product to be styled, packaged, and marketed. But, if I’m being honest with myself, I may have treated her as though she was.

My wife and I met at The Urban School of San Francisco in the late 1980s. At the time, it was an artsy, irreverent, independent high school that seemed to cater to brilliant misfits, intellectual rebels, and kids raised on houseboats. The four years I spent there were exceedingly formative, to say nothing of the fact that it’s where I met my future spouse. Thirty years later, Urban is not the place it once was. It is, by almost any objective measure, a much better school. It is harder to get into, more academically rigorous, and far better capitalized. The site, once a converted firehouse, rundown apartment building, and church gymnasium in the Upper Haight, is now inarguably state-of-the-art. The teachers are better qualified. The students are more ambitious. I can say with confidence that my eighth grade self would never have been offered a spot at today’s Urban. But I’m also not 100% sure I would want to go there. The school feels less diverse; not racially or socio-economically or same-sex-family-ly diverse, but by some other, unnamable metric that has something to do with kids and families who want different things from life, who have different goals, or even, perish the thought, who don’t really have goals at all. Today’s Urban is for strivers, achievers, students who know where they’re going and are willing to do whatever it takes (or whatever their parents demand) to get there. I saw all of this. I felt it on my visit. I knew I didn’t particularly like it. And then I all but begged my daughter to apply.

My daughter has never been a people-pleaser. More accurately, she has never been a parent-pleaser. Even as an infant, she seemed to deliberately defy our wishes. When a friend gave us a copy of the now ubiquitous parenting bible, Go the F*ck to Sleep, it seemed to have been written just for us. Not surprisingly, she spent two days at Urban and announced she had no interest in going there. I quickly chalked it up to her desire not to follow in her mother’s and my footsteps or to be perceived as a kid riding her parent’s coattails. I was wrong. She had real reasons.

“The kids just seem kind of stressed out,” she told me. “I don’t want to go to high school and feel like I’m competing all the time.”

“I get that,” I said, ignoring her point. “But I don’t think you realize what an amazing place Urban is. Did you look at the course offerings? Did you see that new gym? You love the City. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get to be in the City every day?”

“Um, yeah, I guess.” This was her way of saying I’m going to stop talking to you now because you’ve stopped listening to me.

Did I mention my daughter is brilliant? I don’t mean classroom brilliant. (Though she is a very strong student.) She’s the kind of brilliant that can’t be taught or easily measured. She knows herself. She sees through other people. She can spot bullshit (especially mine) a mile away. She chooses her battles. She possesses a host of skills and talents that cannot be assessed by any standardized test.

And so our search continued. My search, with her as my surrogate.

She toured San Domenico and University High School and Saint Ignatius. (She ruled out Marin Academy as too precious and pretentious. This was four months before their former board member, McGlashan, was indicted.) One by one, she thoughtfully enumerated her objections. One by one, I attempted (and failed) to overcome them.

She finally agreed to apply to San Domenico. She liked the kids. They seemed happy and kind and intelligent. They did not seem stressed out or freaked out or strung out. (It’s worth noting that none of her objections ever had anything to do with teachers. She hardly considered them. For middle schoolers, school is about how they experience their peers, not their classes, which is something I’d never really considered, despite being, or perhaps precisely because I am, a middle school teacher.)

I knew next to nothing about San Domenico, other than it had once been an all-female school of the Dominican Catholic order situated on a 515 acre horse ranch, which, as an all-male Jew with a hatred of jodhpurs, made it both unappealing and largely irrelevant. Nevertheless, I dutifully investigated. I visited the website. I attended a prospective parent night. I took the campus tour. I’m not sure what I expected to find. Probably a rigid, uniform-wearing, God-fearing crowd of equestrians. Instead, I encountered energetic and inspired teachers of every faith and persuasion, creative and engaged students from diverse backgrounds. A serious school for serious people who didn’t seem to take themselves or school too seriously. As usual, my daughter’s judgement had been sound.

And she still didn’t really want to go there.

Three years earlier, we’d pulled her out of public school to attend the middle school where I teach. We had many reasons, some of them wise and developmentally sound, some of them selfish and fear-based. The results have been mixed, but far more positive than negative. At my progressive independent school, she has become a stronger, more independent student and thinker. She has learned to self-advocate. She has also yearned for a larger social groups, been ostracized by kids she thought were her friends, and, above all, had her entire middle school experience play out in front of her father’s watchful eyes. It hasn’t been easy on either of us, but she got by far the shorter end of that stick.

I’d assumed that she wanted to go to Tam because it and my school are as different as two schools serving the same largely homogeneous affluent suburban population can be. That is certainly part of it. In a sense, she’s the girl whose bitter ex-boyfriend just met her current boyfriend and asked, “What the hell do you see in him?” and she answered, “First of all, he’s not you.” There is also, of course, payback for spending three adolescent years as a “staff brat.” But mostly it’s about agency. It’s about her knowing who she is and what she wants, and acting upon that knowledge. It’s also about us, her progressive educator parents, believing what we’ve always told ourselves. That kids learn best by doing, not by being told what to do. That an empowered child is a happy child. That, as T.H. White wrote, “Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.”

My daughter was accepted at San Domenico. She was offered a generous financial aid package. I wanted her to go there. And now that she has made her choice, I’m left to wonder why it meant so much to me.

I believe in the value of independent schools. I wouldn’t teach in one of them If I didn’t. My school, along with high schools like San Domenico, Urban, and, I assume, Branson, University, Drew, Bay, and others of that ilk create a culture in which participation and engagement are the norm. Students who check out or opt out, stand out, and not in a good way. After touring Tam High, my wife and I quickly realized that it offered everything and more than most of its private competitors did. But we heard a few consistent refrains from students, faculty, and administrators. Students have to seek out opportunities. You can do anything you want here, but you have to want to do it. No one is going to come find you. You have to put yourself out there. I began to realize that participation and engagement at Tam would require extra planning, extra effort, and, above all, extra confidence. At a school of nearly 1500 kids, where opportunities aren’t spoon fed to students, checking out can mean simply blending in. I worried that at a big public school, my daughter would have to swim against a tide of apathy. I worried that the temptation to follow the crowd would overpower her nascent desire to be remarkable. I worried that after three years of being the teacher’s daughter, all she wanted to do was blend in.

Or maybe that’s not it at all.

I have 34 students who are about to graduate from my 8th grade English class. Roughly three-quarters of them will go to an independent high school. Some of them were all but recruited by the best schools in the area. Others made it in by the skin of their teeth. But as they awaited their decision letters, I wasn’t really watching the students. I was watching their parents. After all, I was one of them. And I wasn’t always proud of us.

For many of my parenting peers, the outcome of this process felt like life or death. To some extent, I understood. These people have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their children’s elementary education. A prestigious high school placement is, in some ways, the first dividend on that investment. These parents truly believe that they want what’s best for their children. But I know their children differently than they do. I know them as students. And in some cases, I worry that what the parents want is not actually what’s best for their kids. It may, in fact, be what’s best for them.

I was amused by the outrage over the recent college admissions scandal. Of course, I wasn’t remotely shocked by the news. In many ways, it was an extension of the process I just completed. I was, however, confused by the vitriol I heard directed at the kids who’d “stolen” the spots of more deserving students and the hand wringing for the kids who’d lost those spots. Focusing on any of the students who were impacted by the scandal is a false narrative; treating the symptom, not the disease. The deserving applicants who were aced out of a spot at Yale or Stanford or (even) USC got unequivocally screwed. The spoiled children who stole those spots are most assuredly drowning in stew of shame, insecurity, and scholarly journals they don’t understand. But the truth is that the admissions process for a significant percentage of privileged kids isn’t about the kids at all. It’s about their parents. A certain class of parent needs to be able to tell their peers that their kid got into a particular echelon of school, regardless of what their kid wants or deserves. The impetus is simple vanity, and it has little or nothing to do with what’s best for their children. It’s about being able to tell the cocktail party circuit that your kid goes to __________. Private school has always been about, among other things, curating your child’s peer group, but today it is increasingly about curating and impressing your own.

In order to achieve this, some parents push their kids to the breaking point. We’ve read the foreboding articles in the Times about rising stress levels in students. College kids have traded in the freshman 15 for freshman anxiety disorders. Enlightened parents are getting the memo that it’s not wise to pressure kids, but they often remain unwilling to accept any outcome that doesn’t have the appearance of high-level achievement. This is particularly prevalent in our community because of how many successful parents live here. They cannot abide their kids following a different path than they did; all the while forgetting that they themselves may have followed a circuitous route to success.

Whether it’s pressuring kids, bribing admission officers, or waving donations at development directors, the parental behavior is not malevolent. It is fear-driven. I see too many students in our community who lack ambition or grit. Growing up with privilege breeds a unique kind of malaise. Parents see it, too. They worry that their kids don’t know how to overcome adversity. The response, which is oddly rational, is to try to remove adversity. Sometimes this makes sense. Is the book you’re reading too difficult? Read an easier book. Did you strike out in 80% of your little league at bats? Consider repeating that level before you tryout for the next one. Any decent teacher will tell you that these are developmentally appropriate responses. We know that confidence is essential to success. Crushing a kid’s confidence is the quickest way to destroy their ambition. But too often children of means wind up living a kind of concierged childhood. Don’t like your soccer coach? We’ll move you to another team. Your friends excluded you at school? I’ll have a word with their mothers. Lift lines at Squaw too long? We’ll get passess for Alpine. But there is a difference between helping your child succeed and making it impossible for them to fail, between offering opportunity and eliminating challenges. Parents who remove obstacles from their children’s paths diminish their capacity to overcome them. Kids have a disappointment muscle, and it must be flexed and exercised from time to time, lest it atrophy completely.

Which brings me back to my daughter. She is going to Tam High next year. It was her choice. I believe it was the right one. For her. Not for me. Not every 14-year-old is equipped to make decisions about her future. I think she is. But I might be wrong. And she might be wrong, too. She may not like Tam. She may regret her decision. She may lack the confidence she needs to find those opportunities that would have found her at at a smaller school. But at some point, she has to find out for herself. At some point, her life becomes hers. I’ve always told myself that I want what’s best for her. She’s finally teaching me what that is.












Monday, April 1, 2019

Bjorn Again


I am about as progressive a parent and partner as you’re likely to meet. I believe that when it comes to gender roles, “traditional” is just code for “repressive and patriarcal”. I cook (well). I clean (poorly). I shop. I mend. I darn. I can take a child’s temperature without a thermometer. I also drill. I hammer. I change flat tires. I hang things on walls. I can assemble Ikea furniture without directions. I know that gender is not binary.
So it is with full awareness my modern, limousine liberal, quinoa-eating ethos that I say that no man should ever wear a Baby Bjorn.

A Baby Bjorn is a deeply emasculating device. It is a full-frontal vasectomy. A canvas chest vagina. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I gladly wore one almost daily for nearly two years. Such was the nature of my daughter’s neediness.

From her earliest days, she needed to be held, begged to be bounced, demanded to be in physical contact, pleaded to be on the move. This is what we told ourselves. There was no other way to account for the wailing; the desperate, pleading, incessant cries that seemed to dominate her waking hours.

My wife began to believe that the emotional and physical trauma of our daughter’s newborn illness had created a primal need that could never be satisfied by ordinary parenting measures. Stroller rides. Soft music. Sound machines. These would never be enough to soothe her.

She needed to be worn.
Constantly.
We lived in San Francisco’s Castro District for the first five years of my daughter’s life. As I wandered the street of our neighborhood, keeping her in constant contact and motion, I quickly learned that having an infant strapped to his chest makes a man more appealing. I’m a decent looking guy. I’d become accustomed to, even flattered by, being hit on by men from time to time. The Baby Bjorn, however, seemed to turn me into a kind of oil-anointed, shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal. I recall an aimless, nap-preserving perambulation that took me past the Twin Peaks Tavern, the historic gay bar on the corner of Market and Castro. It’s regular denizens, older men, bears, and lifelong couples, had rarely noticed me in the past. This day, however, my Bjorn-ed child acted as an eye magnet. I felt their penetrating gazes; their recognition of me as a man who could make a commitment, a tender man unafraid to be vulnerable, confident enough in his masculinity to mount a baby girl to his chest and parade through earth’s gayest neighborhood. Through the bar’s open windows, I heard a hushed voice with a central casting lisp coo, “Oh, that is so adorable.” The voice’s longtime companion responded, “You know, babies are the new pugs.”
Such is the power of the Bjorn.
In many ways, the Bjorn is a gesture, a sacrifice made to the mother of one’s child. It is a man’s way of saying, my darling, you forced a watermelon through your vagina, so I will wear it on my chest. The act is somehow totally uncalled for and not nearly enough. I wore my daughter around the house and in the backyard, while feeding her from a bottle, washing dishes, and pruning a camellia bush. My wife hardly noticed. And she shouldn’t have.
The Bjorn may have been an acknowledgment of her sacrifice but I didn’t really wear it for her. When my daughter was in the Bjorn, she slept. She breathed onto my skin, the condensation of her warm breath collecting on my chest hair like dew drops. Her head lolled and her nose rooted against me. The wet powder smell of her strawberry hair filled my nose, imprinting on me the joyous unexpectedness of my commitment to her. In the Bjorn, she was at peace. And in her peace, I found mine.
As a new parent, I was naive, terrified, and inept. No classes, books, or advice could have prepared me for what I needed to know. My daughter unwittingly prayed upon my fears and weaknesses. Her neediness overwhelmed me. She took everything I could give her, and then she demanded more. In my most exhausted moments, my most desperate hours, holding her was the only way I could be sure I was helping her. When I was too tired to hold her, I strapped her to my body. And she stayed there, secure and asleep in a navy blue canvas pouch, defying the gravity that threatened to bring me to my knees.
The Baby Bjorn saved me. It held her when I couldn’t. It helped me be the parent she needed me to be, even when I didn’t want to be. It taught me that what I wanted didn’t matter. How I looked didn’t matter. What people thought of me didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was her. I’m grateful for my Bjorn lessons.
And I never want to wear one again.