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.
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?”
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?”
“Honey, are you there?”
“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?”
“You have no idea where she lives?”
“So we have a first name and a cell number for the stranger with whom we’ve left our only child?”
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.