The NY Times Magazine cover article this past weekend was called, “The Other Mothers of Manhattan.” In my opinion, the photos were romanticized and at the same time, bleak, and the essay was trite and superficial. Well, you want to know what I really think, right?
Yet again we read a piece from the points of view of the mothers and the nannies. What always seems to be missing in these articles is the point of view of the children, arguably the most important actors in this story. The grown–up children, I mean–people who were raised with nannies, who by now have some perspective on the experience. Wouldn’t it be interesting and important to hear from them?
Or, I should say, us.
I previously wrote a blog post for Kveller about Vi, the woman who was my family’s “housekeeper.” She took care of me and my siblings from the time I was 1 year old and left our family when I was 18. She arrived six days a week at 8:30 in the morning and left after she made, served, and cleaned up after dinner at 8:30 at night. Saturdays, she left at 2 in the afternoon after the Shabbos lunch. I loved her and kept in touch with her until shortly before her death and she was included in my children’s bar and bat mitzvahs, and was invited to my daughter’s wedding. Of course, she had attended my own.
But this is not about Vi. It’s about me.
My mother did not work outside the home but she spent most of her day with my disabled grandmother who lived around the corner. My father travelled for work and was a workaholic who, for the most part, I saw only on weekends. So the central, most stable and visible adult presence in my life was Vi. Of course I knew who my mother was, but it was Vi who really did “mother’s work.”
This kind of set-up works just fine for many (probably most) kids but it didn’t work so well for me. It might, in fact, have worked wonderfully for my brother and sister. (I don’t know, we never discussed it.) But I felt, even at a young age, that I did not come “first” with my parents. I intuited that my grandmother and my father’s business were prioritized over me. I now believe that not feeling important, not feeling “first” to my parents, was not good for my emotional development and contributed to my being a shy, insecure, timid child. (I did grow out of most of it but, truthfully, some scars remain.) And because my parents were not around and Vi would threaten to leave if my sister and I were “fresh,” I was terrified of absolute abandonment.
When I had to decide about child care for my own children, I knew that I wanted to be the primary caregiver. I wanted my kids’ memories to be of me being with them–in the playground, at the lunch and dinner tables, at the bus stop, while playing in the bath. I was lucky I enjoyed, and could afford, being home full-time because I knew that leaving my children with someone else was not something I was at all comfortable with based on my own background.
Certainly, nannies, babysitters and daycare workers can be excellent caregivers. In some cases they may be better at it than a parent, especially one who is not comfortable being home all day with an irrational boss (the kid). I know that I was very lucky to have had the same efficient, affectionate caregiver during my entire childhood.
It seems to me that the choice of caregiver is less important than the message being sent by the parents to the child about their value and worth. It’s easier to do this if mom or dad is, and likes being, home full-time. But if mom and dad are not around a lot, they can still make sure that their child knows that she is the center of their lives, that she is precious and treasured more than anything else. Every child, I believe, deserves that. That security, that knowledge, is what produces psychically healthy children. It didn’t happen for me, but I have no doubt that it is doable.
I would love to read about other people raised like I was. Did they feel “first”? How did being in someone else’s care, rather than their parent’s, affect their childhood and adulthood? How did it affect their life choices and styles of parenting? Would reading these stories help parents make caregiving choices?
Next time I read about moms and nannies, I hope the primary focus will be on the children. That’s ultimately where it really belongs.