When I was 7 I had a nanny whom I loved dearly. She fit in beautifully with my eccentric family, cooked us delicious food, sat with me at bedtime each night and told me wonderful stories, and, most importantly, made me feel incredibly loved.
Until she suddenly took a job back in Sweden. Just like that, she was gone. As an adult I can totally understand–she was a young woman, she wanted to go home–but being a dramatic little girl I wrote her a heartbroken letter that I never meant to send. Turns out that my parents actually sent it, and I soon got an equally heartbroken letter back from her.
Last year she found me on Facebook, and her message—and the mere fact that she remembered me after 25 years—confirmed my childhood suspicion that we had somehow mattered very deeply to each other.
With all of this in my heart, I recently began searching for a nanny for my 3-month-old son. Over the past two weeks I’ve spoken to 30 women and interviewed seven in person. In the course of these 45-minute sessions I’ve tried to figure out: Will she love him enough? Will he love her too much? Or will she be perfect, make us all love her, and then leave anyway?
I learned quite a bit about myself in the course of the interviews—perhaps more than I learned about these kindly women. Again and again, I found myself favoring candidates who were striving to “make something of themselves,” working on their ESL certificates, accounting degrees, nursing degrees, teaching certificates. It wasn’t enough that they had impeccable references and years of experience–I wanted them to be on their way to something better, and I wanted to be part of that story.
What was this about? Some kind of noblesse oblige? A white (wo)man’s burden? A bias towards people whose life choices resemble mine? Plain old snobbery? Perhaps a bit.
But there’s more to it. The truth is, despite my light-skinned face and my comfortable life, I’m not from the upper classes, and in a lot of ways I’m not even “white,” with all the history and privilege that white implies. After all, I’m a Jew of Eastern European descent, and just a generation or two ago my family members were the immigrant under-class, striving to build their own American dream. My father was able to grow up to be an engineer because his mother sewed for hours at a machine in a factory.
In the end, I hired a woman who looks and speaks a whole lot like me, white and American-born. She wears a lot of purple. She’s also the first person in her family to get a college degree, and she’s planning on pursuing a teaching certificate next year.
I think that I hired her because of her extensive experience with twins and triplets, her sweetness and enthusiasm, and her sterling references. But deep down, I know that that’s only half the story.
I’d love to hear your story: Do you have a nanny? Has being an employer been more emotionally and culturally complicated than you expected?
P.S.—If you’re interested in really exploring nanny-mother relationships, I highly recommend the book Searching for Mary Poppins, edited by Susan David and Gina Hyams.