Relativity: Once upon a nanny

Once upon a time I was a nanny. It’s come up before in passing. But despite my time in the trenches bonding and helping to raise so many kids in so many years, I still feel overwhelmed and perplexed by my own offspring at times. I should be better at this, I find myself thinking. I have so much training! Alas, it doesn’t work like that. And when I went to my social network today in exasperation (more on that in a minute), my friend Jessica suggested… to paraphrase… to blog it out. So here I am.

So, yes, I was a nanny. I put myself through college working as a nanny and maid. I scrubbed baby’s butts and I scrubbed toilets and just about everything in between for an honest buck. In the space of about four to five years I worked for four families. With each family, no matter how many tantrums (from kids and from adults!) or missed attempts at the potty (I potty trained at least 5 kids by the time I was 21… and I didn’t have a child of my own until I was 33!), it seemed impossible for me to not fall in love with the kids. All my kids. I had about 10 kids in my nanny years, and that’s not counting all my kids when I was a preschool teacher after college.

I think my experience encompassed a pretty wide spectrum in terms of the lifestyles and socioeconomic status of the families — from food stamps to crockpot delight every night to co-op-grown organic-only hippies. There were single mothers and married couples. Although, interestingly, one of the married couples lived apart in completely separate houses because, “that’s what works for us.” (This was in Oregon, so it actually didn’t seem that strange to me.) There were parents who barely cared if I took their kids to the park and there were parents that wanted an itinerary and to make sure it was suitably varied and included enough educational experiences, including making sure that no two days were exactly alike (really?!). There were parents who would have used a nanny-cam, if it had existed in the early to mid-1990s. And there were those who really did fold me into the fabric of their family.

It’s a tricky thing being a nanny — or a maid, for that matter.

When you work in someone’s home, you are in their most private sanctuary. You are in a very intimate space. And the greater the role you play in that space, the more intimate it gets. For instance, for some families I only did nanny duties — kids only. This is still a very important job, to be sure, but in the kids-only homes it was much easier for my employers to put a wall between me and them. In the homes were I was only a nanny, it was always more clear to me that I was, “the help.” It is far more intimate for your employer when you are changing their bed linens and doing their laundry. When you’ve touched someone else’s underwear, things change. So, it was always far more involved for me when I did more than just nanny. In the homes where I cooked, cleaned, performed pest control (if I never touch another mouse again…), and washed the dishes from breakfast… you become much more indelible in the household and it leaves a much bigger footprint in your life.

One of the most emotional experiences I had as a nanny was when I worked for the State of Oregon foster care system. They would give you all the basic child care certifications and trainings (CPR, etc.) and then basically hire you out to different families who had foster kids. You could turn down jobs, which I did sometimes because they conflicted with my school schedule or were too far for me to walk or take the bus to (I didn’t have a driver’s license until I was 19… long story). But in the end, I accepted a job at probably the last home that any of the other care workers wanted. Indeed, when I interviewed the single-mother told me that she had already gone through several workers who found the situation in her home too much to handle. Part of me took the job just because it was a challenge and part of me took it because of the look in that woman’s eyes. You could see all over her face how much she loved each of her nine kids. Yes, NINE. And only three of them were foster kids! In fact, she worked as a social worker in another part of the foster care continuum — the side of the department that evaluates removing kids from homes. Holy crap.

So, I took the job with the nine kids (over a handful of jobs that had one or two kids). Was I crazy? I would ask myself that question sometimes daily as I walked the three miles to her house in the rain (it was Oregon). I think it was like that bumper sticker: You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps. And it didn’t hurt that she paid extra on top of my regular wage (my paychecks came from the state of Oregon at a set rate) to get the housekeeping done. Ah money, the great motivator of college students everywhere.

My foster care family was indeed large and very busy. Luckily, the six oldest kids — even the youngest were a bit older than the foster kids — were almost entirely independent in their activities and school work and a couple of them were teenagers. The mother was very clear that I did not have to clean anyone’s room who was over the age of 10, including hers. So this removed about half the house from my concern. But that was a good thing because — God help me — the messes nine kids can make in a kitchen and bathroom (there was only one)! The house did not have a dishwasher! Or rather, the dishwasher was me and sometimes I would spend two hours at that sink. Bleh! There were so many dishes and so much to clean up in the kitchen, bathroom and living room that I had to set a schedule, including activities with the younger kids and the foster kids.

And that brings me to the wildcard of the whole situation. My foster kids — three siblings — were all under the age of four. The two youngest were still in diapers (one was being potty trained). The oldest one was about three and had the most raging case of ADHD I have ever seen. The kids had been taken away from their mother, who did meth while pregnant. My toddler was my wildcard. On a good day a toddler of perfect health and coming from a warm and loving home can be as predictable as a hand grenade. This little foster girl, let’s call her Carrie, was so sweet and charming that it just about broke your heart that she struggled so much with ADHD, her dosing on Ritalin, and frankly just to keep a coherent stream of thoughts in her head. She was smart. But the hyperactivity and attention deficit problems were so extreme that it would just rattle the wits right out of her at times. It was a struggle with her medication, too. She hated taking it because it made her feel weird and she didn’t want to eat (she was so skinny it kind of made you nervous just looking at her). But without it… It was so terrible that even she would be crying, unable to control herself, her thoughts or her body. You could just look in her eyes and see the frustration. Of course, the only days she missed her medication were days she had visits with her biological mother, which only made it more difficult on her. She was such a tiny girl, struggling against pretty stacked odds, and without the maturity or life experience it probably takes to deal with everything that was on her plate… It just made my heart hurt. (And, I admit, sometimes my head hurt.)

Added to this was the stresses of the household’s financial situation. The single mother I worked for couldn’t really afford to be a foster parent. She had only taken the three siblings because they couldn’t find a placement that would keep the family together (and with such mitigating factors). She had fallen in love with little Carrie, because everyone who met her did. It wasn’t her fault, after all. My employer was in over her head as a single mother to six kids on a social worker’s salary, but she felt it was her responsibility as a good person to do what she could. But there were days I’d show up and the small house would be dark and cold, because the power had been shut off. (I was prepared with round-robin sing-alongs and games of Duck, Duck, Goose.) And more often than not, I know my employer went to be without dinner, so that all the kids could have something on their plates.

There have been times I have told this story to people who have said to me, “Well, what was she doing with all those kids, anyway? Why did she take in more if she couldn’t afford it?” My response, is always the same: Why do you think? She was raising her six kids after a divorce and through her work saw three little kids who were going to slip through the cracks of the foster care system. If someone who works in the system can’t help them… really, who else was going to help them? Obviously, no one else had stepped up or matched the task or they would have been placed somewhere else. My employer wasn’t delusional, she was guilty of caring about people. She herself told me that she knew she was in over her head, but she just couldn’t find a home for those kids. She was trying. But where else should those kids have gone in the meantime? At least where they were, they were surrounded by very loving people and they were never alone. If anything, the failing that this story highlights is that of our foster care system, not this one woman.

The other thing that people say to me sometimes is that she was being decadent by hiring someone to come in and help out. I disagree completely, even more so now that I am a mother. Just my one kid wears me out! I can’t imagine NINE kids. Nine to one is a really tough parent-to-kid ratio! And the fact of the matter is she paid me about $60 a week to get some help around the house. She could come home at the end of the day and have a clean kitchen (with no dirty dishes and no dead mice in the traps), a clean bathroom and dinner started. This freed her to actually enjoy some time with her family, because she really did love all her kids and they loved the hell out of her. Maybe that money seems extravagant when you can’t pay your light bill. But truth be told, those kids didn’t seem that phased by the lights being out. (Even winter in Oregon isn’t that bad.) But when their mom was really stressed out or grumpy from a hard day, that made them feel awful.

Maybe because of the deep emotional attachment I had at that family, the next place I worked, which was my last as a nanny, was a private placement. Even though I loved Carrie and all the kids I worked with in the Oregon foster care system, it was really tough work. Those kids were dealing with really hard situations, some of which were a bit too close to my own traumatic childhood experiences. In some ways it was very healing to me to work in that dynamic. I felt like I was able to be there for kids who had so few quality adults in their lives. I could be one of the new people in their lives who were finally telling them they were smart and amazing. And I certainly spent time rocking children in my lap as they wept and raged at the circumstances of their lives. “It’s not fair!” They’d inevitably say. And all I could say was, “You are absolutely right. It’s not fair.” As rewarding as it was to help those kids in whatever little ways I might have done, I was ready to move on to homes with (hopefully) less messy emotional entanglements.

I knew that the Astrologer’s house would be different as soon as I rounded the block and took it in from the curb. It was a beautiful Mission home painted in a fresh, crisp white with a yard full of wildflowers — the kind that are supposed to look like they just sprung up there but you know that someone spent a lot of time cultivating. There was a swing on the porch. And when I crossed the threshold — even though there were three children at home — you could hear a pin drop on the immaculate hardwood floors. This was how the other half lived! My charge at this home was a precocious and utterly adorable three-year-old I’ll call Beatrice. She was quick as a whip and had this really fun vibe all the time. She was spunky and chill all at the same time. The woman of the house, who was my employer, was an astrologer. She had Beatrice later in life in a second marriage (to the guy who lived in his own house) and her older children were old-soul teenagers that I was not to be concerned with (her words).

The Astrologer was by far the most strict employer I ever had. She worked from home in a back office — although I was told to act as though she was not there unless under dire, emergency circumstances — so there was always the off-chance she might ramble through and critique my work. And she was definitely someone who required stiff boundaries between employer/employee. By then I had already been taking care of other people’s children for a long time and in much more challenging circumstances, so some strict rules was a piece of cake for me. (Although I did have to stifle my laughter when the Astrologer came out of her office one day and told me that the children’s music I was letting Beatrice listen to was too immature, because they were encouraging her to have a broad pallet. She expected Mozart, not “The Wheels on the Bus.”) But Beatrice was such a doll, that the whole job felt kind of like, well, taking candy from a baby.

After so many hard jobs, it was nice to end my nanny career with Beatrice, spending our days blowing bubbles in the wildflower yard and drawing with chalk on the driveway. Certain days of the week her dad would peddle up on his bike and strap her in to take her to his home in the country where I imagined her to roam free, running all over. I felt a little envious of Beatrice, who was definitely growing up surrounded by love without any of the hardship I, or many of my previous charges, had endured. True, she had a very strict mother with high standards. But there are worse things. A lot worse.

By the time I said goodbye to my last kid I had been peed on, pooped on, and puked on more times than I can even remember. I had wiped so many faces and butts. I had cleaned so much PB&J out of heads of hair and off of walls. I had weathered the frustrating season of potty training. I had made myself a chameleon to so many different parenting styles and discipline choices — which you have to do in that role. Because even if someone else’s child starts calling you “Mommy,” which more than one did, or when they tell you they love you… you are still not their parent. And you will still get fired if you do it “wrong.”

What I learned then and what I know now is that there are a lot of ways to do it “right” if it’s right for your child(ren) and your family. But that doesn’t make it easy.

I see some of these experiences with fresh eyes now that I am a mother. Like today, when my own toddler would not stop jumping off the couch! Every time there would be a jump – splat – cry. Jump. Splat. Cry. Over and over. I kept trying different methods. I should be good at this, I kept thinking. My specialty used to be toddlers! I redirected her away from the couch. Fail. I scolded her. Fail. I gave her a time out. Fail. I took her in another room. Fail. I even swatted her butt. Fail. (It was an extra fail for me because I do not like spanking as a punishment. And she just laughed at it anyway.) Finally, I just vented my frustrations on Facebook, hoping some of my parent friends had some magic beans. But all their advice were things I already knew. I guess it was validating in some ways — I do have training in early childhood development, no matter how ancient — but no less frustrating as a parent. Sometimes you just have to let them crash and cry. It’s something I would tell my employer/parents from time to time when one of their children came home from the park with a boo-boo. Sometimes kids fall and hurt themselves. It’s part of the developmental journey. But oh how much harder it is for me now that I am the mom!

Maybe there’s a lesson in this as the parent, too. Sometimes we crash and cry. It’s part of our developmental journey, too.

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