A Nanny's Limits, A Nanny's Love
I watch the nannies in the playground, on the sidewalk, pushing strollers through museums on humid New York City afternoons. I listen to them talk to their charges.
No climbing up there! It’s dangerous!
You have to hold my hand at all times, are you listening?
I’m listening and I remember. I remember the limited choices I had when I was nurturing someone else’s young. I remember, too, that the pressures weighing on me were different from those that weigh on me now as a mother.
I had a young charge who broke an arm once jumping off the couch with his father. I didn’t know what to make of this. Should his parents have been more insistent that he not jump from high places? Could they have stopped him? What if it had happened on my watch?
One summer, I was minding a timid girl whose mother was waiting for a little sister to be born any day. Any day. As her mother passed the forty week mark, she grew listless and distracted, only vaguely noting the events of her daughter’s day as I ticked them off.
In late August, my charge wanted a last run through the sprinklers at Dinosaur Playground. We were sticky with sweat. I granted permission and off she ran through the water. And down she went on the pavement.
A rapidly reddening egg of flesh swelled above her brow. Adrenaline coursed through my veins and pinpricks of panic tickled my armpits. I picked her up and held her close. I heard the cooing and clucking of the other nannies, like static background noise in a horror movie. I wondered if they were judging or sympathizing with me. I felt guilt and panic. Her tears were terrifying.
I applied a wet towel to her forehead and gently placed her in her stroller. I sprinted fifteen blocks up Riverside Drive. At last I arrived limp and drenched in the lobby of their building. I was no doubt ashen with anxiety.
We entered the apartment and found her mother sitting in a rocking chair. The lights were off. She stared a bit vacantly but asked how our day was. Her daughter rushed into her arms as I explained what had happened. She told me to get an ice pack . She applied it to her daughter’s head while they rocked.
And there it was: mother and child. They might have been a portrait painted by Mary Cassat. The little girl closed her eyes and nestled into her mother’s arms. All was quiet. Then her mother spoke.
I’m in labor. She said it quietly. She didn’t want to frighten her child, and she was trying to relax through the pain.
I need to leave soon. Could you stay here over night, make dinner, and put her to bed?
It had to be today? I thought. We’ve waited weeks, and it had to be today? I couldn’t imagine trying to remove that toddler from her mother’s lap.Still, I felt a flicker of gratitude toward her mother. She still trusted me. She knew the accident could have happened just as easily on her watch. She also didn’t think it required medical attention. I exhaled.
I put the mother in a taxi bound for RooseveltHospital. I had expected my little charge to wail piteously, but she didn’t. Instead she was disturbingly unexpressive. We took the elevator to her apartment and I noted that at least the swelling had slowed and the bleeding had stopped.
We made macaroni. We watched Superman on TV. She loved the baby from another planet who could lift a car. I eased her into the bath and she let me apply another cold compress to her wound. We stayed up and waited together for the phone to ring.
And there it was: nanny and child. It’s a special relationship. We make our way through the day, finding adventure, adhering to routines, struggling against the heat of August and the freezing wind of January, finding moments of fun and joy, surviving scary tumbles on the playground. We bond over waiting for Mommy to come home. We are bound together in a kind of ship, riding the high seas of early childhood together.
My own child is a climber. She is a jumper and a don’t help me! sort of kid. I know her rhythms in a way that only a parent can and my reflexes, already sharpened from years of tending children, are even more finely tuned to the frequency of my own child. I can sense the moment she is about to veer too close to the street and I know when her knees are about to buckle from running too fast.
But I have a choice: I can loosen my grip because she is my child. I can make a decision that she can fall so that she may learn that falling is not the end of the world. I can also choose to sweep her up when I think she is close to real peril.
True story: I once let my toddler lick a puddle in Central Park. I even took a photo. I was enthralled by her lack of inhibition. These are things that parents may marvel at but can cost a nanny her job. My older sister, who has six kids and always tells me never to sweat anything, was appalled by my photo and told me that stagnant pools of water are a definite no-no. Oops.
A nanny ‘s first priority must always be safety. It isn’t fair to ask a nanny to release her grip or hover less at the playground. It is not her child. She has a job to do and although it is related to parenting, it is not parenting.
On the playground, I look and listen and remember. I silently commune. We nannies have our own love languages with our charges. We offer a different kind of relationship. We teach them that there are other loves besides the all-encompassing one a child feels for her mother. That’s a comforting lesson. We have our own worlds with our charges that don’t threaten the sanctity of the mother/child dyad but enrich a child’s world. The restrictions we need place on our charges force us to be creative in our discipline, to make it a game, to joke around, to find a voice that communicates goodwill without compromising our authority.
Mothers want their children to fall sometimes, but a nanny must be cautious. She doesn’t know how bad the fall might be. A mother can weigh the benefit of helping her child learn to cope with gravity against the risk of injury and decide whether to hold on or let go. It’s her child.
The other night my daughter asked to run barefoot through a heavy rainstorm in our pajamas. Sure, I said, why not? I was admonished by three passersby as we jumped barefoot in puddles on our city sidewalk while thunder rumbled overhead.
Had I been her nanny, my daughter would have been indoors. I almost wished I were her nanny that night, because I was cold and wet. I thanked them for their advice. As a mother, however, I was grateful that I could ignore their disapproval.