I have become my nanny’s nanny.
I had a baby a few months ago and, it turns out, having a newborn is as exhausting as everyone says it is. Newborns live on three hour cycles—feed, change diaper, soothe, and nap. Doing this every three hours for twenty-four hours a day is nearly impossible, and even more so if you plan to get any kind of work done, and I needed to get work done.
So I went on the hunt for a nanny. I let the first one go within forty-eight hours for coming to work with a cold and sneezing in the vicinity of my daughter. I asked another one to leave halfway through her trial day because when I asked for her references, she said she had really only helped with her sister’s son and her sister didn’t want to be a reference.
And then I found a dream nanny who used to run a daycare for newborns and wanted to work the same hours I needed and is friendly and pleasant and a nice personality to have around the house—I work from home and need someone who both the baby and I get along with. She was the one. The perfect nanny.
But it seems, much like being a nanny, having a nanny is also a learned skill and one that I lack. I find it impossible to hand my daughter over to her and so now my nanny often spends her day on our couch reading my magazines and replying to emails and working on her phone while I play with my daughter. I have become the nanny. I hope my nanny is getting some good writing done.
And here’s my concern: it isn’t just me who sees me as the nanny.
I am Indian: my skin is brown. My husband is a New Zealander: his skin is white. Our daughter’s skin is a beautiful blend of the two, but, as yet untouched by sun or nature, still leans more towards white than brown. Our nanny is Caucasian American: her skin is white.
We live in a predominantly white neighborhood in Brooklyn where most of the mothers are white and the nannies are mostly darker skinned. The nannies, with the light-skinned babies in fancy strollers, all convene in McCarren Park on weekday afternoons. On weekend mornings, the same babies are out and about with their mothers, who are in their yoga clothes, clutching cups of coffee. And every so often you have the mothers and the babies and the nannies all out together. You see them at Tribeca Pediatrics—the mother holding a baby and scheduling the next appointment, the nanny waiting patiently, holding the car seat and diaper bag. We assume the white woman is the mother and the woman of color is the caretaker. We pretend not to assume that, of course, but we do. Most recently we all assumed it with the Korean wife of the professor on the BBC—but we very quickly read that it was the wife and then pretended to be outraged that others had assumed it was the nanny.
And then we all quickly had to add that, of course, there’s nothing wrong with being mistaken for the nanny. And there isn’t, but I still don’t want to be mistaken for my daughter’s nanny because I want the world to know she’s my daughter. I spent nine months growing her and one very painful night bringing her into the world and I want to lay claim.
When people think you’re the nanny, they develop a sudden condescendingly polite way of speaking to you. They tend to slow down their words and think maybe you don’t speak English fluently and then you are tasked with the awkward attempt to clarify that you are not, in fact, the nanny. But you have to do it without letting on that you think they think you’re the nanny because they haven’t explicitly said they do. It’s a delicate dance.
You work it in that you’re the mother and the other mother quickly mutters that of course, she knew that. But her words now become a bit faster and she settles in comfortably, letting go off the burden and guilt and charade of pretending to be in the same class and settling into the comfort of actually feeling you’re in the same class. And I say, also with guilt, “Of course there’s nothing wrong with being the nanny,” and she says, “No, of course not. I don’t know what I’d do without my nanny. She’s so wonderful. The kids love her,” and I’ll agree and say, “Absolutely. My nanny saves my life,” and then we can both raise our sparkling wine and say cheers to our nannies, those women who allow us to sit here drinking wine as the sun sets over Brooklyn.
And the truth is, my nanny does save my life. She does allow me to breathe a bit more calmly and my daughter does love her and I really don’t know what I’d do without her. But this isn’t about the nanny. This is about the fact that white women will never have to clarify that they aren’t the nanny. When other mothers see my nanny out with my daughter they won’t change the way they speak or respond. When other mothers see me and my nanny out together with my daughter, they won’t be sure how to respond or how to speak because their instinct will say I’m the nanny but their reading and social media browsing will tell them it’s not politically correct to make that assumption.
Maybe some really won’t make that assumption but I’ll assume they will because I won’t give them the benefit of the doubt because we still live in a world in which we are in a racial stalemate when it comes to these small social interactions.
Things will be different for my daughter. She looks neither Caucasian nor Indian and she also looks both Caucasian and Indian. When she is asked where she is from, she will say she’s half Indian, half New Zealander and was born in New York. New York will be her explanation.
But for now, I’m still playing the role of nanny. I am still rushing through work commitments and turning down social invitations because I don’t like the thought of someone else taking care of my daughter and my daughter looking up at someone else with those big eyes of hers—eyes we can’t quite determine the color of as yet, eyes that haven’t yet picked between my husband’s blue and my brown. So while I’m still not sure who the nanny is, it’s still annoying that other people aren’t, either.
Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz.