It’s that time of year again – I am officially an “Apple Widow,” as Frank works late most nights and into the weekend, trying to get ready for Apple’s biggest launch and keynote of the year. His job there has a lot of great perks – plenty of vacation and sick time, free outdoor concerts and summer beer bashes, fun “toys” to use on the job, etc. – but they definitely get their money’s worth out of him in August!
So I’m feeling a bit lonely, like a single mom at times, as I work full time at Stanford and still have to do all the pick-ups, cooking, shopping and chores during the evenings. I love my kids, and they’ve actually been pretty good this week, but it makes me lonely for my husband and brings to mind another time when I was separated from my love and in the company of small children.
You may remember that once, over eight years ago, I was a nanny in Dublin for three children, ages 6, 3 and 1. I committed to staying six months, but only lasted six weeks, and my time spent in their home still comes to mind more often than I’d like to admit.
When I left, I was angry, hurt and utterly humiliated.
I lived with the upper-middle class family of five in Mount Merrion and I worked from 7 am to 6 pm for 200 euro a week cash, with a 25 euro travel allowance so I could take the bus up to Drogheda on the weekends. I slept in an open loft on the top floor, all done up in beige and white, with lovely big skylights over the bed, though they were unfortunately covered with blinds so as not to fade the carpet. My days consisted of getting the three kids up, fed and dressed, the oldest off to school and the others bathed and off for a walk in their pram, to the park or kindermusik. I did the dishes and the laundry, ironed, vacuumed and mopped, cooked the meals and cleaned the kitchen afterwards. I read stories and played, put them down for naps and got them up again, dried tears and calmed tantrums. I helped with homework and playdates, and even a birthday party. The three children were lovely – they had their naughty moments like any, but they were sweet, polite and kind.
I rarely saw the father, who was polite if not a bit stiff, and worked long hours. The mother was on leave from work, hoping to do some volunteering for charity, but she really seemed to drift. She would obsess about money, and about how things looked. She had me dress the kids in crisp white outfits every day, with hair blow-dried and combed, even when we didn’t go out. She’d often just sit and watch me interact with the children, pushing them away and telling them to listen to me instead. I don’t mean to sound callous – she loved them and hugged them, but she was dealing with issues in her own life, most of which I can only imagine. She seemed fine at first, but was quick to voice her exasperation with me, then, ultimately, feel guilty and try to soothe her conscience by giving me old romance novels or discarded clothing, the tags still attached. She went out every day, to the shop, to meet friends, and I think she was a little bit proud to tell people she had an American nanny.
I really needed the job – no one would hire someone without an official work visa (yet) and we had a wedding to fund. I had walked the streets of Drogheda with my CV in hand for months, practically begging shop owners and restauranteurs to hire me, with no luck. My credentials in the USA meant nothing to the film and journalism outlets in Dublin – I was lucky to receive a rejection letter. So I jumped at the chance to work as a nanny. When Frank and I visited for the interview, I thought the Blackrock/Mount Merrion/Stillorgan/ Dundrum area was lovely and full of things to do. I was led to believe that, once my work days were done, I was on the doorstep of a wonderful community. Sadly, after 6 pm, nearly everything closed. I spent every evening walking to the park, maybe McDonald’s or an internet cafe, poking around the clearance racks of Dunnes Stores (only on Thursdays when they stayed open “late” to 7 pm!) and then home before dark. I’d let myself in to the quite, grey-lit house, make a cup of tea and take it upstairs with a bag of Maltesers. I’d sit up there on the beige carpet and wear head phones to watch TV – sometimes I could bring in Fair City or The Tudors through the fuzzy reception – and then I’d crawl under the covers and call Frank and cry. I’d silently take a shower and go to bed and dream of him until my alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. and the next day began.
In the end, I felt like I could just never please the mother. I was still getting used to the way things were done in Ireland, after all, and certain phrases or requests still threw me off. I was not used to using duvet covers instead of sheets, or cooking with a grill instead of a broiler. I made silly mistakes, and though I loved the kids, felt more at odds in my surroundings by the day. It was when we took a family vacation to Cork, however, that things really got bad. We drove down to visit the grandparents, and even at the start I knew the kids weren’t well. It wasn’t long after we arrived at the family home when the baby began to have diarrhea and vomiting with a high fever, and the 3 year-old soon followed. It was very stressful for us all – the mother and me, with the grandmother chiming in. There was extra laundry and worried faces and should we call a dr? Not to mention my phone suddenly stopped working, so I could not call or text Frank, nor did I have a working alarm to wake me in the morning. It seemed I could do nothing right that week – if I fed the children, I was scolded for making them sick. If I didn’t feed them, I was scolded for starving them. When the grandmother asked me to cook a steak on the grill, I obliged and she continuously came up behind me and shut the door to the grill or adjusted the heat, so soon the kitchen was filled with smoke and the steak burnt. We were all very much on edge. I was in the downstairs bathroom, though, when I heard the mother and grandmother upstairs, talking about me. I heard the mother saying that I was a terrible, stupid, lazy nanny, and she didn’t know what to do with me. After overhearing this, I had a very hard time keeping it together, but shortly thereafter was sweetly dropped at the bus station in Cork and told I was allowed to go home to Frank for the duration of the trip. The bus from Cork to Drogheda takes about 7 hours, and though the countryside was stunning, I cried the whole way.
When I got home, Frank and I decided I should quit. I did not want to leave the family in a lurch, but I couldn’t imagine staying where I was not wanted, where I was talked about in such a manner. When I returned the next week, the mother tried to act as though everything was OK. I tried to get up the courage to tell her all week and finally, on Friday, I told her it was not working out. The color drained from her face and then her eyes flashed with rage as she asked me why, and was it her? I had to answer honestly, and I said yes. I told her I did not think I was a good fit, that I was not completing my duties to her satisfaction, but that I would stay as long as she needed to help find a replacement. She was not having any of it. She accused me of creating instability in her children’s lives, of being ungrateful and uncaring, even dishonest by keeping the money she had paid me for a bank holiday. She told me to pack my things and leave, not to come back, and that I was not allowed to tell the children goodbye. She left the room in a fury and I stood there, crying again, as I watched the three children playing happily in the sunshine in the back garden.
The father came home and stood there silently, a bit dumbfounded.”We thought you were so good with the kids,” he said, finally. “Why?” I burst into tears and said I was not making his wife happy, and that after the week of seeing the children sick and knowing they had suffered the loss of a child before, I couldn’t bear the pressure of doing anything wrong. He thought about that for a moment and said something like, “Ah, children are tough, you know? They bounce back, sure, you see them?” gesturing outside. I nodded. But we both knew it was over. I was gone. I left my keys and a portion of my pay on the table, so I wouldn’t be accused of stealing. I took my bags and turned and did not look back. I went all the way back to Drogheda, into Frank’s arms, and the comforting presence of friends and family who told me I was better off.
But here I am, eight years later, and still thinking about it.
And now, I am a mom. And I’ve had a lot of tough times with my kids – times I have not been the parent I always thought I would be. I have screamed. I have been distant. I have wished I had never had kids at all. Through moving, money woes, unemployment, sickness, despair, crises of faith, home invasions, fear, and understanding the basic principles for being a family, I have been tested and tested and tested again. As one friend said in a meme recently, “The older I get, the more I understand Britney’s 2007 meltdown.”
I have also had to hire babysitters, nannies too, since moving to the USA. And to be honest, we’ve had maybe 3? good ones out of a dozen. There are a lot of shockingly well-recommended young women out there posing as childcare workers who should not be trusted with so much as the family fish. True! But the whole inviting someone into your home and giving them permission to become close to your kids, especially as a mom (much less a vulnerable, hurting mom), is really really strange. It feels foreign and wrong, and yet we must do it. It’s heartbreaking and extremely guilt-inducing but needed, and, ultimately, good – when done right.
Sometimes I walk back to that house in Dublin, in my mind. I can still see the gate, the door, the rooms, the stairs to the attic. I still remember the names of all the Thomas the Tank engines and the words to High School Musical songs. I think of the baby’s soft pink doll, and how we’d sing “Miss Polly Had a Dolly” to her. Once, I even looked to see if the oldest daughter was on Facebook – she would be around 14 now. She was, beautiful and tall with serious, sad eyes, just like she had as a child. I gasped when I first saw her because she is the image of her mother – proud, slender, determined looking.
So why do I still care? Am I just a stalker? No. I have moved on with my life, I promise. But I still care because it still makes me sad. I hate feeling like I let those children down. I hate breaking things, tearing holes or causing voids. I am sure the kids do not remember me at all, and I’m sure they went on to have many great nannies after me. But these days, I also feel sad for the mother, and for whatever was going on in her heart during that time. I think I made the right decision to leave, but I wish I had not taken it all so personally. I wish I had been more empathetic. Life, motherhood, loss, it’s all hard. I think we all wake up at times and realize we’re not where we want to be, or who we want to be. We all want to be loved and listened to, but we have to be strong, or put on the pretense of being strong.
I will never know what that family was going through, or what they’re facing now. But I guess part of me still just wants them to know I think of them, and that I hope they are all right, and I do not hold any ill will towards them. I want the mother to know I am a mother now, too, and I feel like I do not have room to judge any one. And I wish, just once, I could hug those kids goodbye and tell them they are beautiful, and smart, and kind, and valued and will never be forgotten.
But since I can’t… what I can do is tell my own kids these things. And, hopefully, I will use my own experience as The Nanny to treat our child carers with the kindness and respect they deserve.