I can confidently say that out of all the twenty-something women I know in New York, it’s a sad few of us who have not done a stint as a nanny before moving on to bigger and better things.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to find a job these days. We come to New York armed with a BA in something unemployable (in my case Art History) and a couple hundred dollars in the bank and are shocked when the world offers us part-time jobs with no benefits. But, as I did, we take those jobs, thinking to ourselves “Okay, this is going to work somehow. I will not starve.” And then, popping up like some romantic comedy in which the heroine (in my case, I imagine a bright-eyed American version of Audrey Tatou) is overqualified yet underemployed, is a babysitting job. Maybe it’s part-time. Maybe it’s temporary. But, it always pays better than your other job, and it’s always in cash (LOL IRS, can’t take these bills).
You just can’t turn your back on the cash.
My first nanny job in New York was temporary. Thank God. I picked up an 11-year old girl from her swanky private school in Brooklyn Heights and took her home to oversee her homework for four hours. Honestly, four hours. This barely anything job ensured me an extra three hundred dollars every week. All my hungry little eyeballs could see were dollar signs, expensive cheeses and impractical shoes. I would be rich!
Enter Ming. Ming was adopted by two parents who worked in the media. Now divorced, Ming primarily lived in a brownstone with her Newsweek writer mother and soon-to-be step-father. Her father, a commentator for a certain conservative news network, lived down the street in his bachelor pad. She hated going there. On Thursdays her father would call her around 6:30, trying to entice her to walk the four blocks to his house. She would wrinkle her nose and ask, “What’s for dinner? Oh, well. I’ll come when I’m ready,” then proceed to kill me for another hour or so by refusing to go.
When I first met her mother, she confided in me that while they didn’t officially share custody, they had a “modern agreement”. I had no idea what she meant. I also didn’t really care.
Ming’s dad is the kind of man who probably tickles kids when they’re too old for it and makes everyone feel weird. When I dropped her off, she would grudgingly cross the threshold of his apartment and he would chat me up. He would ask me about my hopes and dreams and then shit all over them.
“Archives? Rare books? What the hell kind of future is that? What you need to do is forget about that and get a job with Google. The real money is in Google.”
From the day I met Ming, I knew something was different about her. She seemed to not have many friends, she never had play dates, and always wanted to immediately go home. As a shy adolescent myself, I assumed she was bullied or kind of a nerd. Soon, I realized she just didn’t like other kids. Ming had the personality of a 50-year old single woman. We would rush home after school, where she would do her homework immediately and with pleasure. She would often ask me intensely personal questions, and was very concerned with money.
“What size bed do you have? Do you and your roommates share groceries? Maybe you should. How much do you spend a week on groceries? How much is your rent? Are there black people in your neighborhood? Is it dangerous? How much did you first car cost?”
Spending time with Ming was like spending time with a grouchy aunt that insisted on holding my hand on the subway. She was sheltered, pretty racist and nosy in the least childlike way possible. My roommate, who later became Ming’s nanny, felt confident that Ming landed somewhere on the autism spectrum.
I worked with Ming for a month while her permanent babysitter was soul searching in India. She begged me to stay on, insisting that she liked me better than Natalie and would convince her mother to keep me and fire the soul searcher. This shocked me because I had never felt much affection from her, then I remembered who I was dealing with. As promised, Ming’s mother gave Natalie her job back at the end of the month and I moved on to a new family.
I met 9 year-old Issak and his parents in November. I had heard that he was difficult from the co-worker who set me up with the job, and was worried about how I would handle it. For the first few weeks, Issak was polite and distant with me, and I treated him the same. Maybe a month into the job, shit got real when he threw his first of many temper tantrums. As an only child, Issak usually got what he wanted. It was clear to him that he was the center of his parents’ universe and when he behaved poorly, he usually got his way. His parents reacted by creating strict rules, then repealing them immediately for whatever reason they could think of. Oh, you were good today? I guess you can play an hour of video games. It was very clear who was boss.
On the day of reckoning, we were in the sad cement lot that city schools call a “playground” where he usually played soccer with his friends before we went home to do homework. I can’t even remember what happened to make him angry, but it resulted in him throwing his backpack at my feet and stomping off, yelling at me. My first instinct was to yell back, but I knew I had to come up with a carefully planned retort.
I thought back to what my mom did to keep me in line.
It was a healthy dose of shame on you.
When it came time to leave, I pulled on my Denise Rheaume Kwasnik face and pulled him aside saying, “We need to talk about what happened here.”
“Am I mean to you? Am I disrespectful to you? No, you’re right, I’m not. When you act like that, it’s totally inappropriate. However you act with your mom or dad, you can’t do that with me. “ All of this basically meaning, I don’t love you, if you act like this, things will only get worse for you.
Since then things have been pretty good.
Being a babysitter straddles a fine line between family member and non-family member. Issak won’t share the name of his beloved blankie with me, or acknowledge it’s existence, but has no problem telling me when he has to poop or yelling to me from the bathroom when he is wiping. Good lord, it is very uncomfortable for me.
However, I am thankful that he can do those things on his own. Last summer in Carroll Park I witnessed a little girl poop in her teeny bikini bottoms while telling her nanny, “I’m pooping. Now. I pooped.”
Her nanny sighed as deeply as one can imagine and said, “Oh, Caitlin. Alright. Let’s go,” and the two waddled off into the distance.
The thought of cleaning out a turd filled, teensy weensy pink bikini bottom is so horrifying to me, it makes me rethink becoming a parent someday. Maybe not. I don’t know. Whatever.
Aside from Issak’s brush with pinworms (don’t Google that) and his need to spend at least 45 minutes in the bathroom before starting his homework, I haven’t had to deal with a whole lot of bodily functions that do not belong to me. And that works well for me.
However, my time came when Issak’s mom asked me if I was free to watch her two nephews at a rental apartment while her sister and brother-in-law were in town. Sure, I said. No problem.
Meet Henry, age 3 and “the baby”, 18 months. I call him “the baby” because while I was there, no one told me his name or referred to him as anything other than “the baby”. I was instructed that the adults would only be gone for a few hours, and that the baby would freak the fuck out when they left and that was okay.
“Just give him some yogurt and put him to bed.” His mother explained, “And Henry is kind of in between diapers and the potty so if he asks you to change him, you can, but don’t worry about it, and he can stay awake until we come back.”
I don’t have children of my own, but my thoughts are that if a child can ask me to change his diaper, I don’t really want to do that. That kid should probably be able to use a real live toilet if he has the verbal capacity to hold a conversation with me while I am elbow deep in his latest BM. Maybe not, but I don’t know and I’m not into it.
This is how it begins. Mom and Dad leave, “the baby” starts to freak the fuck out right on schedule, his tiny face red and streaked with tears, while Henry sits an inch from the television watching a bizarrely animated show about a chick and a duck or something. After I feed “the baby” some yogurt and put him screaming into bed, something that feels akin to child neglect but have been told it’s standard procedure, I sit on the futon several feet behind Henry and settle in for a long couple of hours.
Around 8:30, Henry ceremoniously stands up from his chair and looks at me.
“You know, it’s okay if I poop in my diaper.”
I shrug, “Okay. Do you have to poop?” Thinking that maybe I should encourage him to give the potty the old college try.
“No,” he says incredulously. His tone makes him sound like a college professor, disgusted by a comment I have made about Tintoretto. What 3-year old sounds like this? “It’s just that it’s okay.”
“Okay, Henry.” I say encouragingly. I want him to know that he doesn’t need to convince me, that I want to change his diaper even less than he wants me to.
Henry daintily walks behind the futon, his little hands behind his back, his feet taking slow, small strides until he is just inches behind me. His doughy hands grasp the futon cushion behind my head and I can feel his cheerio breath on the back of my neck.
“At home,” he begins “I have a spot where I like to go and poop.”
“Oh yeah?” I respond in the same way I would to a pervert on the B38 bus, polite but disinterested. A please-stop-talking-to-me response while also implying a I’m-sweet-don’t-stab-me clause.
“I like to go behind the stairs. It’s quiet.” I can hear him squirming, struggling to keep up the illusion of casual conversation while pooping one’s pants. I can’t quite identify. Part of me wants to laugh. Part of me is horrified that a small person is actually, actively pooping less than 6 inches away from me. I feel this way most days, even without poop involved.
When did this become my life? In college, while I researched Hindu art and argued the merit of Manet’s work, did I have any foresight of what I would be doing three years later? Talking a toddler down from a pooping spree?
“Is this a good spot?” I ask him, somewhat curious as to what he’ll say. Perhaps he’d already scouted out this spot days ago.
“No, I’m just standing here.” He’s defensive. Little does he know I care not what he does in his diaper behind the futon. Henry finishes up his work and leaves his station behind me, returning to his chick and duck.
He looks back at me one more time, and I notice he is careful not to sit, he kneels on the ground to watch his show.
“I have a train.” He assures me.
“That’s great.” I assure him right back, and with that we’re back to being strangers.
Henry soon passes out and begins to breathe heavily, sleepily on the carpet. I turn off duck and chick and settle into the book I’ve been wanting to get back to. When the parents return a half hour later, I wonder if I should tell them what went on. If I should warn them about what they’ll find in Henry’s diaper.
When his mother asks how it went, I stop myself from recounting specifics and say, “It was good. They were very sweet.”
Out of respect for my sneaky little friend who adamantly insisted he was not a pooper, I decide to keep his secret. It’s like when I assure my roommates that I’m sober enough to get home by myself, and then I vomit behind a dumpster once I’m out of sight. Sometimes our lies need to be believed.
I’m sure nothing surprises her. I’m sure she is always finding treats around the house, inside clothing, behind staircases. Or at least, I hope so.