This week's New York Times Magazine includes a poignant photo essay called "Love, Money and Other People's Children" about the complications that arise when parents pay someone else to help care for — and often eventually love — their children.
Author Mona Simpson (you might recognize her name from Anywhere But Here or being Steve Jobs' sister) notes that the portraits are "beautiful and idealized. The women look at the children with love. No one looks frustrated. No one looks bored. No child is having a meltdown. They conjure the dome of tender air that encloses a mother, whose body is coursing with hormones, and a newborn." But she adds that "these moments of private contentment, with the serenity and depth borrowed from the portraiture legacy of the Madonna and child, do not depict mothers with their infants. The women holding the children are nannies. Part of what's striking about the pictures is that they position front and center a person who is often left on the editing-room floor when a family's memories are being assembled."
Around 55 percent of the mothers of the four million babies born in the U.S. every year stay in the work force, which means that they need help raising all of those children. Men seem to be able to enjoy a certain degree of what Simpson calls "transparency...about their ability to frankly work while also reveling in fatherhood" while women don't "have it all," one might say. So they hire women who often already have kids to be nannies, which results in the weirdness of paying someone to love your children:
We don't like to mix love with money. We want love to come as a gift that offers as much pleasure and reward to the giver as to ourselves. No one receiving love wishes to break it down to its component parts, of good sense and feasibility, much less to consider that payment may be necessary to inspire the whole project.
The photos are striking and feature women like Luz, 40, who has been a nanny for five years and has two sons ages 16 and 23. "I spend more time with the little girl than with my sons," she said. "I come home and cook something and ask if they want to eat dinner with me. Sometimes he is kind of joking around, but my younger son tells me: 'cut it out, you just got home to your house, don't talk about the little girl any more. Forget about your baby.'"
Another nanny, 54-year-old Shameeza, said "Moms, sometimes they feel the kid likes you more than them, but the thing is that i tell my boss, i say: you know what, remember this Don't feel threatened by me. They are your kids. At the end of the day they know who is Mom and who is Dad.' I'll do everything for her, but she knows who is her mom. So there's nothing to worry about."
My experience supports that claim. My brother and I weren't "raised" by nannies — our parents always made sure to be home for dinner and spend a lot of time with us on the weekends — but I spent so much time with my El Salvadorian nanny that I didn't pronounce my "J"s when I was first learning how to talk. I loved all of the women who took care of me growing up, but as I grow older, my memories of them continue to fade, which makes me feel slightly guilty. I also think about all of the kids I regularly babysat in college, many of whom I grew to genuinely care for. Sometimes I felt like I understood them more than their parents did. Will they remember me decades from now? It's unlikely.
Of course, not all nanny-family relationships are the same. "I attended a wedding a few years ago," Simpson recalls. "The nanny who stayed with the family for years stood next to the two parents (by then long divorced) for the marriage of the girl they had all raised."
Love, Money and Other People's Children [NYT Magazine]
Image via laschi/Shutterstock.