Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for, and the Children They Loveby Tasha Blaine
When she was in her early thirties, Tasha Blaine briefly became a nanny. She expected an easy, nine-to-five stint, but instead she discovered the vast, varied, and fascinating world of nannies. Often overlooked and invisible, these women have a tremendous impact on the families that hire them.
To tell the true story of this largely unknown world of career nannies
When she was in her early thirties, Tasha Blaine briefly became a nanny. She expected an easy, nine-to-five stint, but instead she discovered the vast, varied, and fascinating world of nannies. Often overlooked and invisible, these women have a tremendous impact on the families that hire them.
To tell the true story of this largely unknown world of career nannies, Blaine immersed herself in the lives of three women. We meet Claudia, who left the Caribbean to become a nanny in New York and is struggling to support her own child she left behind. We get to know Vivian, a young, white, college-educated woman from Boston, who wins a Nanny of the Year award even as she absorbs the painful truth that her role in the family is shrinking as her charges grow up. And we witness the struggles of Kim, a dedicated Texas nanny who dreams of having her own family as she moves in with a couple expecting their first baby. Just Like Family exposes the fears and fantasies we have about nannies and takes us deep inside the real world of women whose job it is to care for someone else’s children as their own.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
CLAUDIA WILLIAMS had a superpower she only used under special circumstances. She could make herself invisible. When her employers bickered or there was tension in the apartment, Claudia retreated to the corners of the living room and silently flipped through a magazine. Bowing her head in the kitchen, she swept the floor, the bristles of the broom touching the tile in a soft, hypnotic swoosh. She pulled glasses and plates out of the dishwasher and placed them in the cabinets above her head so smoothly they didn’t even clink. When James and Betsy Hall argued, forgetting Claudia was even in the room, she waited out the storm until it was safe to be seen again.
This was one of the qualities that made Claudia a good nanny. She did not get in the way. Claudia shepherded Jackson, the Halls’ eight-year-old son, around the neighborhood, along with Lucy, their three-year-old daughter, but she did not try to lead the family pack. Her job included a number of important and essential taskspicking the children up from classes, arranging play dates, folding laundrybut there were few complicated decisions to make, and she did not weigh in on issues like schools or extracurricular activities or potential problems with the kids. If asked, Claudia would have offered her opinion. But she was never asked.
Every morning, Claudia entered the building on West Thirteenth Street, rode the elevator up, and opened the front door of apartment 6F. She could immediately sense whether Betsy wanted to chat or be left alone; whether James was looking to play with the children or wanted them out of his hair. Rarely did Claudia have a discussion about the children’s development or behavior, even if she was worried about something. She simply felt her way through the changes, taking stock of the vibe in the apartment and acting accordingly.
This kind of familiarity took time to develop. Every family was different, and each time Claudia or her friends started a new job, there was another set of family rules to adapt to. There were mothers who expected a perfectly neat house when they walked in the doortoys put away, dishes washed and in the cabinetsand then there were mothers who eyed their living rooms suspiciously if books and blocks and trains weren’t scattered around, tensing up at the thought that their nanny might not have been playing with their child that day. Some mothers wanted their children bathed while others were territorial about the task. Some mothers gave instructions about food and naps and outfits to be worn while others expected their nannies to take the initiative. Claudia was way past the breaking-in stage with the Halls, and if she was ever frustrated at work, she talked herself out of it. She could not leave this family and start all over again with another. It was just too hard.
A forty-year-old native of the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, Claudia had spent most of the past nineteen years working as a nanny in the New York City area. After she got pregnant for the second time, Claudia married the love of her life, Cap Williams, a man she first met as a teenager and with whom she reunited years later in Brooklyn. Together they raised their now twelve-year-old daughter, Tanisha, Cap working in construction until he got injured and went on disability, Claudia caring for other people’s children in their homes. Of all the families she’d worked for, Claudia had been with the Halls the longest: eight straight years, with no big blowups and relatively little drama.
Originally, Claudia’s closest friend and Cap’s cousin, Royette, had worked for the Halls. Six months into the job, Royette, who was undocumented, risked taking a trip home to Curaçao. Once out of the country, Royette wasn’t allowed back in. In an effort to keep her job, Royette asked Claudia to fill in for her until she figured out a way to return to New York. When Royette finally did come back, Betsy and James decided they were more comfortable with Claudia and asked her to stay on instead.
Claudia had been put in a difficult position, and there was tension between her and Royette for a time, but that was all in the past now. The women were as close as ever, and so were their daughters. Claudia had never had a formal interview with the Halls. Instead, nanny and family fell in with each other, got into a rhythm, and dealt with issues as they came up, often communicating without using words. Things were understood if not spelled out.
By now Claudia knew every inch of the Halls’ apartment, from the insides of the closets to the scratches on the walls. She knew where the sunlight would hit at a particular time of day. She had spent endless hours picking up toys, entertaining play dates, negotiating TV time, and answering phone calls from Betsy, who checked in from the office, and Tanisha, who checked in when she got home from school. She had cooked meals and made beds. The seasons passed, and Claudia watched new things appear around the apartment: a retro dining room table and chairs James bought on eBay; new light fixtures. One year, the Halls’ kitchen renovations forced Claudia to commute to Connecticut for six weeks while the family camped out with Betsy’s parents.
The apartment was large, especially by Manhattan standards, and carefully decorated. Framed family photos lined the walls, along with a few oversized pieces of art, colorful abstracts that Claudia dismissed as something Lucy could have thrown on canvas herself. An open kitchen with soapstone countertops, sleek wood cabinets, and a Sub-Zero refrigerator led into a living room full of modern furniture, all covered with the debris of a busy family. The New York Times and random drawings from the children covered the shiny rosewood table. Toys were spread out on the rug. Piles of books, collected by Claudia throughout the apartment, were stacked around the room. The state of the house reflected a tension Claudia witnessed every day. James was a neat freak who took pride in his furniture purchases, while Betsy gave the place over to the children, too busy to fight a losing battle.
Claudia knew the Hall family as well as she knew her own. She knew Betsy hated making beds, organizing closets, or pretty much any domestic chore, while James craved order. Their fights were often about minor things like cluttered drawers and socks found on countertops. Lucy was an extrovert, the family drama queen, butting heads with her father more and more as she got older. Claudia beamed with pride when she described Lucy’s independent spirit. “She can take care of her own self,” Claudia said. “I don’t have to worry about her.”
Jackson had a special place in her heart because he was the first. She knew he was more introverted than his sister and sometimes preferred reading a good book to socializing, just like Claudia herself. “Jackson reads like a plane,” Claudia described, buzzing her hand through the air to show how fast the boy tore through books.
She did not speak with the same certainty when she described her own child. She worried about her daughter constantly, from her health to her academic performance to her developing body and her tendency to be rude. Tanisha was a sarcastic and quick twelve-year-old girl. Claudia worked hard to give her daughter all the things she didn’t have growing up in a family of ten children. When her daughter begged for new clothes and shoes, Claudia worried Tanisha’s sense of entitlement was too strong. And when she grew sullen or angry, Claudia was consumed with guilt, positive her daughter was reacting to the now rocky state of Claudia’s marriage to Cap, who had moved back to Dominica six months earlier.
With Cap gone, Claudia tried to be even more vigilant. Tanisha had watched her parents’ marriage crumble but she still retained an air of innocence, a fearlessness, a bold belief that the world would mold for her, giving her whatever she wanted. She called Claudia at work several times a day to complain that her chest hurt from her asthma or to tease her mother or just tell her a story about her day at school. Claudia picked up the phone every time her daughter’s low, insistent voice came through the Halls’ answering machine: “Mommy. Mommy. Pick up the phone. Pick up the phone.” There was a click and the two connected.
Teachers warned Claudia at parent-teacher conferences that Tanisha was smart but did not apply herself if she wasn’t interested. She used her intelligence to skate through school, studying at the last minute, passing tests other children would have failed. She was charmed. Claudia knew her daughter’s lucky streak wouldn’t last, and the thought that life would eventually hurt Tanisha worried Claudia to the point of distraction. She wished for a daughter who focused on school, a daughter who planned for a stable career. But Tanisha didn’t like sitting still. She wanted to dance.
“Tanisha, you have to think about schoolwork,” Claudia had told her daughter. “Dancing isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
“Mommy, why are you trying to break my self-esteem? You know I love to dance,” Tanisha had answered with a twinkle in her eye.
“You have got to go to college, Tanisha,” Claudia said sternly. “Even if I die, I will come back and haunt you until you go to college.”
Monday was Claudia’s toughest day of the week. After two days of cleaning her own apartment and taking care of Tanisha, she arrived at work to begin the cycle of domestic duties all over again. This new week had barely begun and she already wished it was over. Claudia had woken earlier than usual to go to Tanisha’s school in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Tanisha had suffered from asthma since she was a young child, and on September 4, just before the new school year began, she had one of her more serious attacks. She was hospitalized for several days. When she failed to show up at Thomas Jefferson Middle School at the start of the new term, the administration assumed Tanisha was no longer a student. Claudia spent the whole morning at the school trying to get Tanisha enrolled again.
A forty-five-minute subway ride later, Claudia hurried along the Q train platform at Union Square and climbed the subway steps into the bright September sun. Claudia held her head high as she made her way to Lucy’s preschool, lost in her own thoughts. Tanisha was taking up her usual space on her mother’s list of worries.
For months now, Claudia had been considering a divorce from her husband, but she didn’t have the courage. She had known Cap since she was sixteen, and even after many ups and downs, even after she had agreed six months ago that he should move back to Dominica and use their savings to build the family a house on his father’s land, even after hearing rumors of his running around on her, she could not leave him for good. Sometimes anger ripped through her so strongly that she vowed to turn him away the next time he flew to Brooklyn to visit them, pretending he was faithful. But then she looked at her daughter: Tanisha needed her father, especially now.
“They are two peas in a pod,” she explained, weaving her fingers together to show how tight they were. “How can I split them up?” Tanisha worshiped her father, laughed at his jokes, danced with him when he came home, looked to him for guidance. Claudia watched them together and could not bear the thought of breaking their bond.
Tanisha was far more physically developed than the other girls at Thomas Jefferson, and Claudia had relied on Cap to keep their daughter away from boys. As Tanisha stood before her at the end of the last school year, her hair still in pigtails secured with gumball rubber bands but her body showing the curves of a woman, Claudia was immediately paralyzed with fear. What if someone hurt Tanisha, or even worse, raped her, when Claudia wasn’t there to protect her? It was her worst nightmare. Tanisha had the mind of a girl still untouched by tragedy. She had a round face, chubby apple cheeks, and wide, dark eyes she liked to flutter when she gave her mother grief. If she could have, Claudia would have locked her daughter up until she was eighteen.
“Thank God I got Daddy’s body and not yours,” Tanisha had taunted her mother over the past weekend. “I have a nice butt!”
“Tanisha, you have to think above your navel,” Claudia responded, tapping her daughter’s temple with one finger. “There’s nothing important going on back there.”
Claudia paid no mind to the beautiful fall weather or the men who threw glances at her or the group of teenage boys who should have been in class but instead stood in a pack on the sidewalk, laughing. She was dressed in typical work clothes: a gray turtleneck and a pair of jeans. Her hair had a slight purple tint and was wrapped in small twists close to her head. Simple, wire-rimmed glasses rested on her face, partly covering the same apple cheeks her daughter had.
When people told Claudia she did not look her age, she giggled and exclaimed, “I know!” At forty years old, she had a straight, athletic figure, with long legs and a short waist. Although she gravitated toward muted, solid colors, she dressed with a flair that kept her looking young and stylish: a newsboy cap or a pair of gold hoops, a new hairstyle if she had the money that week, or airbrushed fingernails. Claudia appreciated quality, but she couldn’t always afford it. If it were up to her, she would have owned a completely different wardrobe and a whole different set of shoes. She’d buy at Nine West instead of Parade of Shoes, Macy’s instead of Lerner.
Claudia made a left turn on Twelfth Street and the sidewalk fell into shadow. Scaffolding stood above Lucy’s school, blocking out the sun, giving the air a slightly damp and dirty feel. Inside, Little Acorns was all noise and bright color. Drawings plastered the walls. Parents and nannies sat in random corners or stood chatting with arms folded. Strollers, mostly expensive Bugaboos and Maclarens, blocked the hallway. Claudia nodded to the women she knew but kept to herself today.
Lucy spotted Claudia from across her classroom and lit up with a smile as she skipped over to her nanny. She climbed into Claudia’s lap as the other children, along with the rest of the nannies and a small handful of mothers, sang the goodbye song. “Goodbye to Ella, Goodbye to Clementine, Goodbye to Charlie, Goodbye to Owen.”
Outside again, Lucy and Claudia made an intimate team of two, strolling down the street hand in hand, matching their strides. They were striking as they made their way home through the quiet, tree-lined West Village streets, a grown woman with dark skin, a pale little girl in tow. Their colors didn’t match, but they walked at the same pace, chatting, holding hands, and falling into natural silences. They belonged to each other.
“I have something for you, Lucinda,” Claudia said as she headed north on Eighth Avenue. Her Caribbean accent added a sweet melody to her words, her voice rising and falling with affection.
“A snack?” guessed Lucy, holding out her hand for a cracker.
Five minutes later, while Claudia browsed the aisles of the local drugstore with a circular of specials in hand, the friendly spell broke when Lucy decided she could not live without a lollipop. And the whining began. Lucy dragged her feet and let her red coat fall slightly off her shoulders. She pulled along behind Claudia, who ignored the child and scanned the shelves instead.
“Claudia, can I have a lollipop?” Lucy asked. “Claudia, I want a lollipop. Claudia, can I have a lollipop? Claudia, I need a lollipop!”
At only three feet tall, Lucy was already her own person. Blond and blue-eyed, she was as delicate as Tinker Bell and flitted around just as much. Her moods shifted in seconds, and Claudia couldn’t help but laugh when Lucy put her hands on her hips like a little woman and made demands. In the space of an hour, Lucy could be loving and sweet, whining and tiresome, sad and crying, and happy and bouncy all over again. Claudia usually responded with a flat, even tone, doing her best to ignore Lucy’s moods, but sometimes relenting in exchange for a few minutes of peace.
Silently, Claudia made her way to the front of the store, where Lucy threw herself into full gear, panicked that they were so close to leaving the store without her candy. She begged and whined relentlessly. Finally, Claudia glanced down at the child and sighed. She did not have the energy to fight today.
“You’re going to have to eat your lunch first if you want a lollipop,” Claudia said halfheartedly.
Lucy already had the candy unwrapped by the time she and Claudia reached the Halls’ building. She rolled it happily around in her mouth, her tongue growing red. It would be a challenge to get the child to eat lunch now, Claudia thought as she pressed the elevator button and said a quick hello to the doorman, who was busy reading the New York Post. This wasn’t the fanciest building Claudia had ever worked in or the fanciest neighborhood. But it was comfortable, and after eight years it felt like a second home. The worst neighborhood to work in, according to Claudia and many of her friends, was the Upper East Side. They all agreed the people up there were so rich, they often hired nannies for every day of the workweek plus Saturdays, and only took their children out on their own on Sunday mornings, cleaned and pressed like little dolls for show-and-tell with their other rich friends.
Claudia knew every babysitter in this building, including the ones who had come and gone. She was friendly with all of them. But Cynthia, who worked for a family with two boys on the second floor, was her go-to person, a true confidante. They talked about all kinds of things, from their jobs to worries about their own children to problems in their marriages. When Lucy was sick or Jackson had trouble at school, Claudia went to Cynthia, who calmed her down immediately with practical advice.
As the elevator climbed up to 6, Lucy recited the names of her friends and their nannies on each passing floor. Kai and Damien belonged to Cynthia on 2. Maya and Ian had Maria on 3. Nate went with Mala on 4. At one time or another, Lucy had play dates with almost every child in her building. It was a neighborhood in itself, with gossip flying about the state of employers’ marriages, how nannies were treated, who was fired, who quit, who was wooed away from one family and hired by another. A nanny on the fifth floor, who worked for a notoriously demanding family with three children, had left her job the week before because her pay was cut when she went to the doctor. She never said a word to the parents, but she mailed a goodbye note to the children. Another nanny on the tenth floor suddenly disappeared after one of the children in her care called her “mommy” and her real mother overheard it.
Claudia didn’t have these kinds of problems with the Halls. At the end of her long shift, Claudia sometimes retold the day’s building gossip to Betsy, who always recoiled in disgust at the way other nannies were treated. Over the years, Betsy and James had helped Claudia in little ways too. When Claudia’s grandmother died, Betsy spent over an hour booking Claudia’s plane ticket home for the funeral and gave her the paid time off she needed. After Tanisha begged for an iPod for Christmas, James found the best price online and then bought it for her. And the day Claudia realized Tanisha was no longer a little girl, she confessed her worries to Betsy, who came home that night with an article on adolescent girls.
The elevator doors opened to a long hallway with gleaming floors. Every door on the floor was black. Some had welcome mats in front, others the morning’s New York Times still waiting to be picked up. In front of the Halls’ apartment sat Jackson’s bike and the stroller Claudia hated using for Lucy. As far as Claudia was concerned, it was time for Lucy to give it up, but her parents still indulged their little girl.
Claudia unlocked the Halls’ door, and when it swung open she was immediately startled. Someone was in the apartment. She heard the rustling of papers and caught the glow of a lamp in the living room. And then she heard a voice, low and steady, all business. James was on the phone. Lucy rushed over to her father, who put his hand on her head affectionately, then shooed her away. Claudia took one look at her boss standing at his desk with his head bowed, shoulders slightly stiff, and calculated his level of stress. She decided to get in and out as quickly as possible, keeping an eye on Lucy the entire time to minimize the child’s damage to the now organized living room. She would have to keep Lucy out of his way today.
James was dressed casually in jeans and a button-down shirt with the sleeves folded up. His dark hair had recently thinned so much that he had shaved it all off. With bright green eyes, thick black lashes, and his shaved head, James looked more hip than middle-aged, the kind of father who hid a tattoo underneath his clothes.
James should not have been home, but Claudia took it in stride. Ever since Claudia began with the Halls, James was mostly out of the house at work. She was fuzzy on the details of his jobit had something to do with the Internetbut she knew he was under a lot of pressure and often traveled. The rare times they were in the house together, James was polite and friendly, making sure the kids thanked her at the end of the day. He never once raised his voice to her, although Claudia knew that he had a temper. She had seen it flare up with the kids.
“Come, Lucy, let’s make you some lunch,” Claudia whispered, pulling Lucy into the kitchen.
While Lucy sat eating leftover pasta, Claudia picked up a note Betsy had left on the counter. CPlease buy carrots. Make sure Jackson finishes his homework. Can you start this recipe? Over the years, Betsy had left Claudia hundreds of little notes. CDon’t forget Lucy’s sunscreen. CTake the kids to the park and I’ll meet you there at 5. CPls. pick up milk. The pieces of paper and yellow Post-its often popped up later in random placesin the cushions of Claudia’s couch at home, her jacket pocket, the bottom of her purseand sometimes they made her laugh when she found them. She could make an entire book out of these daily reminders.
Claudia put the note down and opened the page Betsy had marked in the cookbook. Betsy was a great cook but didn’t always have the time to make meals. Claudia, on the other hand, hated few things as much as cooking and usually sent Tanisha to the corner for fried chicken from the Chinese place to avoid it.
Lucy shrugged her shoulders in her toddler-size chair, swaying back and forth. She looked at the bowl in front of her, stuck her finger in the food and swished it around.
“I want my lollipop,” she announced. Claudia had taken the half-finished candy away from her temporarily.
“After lunch,” Claudia responded, loading the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher. The lollipop sat, back in its wrapper, on the counter.
“Lucy! Eat your lunch now,” James said sternly, appearing in the doorway, his phone call over. His daughter looked up, irritated, but she sat a little straighter and placed a single piece of penne on her tongue. The phone rang and James walked back into the living room, pacing in front of the windows.
“I didn’t watch any TV this weekend,” Lucy said, pushing her food away again. “Can I watch some now?”
“No television,” answered Claudia. “We’re going to the park when you’re done with your lunch.”
Claudia leaned against the kitchen counter and flipped through Betsy’s magazines. Reading on the job was Claudia’s secret weapon, her best defense against boredom. Sometimes she felt so stuck in this job she was sure she would lose her mind. The same routine every day was a quiet but steady form of torture, and as much as she loved Lucy and Jackson, none of it was enough for Claudia.
“Claudia, don’t leave,” Lucy had recently told her. “I want you to take care of my children. I don’t want you to ever, ever leave.”
“Claudia has better things to do than take care of your children,” Betsy told her daughter.
“I want you to take care of my children too,” said Jackson. “I’ll even give you permission to spank them.”
“Oh no, I don’t think I’ll be there for that!” Claudia had answered on her way out the door.
Since she had started this job, Claudia hadn’t gotten a promotion, been given a new office or more intellectually challenging work. She didn’t have a 401(k). She had watched James gain more responsibilities and seen Betsy take a huge step, opening her own gallery in Chelsea. All Claudia had gained over the same eight years was more childcare experience and a cost-of-living increase. The Halls were moving ahead in their lives, and she was right where she’d always been, trying to figure out what to do next.
James caught Claudia just as she was on her way out to the playground with Lucy. The child had finally eaten a few bites, and after an intense fifteen minutes of trying, Claudia got Lucy’s shoes on and jacket zipped up. While Lucy squirmed and whined near the front door, Claudia tried to keep her out of her father’s line of vision, but James walked right up to them before she could escape and extended his index finger straight down at a patch of the hardwood floor.
“Have you seen these scratches?” he asked.
Claudia didn’t speak. She walked in circles, inspecting the floor, turning her head to catch it in different light. It took her several tries to make out a few faint, thin lines.
“They’re from the laundry basket,” James said. “You can’t drag it on the floor anymore.”
“How am I going to get the laundry to the basement? It’s too heavy to carry.”
“Use the grocery cart,” James suggested.
“I thought you didn’t want it banging in the doorway.”
“You can roll it into the hallway folded up. Then unfold it outside the apartment and carry smaller baskets out there one at a time and fill the cart up.”
Leaving the apartment with Lucy, Claudia wondered if James had lost his mind. She didn’t know many men who would even notice scratches that small on the floor. Betsy certainly hadn’t. How would she find the time to fill up a grocery cart with tiny baskets of clothes? It was already a struggle to get the house in order at the end of the day. It was times like this that made Claudia scream inside, even though she kept her expression perfectly calm.
This was not the life Claudia was supposed to live. Growing up in Dominica, a tiny island nestled between Martinique and Guadeloupe, Claudia knew she was meant for bigger things. She planned her escape, imagining a place with more opportunity, a place where she could work hard, earn a nursing degree, and send money home to her family. “I used to see streets of gold and bright lights and enough money to go around for everyone,” she said with a laugh, recalling her old dreams of New York. “I really thought the streets were paved with gold!”
Instead, New York was all concrete and brick, with freezing, gray winters and hot, humid summers. Apartments were cramped and expensive. The only work available for those without documents was caring for children or cleaning. It was hard to find a job, tougher to find a family that treated her right, and almost impossible to get by on what they paid her. There was no way Claudia could go to school and still earn enough money to send back home to her family. There weren’t enough hours in the day.
She had immediately postponed her dream of going to school, telling herself she’d do it eventually. Now, two decades after Claudia first arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, she found it hard to grasp that she was forty years old and still a nanny. Even the word made her voice crack. “I prefer to be called a babysitter,” she said seriously. When she discovered there were white, American-born nannies, she wondered aloud, “Why would they do that? It’s so degrading.”
Claudia knew that being a nanny was a difficult and important job, but she also knew it carried little status. She felt it in the condescending stares she got on the street, the once-over people gave her when they saw her walking with white children. This job paid her bills and there was nothing wrong with that, Claudia told herself, but inside she felt trapped.
As things had begun to sour with her husband, especially after he’d returned to Dominica, Claudia vowed to change. The Halls would be her last nanny job ever. She would plan a new life, one that stimulated her mind and commanded more respect from the world. A life that did not include working in someone else’s home, caring for someone else’s kids, sweeping someone else’s floors, and buying someone else’s groceries. She would have a life to call her own.
The best days, according to many nannies in New York City, are the days that are warm enough to spend outdoors. Parks and playgrounds are the ideal place for them to get away from overbearing stay-at-home moms, whining children, and the four walls they’ve been staring at for hours at a time. All winter long, nannies scatter, spreading out to the children’s sections of Barnes & Noble bookstores, to libraries, dance and music classes, indoor play spaces, and museums. They arrange play dates in one another’s homes and scramble to clean up apartments before parents walk through the doors.
Outside, children run wild, and there’s no cleanup. Nannies who haven’t seen each other through the cold months greet each other with smiles and get caught up. From far beyond the playground gates, when the sun is shining and the air is soft, the swarms of kids, the chatting women, and the gleaming jungle gyms look blissful.
But close up, parks are complicated places with unspoken rules. A first-time mother or nanny new to the neighborhood can be easily intimidated. Groups of women form cliques as tight as those in a high school lunchroom. Mothers stick together; nannies stick together; and the occasional father is simply the odd man out. Even among the nannies, subgroups form according to home country and race.
Claudia had nanny friends who weren’t born in the Caribbean, other babysitters in the Halls’ building, but she did not always sit with them in public. She nodded hello, gave a smile, and then sat with her own kind. Asian nannies stuck together. Caribbean nannies stuck together. White nannies stuck together. And the groups were often critical of each other.
For instance, Heather, an American nanny from Chicago, scorned women from other countries. “Uneducated, foreign nannies don’t burn out because they have it so fuckin’ good. They’ve got a good paycheck. They’ve got a good place to sleep. They’re living a lifestyle they never would have been able to live outside of America.” Lubna, a Pakistani nanny on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, hated the black nannies working in her neighborhood. “The Caribbean nannies are never in the playground,” she explained. “They’re sitting outside of it with the children strapped in strollers. They do it so they don’t have to run after them. They don’t like to move because they’re so overweight.”
Claudia had heard that Filipino nannies were more subservient and willing to take abuse, especially when they were new to the country. “Some girls say people hire the Filipino because they can give them anything. They can give them two dollars a week and they will take it,” Claudia said, outlining the playground stereotypes. “Caribbean nannies just say no. They will argue.”
Caitlin, a nanny from Scotland, once witnessed a fistfight between a Caribbean nanny and a Latina nanny in Washington Square Park. The Caribbean nanny’s child came down the slide too fast, bumping the Latina nanny’s child. The Latina nanny flew into a rage and picked up the other child by his neck, throwing him on the ground. The Caribbean nanny lunged at the Latina nanny and they began hitting each other, screaming, and pulling hair. All the other nannies yelled, “Fight! Fight!” Eventually, the cops arrived and the crowd dispersed.
Some nannies kept their distance from other nannies altogether because they didn’t want to get pulled into the fierce gossip. Alicia, a nanny in Brooklyn Heights, was friendly with the other nannies in the neighborhood but made sure she didn’t get in too deep. “The first thing I noticed when I started working here was gossip. There was this little group, and they were always having arguments about ‘somebody said this’ and ‘somebody said that,’ and I thought, ‘I’m keeping out of this,’” she said. “If they don’t like you, you’re totally on your own.”
Claudia did her best to avoid the gossip mill, but she also relied on the women to help keep an eye on the kids and get her through the day. She brushed off the Caribbean-nanny stereotype, explaining what it was like on the inside of the clique. “I’ll be sitting in the park. I know you, you know me. You see a whole bunch of nannies sitting together. They know each other. And everybody knows your kids, and sometimes you see us chatting, but the other women are watching my kids, and I’m watching theirs. Other people don’t know that. They think we’re just yap, yap, yapping. But Lucy could never run out of the playground without someone I know seeing her and grabbing her.”
When Claudia arrived at the park, still irritated by James’s new laundry rule, she sat with the women from the islands as usual. She mostly kept quiet, but she said her hellos to the other nannies so she wouldn’t seem rude. Claudia’s motto was “Be nice to everyone but don’t get too close.” She was very picky about her true friends, choosing one or two to allow into her private life and thoughts. She didn’t like this “chatty-chatty thing” with the local nannies who always told each other’s secrets.
She talked with the nannies she saw in her path every day, in the park, around the neighborhood, at school, but she often couldn’t remember their names, and if one of them disappeared suddenly, fired for some reason, or deported, Claudia remembered her fondly but she didn’t exactly miss her.
Sometimes, Claudia admitted, the group dynamics were too intense for her taste. Recently, while Claudia was spending a morning at the playground with Lucy, she tried to reach Tanisha by phone. When Tanisha didn’t answer, Claudia panicked. Her daughter’s asthma was acting up again and Claudia worried something terrible had happened to her.
Claudia called James and told him she had to go back to Brooklyn. They agreed that another nanny from the neighborhood, who they all knew, would stay with Lucy. Shortly after Claudia left, Betsy appeared at the park, and the nanny who was looking after Lucy lied to Betsy, along with all the other nannies she was sitting with, telling her Claudia had just run to the store. Unsure whether Claudia had told her employers the truth about going to Brooklyn, the nannies instinctually stuck together to protect their friend. The women were furious with Claudia when Betsy caught them in the lie.
At the same time, Claudia was angry at the women for covering up. Of course she would tell Betsy and James where she was. But Claudia kept her thoughts to herself and continued to navigate playground politics the best way she knew howby laying low and avoiding conflict. She depended on the other nannies for help here and there, offered help of her own, and made small talk, but she always maintained a distance, putting up a wall that kept her safe.
Life in a small New York City neighborhood could be as claustrophobic as small-town America. A week before, the mother of a girl at Lucy’s school had needled Claudia about the state of Betsy and James’s marriage after she saw them having an argument on the street. Claudia was amused, as always, that white people gossiped as much as the black people she knew. But she was also shocked by the woman’s nerve in trying to ply her for information.
Claudia sat on the park bench with the other Caribbean nannies, going over their kids’ new fall schedules. When one of the women talked about wishing she had time to go to school and earn a bachelor’s degree, Claudia did not confess that she had the same dream for herself. She did not complain about James’s sudden interest in scratches on the floor. She did not let on that sometimes she felt so bored and stuck and terrified, she feared she would go mad.
“So where have you been?” asked one woman as she smiled and sat down next to Claudia. Daisy was one of the nannies Claudia liked best in the neighborhood. She wasn’t as close with her as she was with Cynthia, but she enjoyed her company and spent more time with her than most. A cheerful woman, Daisy cared for a girl named Violet, an intense child Lucy’s age with thick hair and penetrating black eyes. Daisy had come to New York from St. Lucia five years ago. She was a shade lighter than Claudia and about twenty pounds heavier. Her face was wide and open, with high cheekbones and bright eyes. At least ten years younger than Claudia, she was optimistic about her future and on her way to earning a degree at Brooklyn College.
“Oh, I’ve been to London,” joked Claudia.
“To see the queen?”
“Yep, to see the queen and have some tea.”
A woman dressed in black leather pants, high-heeled boots, and a leopard-print jacket walked into Claudia and Daisy’s line of sight, shadowing her child through the jungle gym. They looked the woman up and down and made quick eye contact with each other. They didn’t have to say a word to know they were having the same exact thought. This mother was a ridiculous sight, standing alone in a sea of casually dressed nannies, with a full face of makeup and highlighted hair. Claudia and Daisy pegged her as the type to spend ten minutes in the park, declaring nannies were lazy or mean because they sat on benches, only to leave her child with her own nanny when she got bored so she could get lunch or go shopping.
Claudia returned to the apartment at 5:00 P.M. with Jackson, whom she’d picked up at a friend’s house, and Lucy in tow. They were overtired, bickering and complaining, but Claudia managed to block them out as she opened the front door. It was quiet and dark. Relief came over her. James was gone again and the place was theirs alone. She could throw her coat on the counter and get to work on dinner, sending the kids into the living room to amuse themselves.
“Jackson, your mom wants you to start on your homework right away,” Claudia said.
“Can I watch TV now?” asked Lucy.
“One little show and that’s it.”
With the children out of the way, Claudia opened the cookbook on the counter. She preheated the oven and pulled a chicken out of the refrigerator. In a little over an hour, dinner needed to be ready or at least on its way. She cut up potatoes and carrots and arranged them around the chicken in the pan. Once the prep work was done, Claudia sat on a stool at the counter. Why had James been home? she wondered. And why was he so tense on the phone?
Jackson had his homework out and Lucy was lost in cartoons. They did not notice when Claudia walked gingerly over to their father’s desk. Sometimes James and Betsy forgot to tell Claudia things that would have been helpful for her to know. This was one of those times. What if he was back in the apartment the next day? It would be nice to have a warning ahead of time. She moved some papers around on the desk and found a calendar. Scanning the days of the month, she saw some meetings written down but no real clues. She had no idea what James was doing in the apartment earlier, but she hoped things would get back to normal.
By the time Betsy came home, the smell of chicken filled the air. An attractive woman, Betsy was exactly the same age as Claudia. Betsy knew how to dress: she always looked trendy but classic. Her blond hair was cut in a wispy bob that framed her fine-featured face perfectly. When Betsy opened the front door, a cool breeze shot through the kitchen and her footsteps fell heavy on the floor. She heaved her workbag, a chocolate-brown Kate Spade tote, onto the island in the kitchen next to Claudia’s jacket. It was full of papers and binders. An overstuffed wallet slid out.
“How was your day?” she asked without looking at Claudia. She flipped through a stack of mail, pushed her hair out of her face, and called out to the kids.
“Fine, fine. The weather was nice. We went to the park,” Claudia answered.
Lucy came running, wrapping her arms around her mother’s legs. Betsy unzipped a pair of knee-high boots and pulled her daughter onto her lap. “Hi, peanut,” she whispered into her ear. Two blond heads leaned together, foreheads touching. Lucy buried her head in her mother. Claudia zipped up her own jacket, pulled her bag over her shoulder, and said goodbye before walking out of the apartment for the night.
As she drew the door closed behind her, Claudia heard the Halls going about their evening, the children adjusting to the shift change. Betsy opened the refrigerator as Lucy chatted away. Claudia couldn’t hear Jackson, but he was probably on the couch, sneaking in a few minutes with his Game Boy. She stood in silence at the elevator and closed her eyes for a moment as she breathed in and let the day ease out of her mind.
Forty-five minutes later, Claudia climbed the stairs at the Church Avenue stop in Brooklyn on the Q line. Flatbush was buzzing with people darting in and out of shops, coming home from work, or running errands. Tiny storefronts overflowed along the avenue, jammed together one after the other like a colorful, chaotic jigsaw puzzle. Claudia loved the energy of Brooklyn, where horns honked, music pumped out of windows, and people greeted each other on the street. She loved the fish markets and the takeout Chinese and the discount furniture stores and the hair salons and sneaker shops, even the squeaking brakes of buses as they came to a stop.
Claudia felt most at home in Flatbush, and walking down the street, she often nodded or smiled or stopped to say hello to someone she knew from back home. She referred to some of them as cousins, distantly related to her or Cap through marriage or blood. This neighborhood was as familiar to Claudia as the tiny town she’d grown up in, only more vibrant and alive. Fruit stands opened up their storefronts to pile cardboard boxes high with cilantro and yams and yucca. Tiny travel agencies posted discounted airfares to Trinidad, Tobago, Haiti, St. Martin, and St. Lucia in their windows, along with international phone cards.
But tonight Claudia was overcome with a wave of exhaustion even Flatbush couldn’t lift. She pulled her bag higher on her shoulder, practically empty compared with Betsy’s, and wondered what she could put together for dinner and whether Tanisha would demand a lot of her attention. It was getting dark earlier now and the fading light made Claudia want to hibernate at home. As she waited impatiently for the traffic light to turn so she could cross the street, a piece of paper taped to the lamppost caught Claudia’s eye. A local man was advertising math GED classes at $20 a session. She paused at the flyer, reading it over a couple of times.
If she was going to make changes in her life, this was where Claudia had to start. Lucy and Jackson were getting older, and pretty soon Betsy wouldn’t need a full-time nanny. Claudia knew she had to start building a new path, one that brought her closer to her dream of becoming a nurse. Ever since she was a child, Claudia had wanted to work in a hospital, but she gave up too easily when it came to her education. She always let lifea pregnancy, a broken heart, money she needed to earn and send back homeget in the way of her dreams.
Claudia didn’t know how she could fit the class into her already busy schedule, but she pulled the flyer off the lamppost anyway. This time would be different, she convinced herself. She would make a decision and stick to it. She would finish what she started. Shoving the paper to the bottom of her bag, she could not get the idea out of her head. If she could pull it off, taking this class might just be the first time Claudia did something for herself simply because she felt like it.
Meet the Author
TASHA BLAINE completed her MFA at New York University. After working briefly as a nanny herself, she spent more than five years researching and interviewing nannies at their workplaces and in their homes. Blaine was born and raised in New York City and now lives in California with her husband and two children.
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