by Camille Small
Who’s caring for the children of America? It’s a topic that gets lots of media attention now, not all of it good. Every couple of months a network news program airs an expose on bad daycare centers or about abusive nannies. While I would never condone child abuse under any circumstances, such television programs have a different effect on me. In large part, my sympathies are with the nannies. I have lived and worked as a nanny, and I was a good one. But for my efforts, I was always rewarded with a swift kick in the ass.
Though this is my personal story, it is also the story of many nameless and faceless women. Many of these women have left their own countries — often developing nations in Asia or the Caribbean. Some leave behind their own children to work here, nurturing the children of others, earning money to send home or saving money for their own educations. They work as I did, for pay below minimum wage; they endure working hours that should earn them huge amounts of overtime. They go on in spite of horrible conditions, either because they see no alternative or, like me, because they have a goal. Many of these women are good workers, capable of loving someone else’s children, even when their every good deed goes unnoticed. Like me, many of these women never raise their hands or their voices to the children in their care. Our only recourse to the disrespect, even the abuse we experience, is to cry ourselves to sleep at night.
My own story begins on Thanksgiving Day, 1990. I arrived in Philadelphia from Trinidad with dreams and a plan. I was going to work for a year or two and then go to college. I grew up watching movies like The Sound of Music and Pollyanna, so baby sitting seemed a logical choice. At 20, I was naive, without prejudice, having grown up in a country where race is not the dominant issue. I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood, and didn’t yet realize that there was an ocean of difference between blacks and whites in the United States. It was a bitter lesson that I would soon learn. I interviewed for a number of jobs and was finally hired by a family in Bryn Mawr, PA. My schedule? A Tuesday to Saturday schedule, with hours as needed. The agency that sent me on the job told me I was supposed to work eight hours a day. I think now my employer took that to mean at least eight hours a day.
My first day on the job, my employer showed me to my quarters, a room in the basement. It was tiny, but I soon came to appreciate my refuge away from the family. I started my day at 6:45 a.m., when I got the older of the two boys in my care ready for school; he was 8 years old. I then spent the day cleaning an all-white house: white floors, white walls, white furniture and more mirrors than I had ever seen in my life, all this while being fully responsible for a 3-year-old. I loved that little boy; he and I spent many hours together building castles and reading story books. He was a joy to be around, but his mother and her all-white house drove me crazy. Never did my day end before 8:30 p.m. After preparing and serving dinner, I waited in my room for them to finish. It was the first time all day that I had a moment to sit still.
Saturdays were the worst days in that house. Starting my day at 9 a.m., I was on guard until midnight or later. I understand now why child care and housekeeping have become Tuesday to Saturday jobs. This enables employers to have a built-in Saturday night sitter without having to pay for it. When my employers returned, I had to call a taxi to go to the train station, since they lived too far for me to walk. On the nights they returned too late for me to catch the last train, I had to wait until Sunday morning to leave. I remember that the taxi driver who brought me to the job laughed when I gave him the address. He warned me that no one ever lasted there more than a couple of months. But I did. When I finally left after two years she cried, told me how much she loved me, how much they would miss me and handed me $60 — a farewell gift for college. It was just enough to pay for my ticket to New York.
In New York, I was hired by a black single parent, a corporate attorney with an 11-year-old son. For the first time, I came face to face with class prejudice; I was asked to wait elsewhere while they ate so I could clean up afterward. This was the first of two employers — one black, one white — who asked me to remove myself while the family ate.
My most hurtful experience, however, was the day I went to temple with the two little girls in my care. Three and five years old respectively, they were the apple of my eye. I imagine I loved them as much as I might love children of my own. On this particular day, though, the contempt I felt for their mother and her family was unspeakable. Told to dress appropriately for temple, I arrived with my charges before services began. We met their grandparents, who told me to sit in the lobby while the services went on. There I sat in the lobby of a synagogue for almost three hours — the only black person, obviously the maid.
I had always felt there was honor in hard, honest work. This day, I didn’t feel that way. Returning home with the family, I learned what it was like to be invisible. Not once did the grandfather address me directly; I was clearly of so little consequence that he never felt the need to even look in my direction. I was told that since the family was about to have lunch, I could wait in the living room, or go outside to the park. I chose to wait in the park.
Until I came to this country, I never had hate in my heart for anyone. Yet I have been treated so despicably, and cried so much that now I have no tears left. I listen with amusement to working mothers who claim to want good, reliable child care, because I know they don’t mean it. What many of these women want is cheap, anonymous labor.
What I still can’t understand is why mothers would treat so inhumanely the person to whom they have entrusted the most valuable person in their life. Should I be part of the family? Not necessarily, but is respect and compassion too much to ask? I refer to mothers purposely; one thing that always struck me about the child care situations that I found myself in is that the husbands have always been very pleasant, kinder and more thoughtful than their wives. I haven’t decided what the problem was between myself and the women I have worked for. I know only that I came to this country with an open mind. Truly unaware that we were supposed to dislike each other — black and white, Jew and gentile, working class and affluent, as a sad result of my experiences my innocence has been lost.
I want to believe that the children I have loved will always remember me as fondly as I remember them. I hope they never succumb to the prejudice around them, learning to see me as only another nanny in a long line of caretakers. I hope I have left my mark on them, just as they have on me. In the end, it has been their innocence that has kept me from embracing hate.
Camille Small is a poet and writer now living in Brooklyn.