On Vicarious Motherhood

A decade or so ago, I waited tables at a vegetarian restaurant. I befriended a good many women while there, including Mary Margaret, today’s Not Mom. I nannied and it ended sadly, she nannied and it ended sadly; we just hired a nanny, we are hoping, despite the odds, for a happy ending.

Dear Mary,

Right now, my niece watches Violet for a half day and my mom is with her two full days while I’m at work each week. My mom goes to Florida for three months every winter, though, and so we’ve just hired a nanny.

I think you know being a nanny was my favorite EVER job. I know you loved being a nanny too. I think you may even know how being a nanny ended for me, which is to say: HORRIBLY, and in a river of tears that flowed for years. YEARS. That may sound overly dramatic, but 1) it’s actually not, and 2) it is a situation that was VERY dramatic.

Here’s the shortest version of the story. I nannied for a family full-time. I watched their toddler son, and a few mornings a week I watched the dad’s daughter from another marriage before school. To say I got on with both of them would be vastly understating it, but, as I said, this is the shortest version of the story, so we’ll leave it at that. At first, it was great. I got along with the little boy and everyone was happy. Then I got along with the boy and people were not happy. It is hard to say when this happened. There was one written conversation where the mother (who left for work before I got there and was still working when I left, so I didn’t see her much, just at family gatherings and some weekend evenings) said something about the little boy being so well behaved around me. Silly me, I thought it took a village. So I wrote back, something about how I’m always really consistent, and if, for example, I say, “Tell Linda thank you for lunch or we’re not leaving,” after my mom takes us out to lunch (this actually happened), we WILL stand outside a restaurant for thirty minutes until he does it, no matter how cranky he gets about it. I may have given examples of how she had been inconsistent. She did not write back and did not speak to me for a while after that. I should have taken it as a sign but I didn’t.

Okay, THERE IS NO TRULY SHORT VERSION OF THIS. I had written a story about a mom and a nanny. It’s funny, because both the nanny and the mother character were based on ME. The nanny was physically me, but didn’t have any emotional presence in the story because it was told from the mother’s point of view. The mother was single (me) and insecure (me) and going on bad dates (me) and going to crappy romantic comedies alone (me) and questioning her life choices (me) and just generally trying to do her best (me). (The mother I worked for was confident, driven, questioning nothing that I knew of, and in a good relationship with her son’s father.)

Here we can be short. A journal decided to publish it. I decided to tell the mother. I sent her a copy of the story. Her partner called to tell me that I was no longer allowed to be around their kids. Cue river of tears.

(Anyone who’s interested can find the story and the story I wrote AFTER the story here. I wrote them a decade ago, and I’ll fight the urge to talk about edits I might make now. The fact is, they’re both published online, but in GREATLY changed form — I will not get into the editorial decisions that were made that I disagree with, or how many times I’ve written asking for them to be taken down. I’ll just put them here in their original form.)

At any rate. It’s a tricky situation. You want the nanny to be good, because you want the baby to be spending time with someone she loves and feels comfortable with and enjoys. But — and I haven’t experienced this yet, because so far I’ve left the baby with family, and I WANT her to be very close to them, but I understand it’s what happens — if the nanny is TOO good, feelings of jealousy emerge. If, say, hypothetically, the nanny is someone to whom you can say, “You can’t see my kid anymore,” and actually mean it and make it happen, well, that’s a different situation. And I know, for a fact, that the nanny can be jealous of the mother too, and that can cause its own problems. Now that I’m a mom, I GET why the mother of the kid I nannied for did what she did. I ALSO get that it was an incredibly selfish thing to do, and I hope to never get into a situation where making someone who is very important (and present) in my child’s life disappear seems like a good idea.

And I don’t want to make what happened to me happen to anyone else. I still think about that little boy (who’s now a teenager), I am not kidding you, EVERY day. I have an old knit hat of his in a drawer; I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. And I still feel heat crawl up my spine whenever I think of his mother.

So, Mary. How was your nanny situation? Did it end well? Do you have any advice for me, a former nanny and former not-mom who is now a mom who’s hired a nanny?



Okay, it’s not TOTALLY relevant to the entry, but: 1) it is a very adorable picture of Violet and I as Bert and Mary Poppins on Halloween, and 2) I’ve had “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary” in my head the whole time I’ve been putting together this post.


Dear Amy,

I do remember that story, though I didn’t know it in that detail back in the day when we were servers at Seva together. I just knew that you were very upset about it—didn’t want to, or couldn’t, talk about it much, so it must have affected you deeply. And though I was a not-mom and not-nanny at that point, I could easily enough imagine that mother’s jealousy. Thinking about it now, I wonder if it stems from a woman’s sense of lack of control of her life. You know? Like they say that women abuse food, abuse exercise, become workaholics all because they want a sense of control in their life. Mothers probably anticipate that their relationship with their child, especially during the young years, will be under their control, and anticipate this with much joy. Having that intimacy, which in so many ways does belong to the mother, threatened can no doubt set some ladies berserk.

My sister-in-law, Michelle, is not one of these set-berserk ladies. She has a great self-esteem and a degree in early childhood education. Sometimes I’m amazed at her ability to NOT be phased by her daughter’s fleeting affection.

OK. Back up. First we have to talk about the fact that I am the aunt of the most beautiful little girl in the world, Isobel, and my sweet, handsome nephew Benjamin. (I’m kind of a snob sometimes and think no babies come near the beauty of my brother’s, but Amy, Violet is absolutely beautiful, I do admit). I was lucky enough to be offered the nannyship of Isobel, since my sis-in-law had to return to her job as a kindergarten teacher, a gig for which I gladly ended my stay in the best city on this planet, San Francisco. From the time she was 10 months until she was 2 ½, I got to be with Isobel five hours a day, playing with her, feeding her, changing her diaps, putting her down for naps. Let’s spare the not-moms and the not-nannys the clichés, and suffice it to say this experience was the most beautiful and rewarding of my life.

It ended well, but sadly, of course. How do you go from spending every day with the person you love the most to not and not feel sad? But our beautiful Benjamin was born, and my sis-in-law now stays home with both of them.

When I was Isobel’s nanny, I felt like her second mother, and I think she felt I was too. Isobel was the kind of baby who screamed in the arms of anyone but her mother and father, and to this day is shy and withholding from not only strangers but close family members she doesn’t see extremely regularly. But she was close with me. She was comfortable with me. She would eat for me and sleep for me, nuzzle me in public when she was shy, and do all those other special things kids only do for the people they really trust.

There were times that I wondered if Michelle didn’t hate this. Like, my sis-in-law came home every day at lunch and would call out to Isobel from behind the corner before Isobel could see her. And instead of calling out, “Mama!” back, Isobel would go, “Daddy??” Every. Time. Almost like she wanted to piss her mom off. Not ever give her the satisfaction. Punish her for going away yet another morning. If this bothered Michelle, it barely showed—I think that’s where the early childhood ed. came in. Maybe she understood those are the kind of things kids do, since they don’t know how to tell you what they’re feeling.

By the time I left for the day a few minutes later, Isobel had fully warmed to her mother, and would barely issue me a goodbye. Kids are quick. And resilient. And smart. The go where the warmth is. And they work well on schedules.

Isobel isn’t as close to me these days. She still loves me, of course, and on a good day we are still best buds. But I only see her once a week now for a couple hours at most, and sometimes she punishes me for loving Benjamin by denying me her affections. Alas, that’s how it goes. Isobel has to put up with all these people who used to love only her now loving her brother, and I have to accept that my special time with Isobel is really over and I now play a part probably more appropriate—aunt, not second mom.

My advice? Hire someone you trust. Hire someone who actually disciplines with consistency. You know, like what you talked about above. Go into it knowing Violet is going to become attached to her nanny—and remind yourself that this is good! But know that no nanny is going to replace your relationship with her, especially since you are such a strong, present, loving mother. Oh, and also, don’t hire my friend who recently posted on facebook about her nanny gig that she unapologetically hates constructing robots from milk cartons and toilet paper rolls. She probably isn’t the best nanny for you.


Mary Margs

Mary Margaret is a not-mom and a no-longer-nanny, currently working as a manager at Seva Detroit. She is a sometimes singer/songwriter and fiction writer, who fantasizes of becoming a comedy writer. You can find her music atmarymargaret.bandcamp.com. She’s also hoping to get into med school for next fall, so cross your fingers with her.

One thought on “On Vicarious Motherhood

  1. adoptapoet says:

    Good lord that was sad.

    I had a similar ending, for very different reasons, with a child I used to look after. I didn’t know how to feel except sick.


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