The Not-the-Nanny Diaries & The Politics of Help


So we’re halfway through summer and I’m counting down the days to the first day of school. This year, I decided to be a full time mama. No part-time teaching artist gigs (including DAWP…more on teaching artist shenanigans later), very little writing (though lots of reading for my sanity’s sake), and my undivided attention to my 8, 6, and 4 year-olds. I’m an all inclusive summer camp. At these ages, they’re at the heart of their childhood. They’re growing so fast and I needed this moment to slow the clock down a bit and savor these years.

But this will not be a long rant on how tired I am and how hard it is (though this post will probably be a disjointed, stream-of-conscience mess ‘cause mommy brain has taken over). My partner is a tremendous help and I’ve had the company of my mommy friends. Not to mention their grandmothers who are often available to lend a hand (and buy clothes, cook favorite meals, and provide endless doting) when needed. Though this is some valuable help, it doesn’t quite cover all the bases.

*

Given my line of work—full-time mothering—I often run into other caretaking women. Nannies. And in my part of town, there is a clear distinction between who is caring for their own children and who is not—mostly Caribbean women caring for white children. Sometimes Indian, Mexican, or the occasional younger white woman. I must admit, at times I envy these women—not the nannies, but the mothers who can afford the nannies. Women who can pay for help. After all, I don’t think any one mother needs more help than the other.

*

I was raised with help. We didn’t call her a nanny. She was a ti granmoun—“little old lady”. By the time my mother had her career in place in just a few short years after immigrating here from Haiti, she was out of the house for 12 hours a day, and sometimes working overtime on the weekends as a nurse. With three of us to raise and no older family members living here, of course she had to hire somebody. But this was someone from her community—a recent Haitian immigrant who my mother believed was better off working for a family friend than some American stranger to cook cultural foods, keep an eye out for the kids whom she could speak Creole to, and do some light cleaning.

*

When I was in Haiti and I stayed with my sister, there was plenty help around. On my first evening there, dinner was already made and a woman about our age had spent the day cooking. Every morning, my sister would ask me what I wanted to eat for the day, and she’d call out from the back door for vwazin (“neighbor”), hand her some money and tell her exactly what to prepare for the day. By the time I was dressed, breakfast was on the table neatly placed into bowls, with avocados peeled and sliced, a pitcher full of freshly squeezed juice, and our plates and glasses turned over. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious—daydreaming about having someone do this for my own family. My sister had even asked me if I needed my clothes washed. I quickly declined. In Haiti, they’re simply called servants. She didn’t employ anyone regularly, but if my sister needed help with anything, she would borrow a neighbor. She’d told me vwazin was around just for me. And vwazin was both a friend and an extra hand. We’d talk, she’d give my sister her opinion on an outfit or a guy, but she would never sit with us to eat.

*

I fold and hang my towels a certain way. There’s this special way I tightly tuck my bed sheets under the mattress. I learned it from my mother. She never actually showed me, I just used to always watch her do it with such precision. If she’d shown me this, she would probably have to tell me where she learned how to do that. She used to be a hotel maid. My mother would be surprised if I told her how I remember her uniform and her Marriott ID picture.

She’d also be shocked at how well I remember the old lady she used to care for. My mother was also a Home Attendant. Travay ti granmoun. Solid, steady work for young immigrant women. One time, or maybe more than once, she had to take me with her to work—Jewish holiday or something. The old lady lived in a heavily furnished and smelly (according to my 9-year-old senses) apartment. She would give my mother all sorts of stuff that she’d leave her house with, but for some reason or another, the stuff never made it into ours. I remembered that the old lady lived on Carroll Street because whenever someone would ask me where my mother worked, I’d tell them Carroll Street, which now I know is Park Slope.

*

When my daughters were very young, I would walk them over to Park Slope from my old neighborhood of Crown Heights. It was the only place I felt comfortable enough to be pushing a double-stroller in the middle of day and going nowhere in particular. Park Slope is (fancy) stroller country. There’d be these moments when I had to pass another stroller pushing black woman on a narrow sidewalk. One of us would have to move. And I would try very hard not to glance down at the child in the stroller and back at her again, but it was a natural instinct. If the black woman matched the baby in stroller, I’d smile extra bright and hope to make a new friend and set up play dates. Otherwise, we would not look each other in the eye. I wouldn’t want to look as if I was judging her and…well, I don’t know why she wouldn’t look at me.

There were plenty of times in libraries, playgrounds, and Mommy-and-Me stuff where I wasn’t the only black woman, but my children were the only black children present. I have a crush on a nanny. She’s a West Indian woman whose eyes light up when she sees my children. We have the same taste in (flat, wide, & extra comfy) shoes. I’m jealous of the children under her care. I daydream about when I’d be able to afford her a living wage and medical benefits so she could be my nanny. She’s out of my league.

*

I didn’t realize how much the politics of help really piss me off. It’s a warped socioeconomic infrastructure. I, for one, can certainly use some help. And I can understand the need for the work in certain situations, and I can understand the political landscape in which having to this kind of work is perpetuated. It comes up in my writing.

The first story I published in Dark Matter (“Old Flesh Song”) was about a disgruntled nanny vampire/soucouyant thingamajig who must feed her immortality with the souls of the babies she once cared for.

I just sold a story where another soucouyant/loogaroo/vampire thingamajig who recently immigrates to New York must find her sustenance in Home Attendant work.
Here’s a prompt I wrote during my VONA workshop. We had to quickly think of something to write based on a story shape (mine had to do with daily work or routine). This is what came out of my subconscious in twenty minutes:

So cold, it was. Marie Rose didn’t want to have to buy another coat. The wool one she’d picked up on a sales rack that stood outside the tiny clothing store on Flatbush should’ve been able to withstand the sixteen degree weather. It was a shade of gray that reminded her of the unpainted cinder-blocked houses that lined unpaved roads in the capital city of her home country. To build the houses was one expense, but the ambitious Haitian would have to wait for more money from the relative abroad before painting the house in a bright green, blue, or rose pink—her favorite color, like her name.

Marie Rose thought the brownstones she passed on the way to work were heavy with the weight of all those souls that had inhabited them throughout the years.

“This place was built in 1905. My Papa was here since he was a little boy,” Mrs. Schwartz would repeat over and over again while they’d be sitting in front of a particularly dramatic episode of “All My Children”. “Anthony and that wife of his want this place for the money. But this is for the family, I tell you. They don’t care nothing about family.”

Marie Rose wanted the old woman to shut up. She needed to hear how the English words rolled from the thin fiery red lips of Erica Kane. She needed to surprise her boyfriend one day—the recent one who promised her a bigger place to stay, a marriage, citizenship, and a decent future in this place—with that same exact Erica Kane sass, and maybe the heels and dress to match, telling him off for coming home late the night before.

“Can you get me another cup of apple juice, Maria,” Mrs. Schwartz would interrupt again. Marie Rose stopped correcting the old woman months ago—on her second day of work. It was better to let her think that she was Dominican and not Haitian. Especially after Mrs. Schwartz openly accused her last Home Attendant, the black one from Haiti she’d said, of stealing her porcelain miniature sculptures of baby angels.

Marie Rose had not even finished pouring juice into the cup when Mrs. Schwartz yelled from the living room to make her a B.L.T. sandwich. Marie Rose inhaled, annoyed that she’d missed the last few minutes of “All My Children”, pulled from deep within her core and spat into her cup of apple juice. She stirred in her bitter frustration with a spoon—smiling, satisfied, victorious.

Photo #1: The Help movie poster.
Photo #2: Minding Ben by Victoria Brown

books, memory is a muscle, Mothering, movies, The Help, VONA, Writing

3 Responses to The Not-the-Nanny Diaries & The Politics of Help

  1. I really enjoyed reading this; thanks for writing it! Hope your summer with the kids is all you'd hoped for. Thanks for the windows into Haiti and into your family's life here and there.

    In your story, I do need to let you know that a few of the cultural cues you've given your "Mrs Schwartz" – the angels, the bacon, the particular grammar – are counterindicated for Jewishness,* so you might want to change either her name or those details if you go further with that piece.

    And I LOVE your page design! A pleasure to look at.

    *er, um, I hope I'm getting those terms right – still waking up! And if you tell me that they are taken from something that really happened w/a Jewish employer, I'll believe you; but they'd be unusual. China something-else, sure – but Angels are goyische. Oh, and "Anthony"'s a very Catholic name; a Jew wouldn't name a child that. Actually, she sounds like she's Italian-American, altogether. Maybe that?

  2. Welcome! says:

    Thanks for catching those details, Ellen! This was a quick writing prompt and a testament to how much memory plays a huge role in writing.

    There was a Ms. Schwartz in my childhood. My mother, who had a thick Haitian accent at the time, would have a hard time pronouncing her name over the phone. I remember my mother getting frustrated when she'd call for one reason or another. I think she cared for her on weekends as a visitng nurse. But, I didn't know Ms. Schwartz. The name always stuck out in my mind when writing about my mother and her career.

    I did know plenty of Italian-Americans and I went to Catholic School. So that explains the 'Anthony' and the ceramic cherubs.
    And the BLT, now that I think about it, I ate a lot of them in high school. I realized that if I write about a sandwich, its always a BLT in the first draft. Yes, this needs to stop.

    The story is fictional, but I know a lot of immigrant women who do this work.

    In revising, memory and experience really need to be filtered, of course. And none of my workshop mates at VONA picked up on those details.

  3. Well, it's that whole "writing the Other" thing, isn't it? The ultimate filter before putting something out is to check with a member of the relevant cultural group for nuances one may not be aware of. It doesn't matter in a quick prompt, obviously, but the sensitivities are still there.

    If I am writing a Haitian character, I promise to check in with you!

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