I’m back. Finally. For good this time. I hope.
A Tale of Three Nannies: Part One
Childcare has been, hands down, the most difficult part of choosing to have a child on my own. In fact, I could probably drop the “on my own” clause and be left with a statement that even most partnered parents could relate to. The United States does a piss-poor job of providing assistance to working families when compared with, say, every other country in the Western world. But I’ll stick to a less volatile tone here. For now.
When I first set out to make a baby nearly four years ago, I knew childcare was going to be not just an issue, but THE issue, and, because I’m Type A (read: control freak), I knew I needed to have a plan in place before I ever even started trying for one. I live in perhaps the most expensive region in the country. My rent at the time was $3500/month for a modest bungalow-style home. The going rate for in-home care of a single child was about $20/hour. A daycare facility for an infant was about $75/day—manageable, maybe, but I worked nights. A local nightcare facility? I think not. Three 12-hour night shifts a week with a commute on either side and no option for daycare equaled at least $1000 a week in childcare expenses, and that was just covering my work hours without any extra time for sleep. $1000 a week if I never slept again. And at that price, I would also never eat again. Or drive my car. It was impossible.
But I had a secret weapon: the spare bedroom.
Enter the opportunity for an international au pair.
I had it all figured out. For 7K upfront (in 2015) for travel expenses and visas, plus room, board, and a small weekly stipend ($200), I could arrange to invite a young person of another culture into my home. My child and I would have the opportunity to learn another language, new foods, a different set of traditions. And wouldn’t it be just perfect for a foreign twenty-something to be able to live in the Bay Area, just a quick ferry ride to San Francisco, with three solid days off a week?
Oh yes, it would have been amazing!
If it were legal.
Apparently, international au pairs are heavily regulated, which, admittedly, is a good thing. (Welcome to our home, indentured servant! <insert evil laughter here>). They are allowed to work no more than 10-hours in any given day, and no more than 45-hours in a week. I found this out the hard way, when Jonah was only a month old.
”Even if much of their duty-time will be spent sleeping? I work three 12-hour night shifts a week,” I explained over the phone to the prim and proper representative lady.
”Oh! No!” She sounded horrified. “They can work no more than 10-hours in a day, and they’re not permitted to be left overnight with a child without another adult in the home. And that comes down from the State Department, not just our organization. I’m afraid your situation is unsuitable for any sort of international au pair program.”
There went Plan A.
”You could always lie about your work hours and bring one in anyway,” a friend suggested. “I know I’d be more than happy living rent-free in the Bay Area, sleeping through most of my work time, and having three days off a week.”
I would, too. But the risk was too great. 7K out of pocket for it to not work out? I just couldn’t.
Enter Plan B: I took an ad out on Care.com for a position that offered free room and board, and the same $200/week stipend an au pair would make, which is how I came to have Marcella*, Nanny #1, in my home.
Marcella interviewed very well, via Skype, which made me nervous, but her interview was stronger than all of the other potential candidates I had met in person. She was 26-years old, and had moved out to California two years earlier to be with a boyfriend, but was forced to return to her childhood home in upstate New York when the relationship didn’t work out. She was looking for a financially feasible way to get back to the Bay Area. Her goal, she claimed, was to attain California residency status so she could attend a state school for early childhood education. She had practically raised her two step-siblings who were 12+ years younger, had nannied for several families with great references, and was quite comfortable caring for all stages of infancy and toddlerhood. When Jonah was just two months old, I invited Marcella and her mother to come out for a five day long “get-to-know-you” trial adventure with the understanding that I would pay to move her out here if we all felt like it would be a good fit.
Her visit was largely positive—she was so enthusiastic. Awkward, to be sure, but very sweet. She seemed younger than her 26 years, yet confident and competent when it came to interacting with Jonah. I also appreciated the dynamic between mother and daughter—they seemed healthy, happy. But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I had a few concerns. For one, she looked impossibly thin and barely ate a thing all week, claiming nausea from her period. I even pulled her mother aside and asked her if I needed to be worried about taking on a young woman with an eating disorder, but she insisted that Marcella had been a “skinny chicken” all her life and that beyond “period week” her favorite thing to do was eat. Hmm. The other red flag popped up while I was in the middle of cooking dinner on their last day in town. She asked what she could do to help—bonus points. I directed her to a cutting board and asked her to slice a cucumber for the salad. She looked panic stricken and said, “Oh, no. Mom, you better do this. I’ll screw it up.”
How can anyone screw up cutting a cucumber? Or visibly panic about it? Nevertheless, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, choosing instead to focus on her vivaciousness, and her tenderness with tiny Jonah and my two big dogs.
Marcella and her mother returned home, and as promised, I flew her out mid-July, about a month and a half before I had to go back to work. Jonah was five months old.
I should have known something was up when, only two weeks into her stay with me, she turned orange. When I had gone to bed the night before, she was, well, white. At the very most, peaches and cream. But when she came into the kitchen the next morning, I gasped audibly and blurted, “Oh my god! Why are you orange?” (I was a new mother—I hadn’t yet regained my filter).
To her credit, she laughed and took it in stride. “I’m not orange. I’m tan,” she corrected me.
She was orange. Bright orange.
”I have a date tonight.”
I hope he’s into Oompa Loompas. “Oh, good for you!” Though I knew the look on my face was more WTF?
”I lost my tan when I left New York. I just don’t feel pretty when I’m pale.”
Orange is the new white.
Later that day the make-up came out: crazy creepy cat eyes, glitter, bright red lipstick, and fake nails. I hadn’t seen this side of Marcella coming—not in a million years. Then the clothing. Or lack thereof. In a matter of hours (and it did take hours) sweet, skinny, homely Marcella transformed herself into an orange-tabby Elvira complete with push-up bra and fuck-me pumps right before my very eyes. For a guy she met on Tinder.
Lord help me.
If she were my daughter, I wouldn’t have let her out of the house—which is an awkward space to be in as an employer, especially when the employee is technically an adult. Fortunately, we had established boundaries even before she was hired on—no men in the house unless she was becoming seriously involved with someone, in which case I had to meet him and approve of him before he could spend the night.
Where there are boys (and I don’t mean five month olds), there is trouble. And Marcella found herself in deep. Though I’m quite sure I don’t even know the half of it.
In the days following that first date, her cucumber-slicing anxiety started rearing its ugly head. I could feel it without even knowing what it was about, though she did let me in on some of it. On Tuesday it was boy trouble. On Thursday it was her relationship with her half-sister and father—both, from the sound of things, somewhere on the spectrum of master manipulation and mental illness. On Saturday it was her whole life falling apart. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I came home from work one morning, nursed Jonah, handed him off to her and went to bed only to be awakened two hours later by his cries.
I listened for Marcella, for the pad of her feet across the hardwood floor, for some indication that she was going to attend to my child and heard…nothing. Nothing but Jonah wailing. I ran downstairs and pulled him out of the baby swing. He was absolutely fine, of course, but Marcella was nowhere to be found. I knocked on her bedroom door, the bathroom door, the bedroom door again, and called and called her name before she finally whined, “I’m in here,” from behind the bathroom door.
”Are you okay? Are you sick? What’s going on?”
”I’m fine.” She sounded like a petulant child.
”Well, you’re not fine because Jonah’s been crying for ten solid minutes and you’re hiding behind a bathroom door like a pouty teenager. Can you come out here, please?” On two hours of sleep, it was all I could do to not completely lose my shit.
The door cracked open and Marcella emerged, her cat eyes rimmed red and running down her face. She was crying opaque tears.
I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her. But I couldn’t. Instead, I took a deep breath. “Tell me what’s going on.”
”My sister’s in the hospital again. She’s having suicidal thoughts.”
Christ on a cracker! “Oh, Marcella, I’m so sorry.”
”My father says it’s my fault.”
Gah! I felt terrible for this poor girl. And yet, so not in the mood to deal with any of it. But I had no choice. “You know that’s not the truth, right?”
”Well, it’s not. Whatever’s going on with your father is your father’s. Whatever’s going on with your sister is your sister’s. None of it’s yours.”
”He says it’s because I left.”
I wanted to kill the man. “I thought you told me your sister’s been having issues for years.”
She nodded. “He says it’s worse since I left.”
”Do you really believe that?”
”Well, she’s in the hospital.”
”But she’s been in the hospital before?”
”Were you there?”
”Was it your fault then?”
She looked up suddenly. A moment of recognition. I thought I even saw a trace of a smile. “Well, he blamed me then, too. I can’t even remember why. And then he blamed me again when I came to California the first time. He kept using her to try to get me to come home.”
“I rest my case.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
”Call your sister and tell her you love her. Listen to her. Let her feel heard even if she doesn’t make any sense. And either ignore your father, or call him and tell him to go to hell.”
”But I’ll tell you what I need you to do here.”
She stared down at the floor again.
”I need you to not fall apart on the job. My family sucks, too. My brother’s a heroin addict. My mother blew her retirement enabling him. I don’t get to walk away from my patient because my mother called begging for money that she doesn’t have because my brother just put it up his nose. I have to take care of my patient. You have to learn to put it away for later. It’s part of being an adult.”
She was sobbing.
”Marcella, I’m sorry, but this is your job. You can’t leave my crying son to go hide in the bathroom to cry yourself. It’s unacceptable. If you’re feeling too upset to take care of my child, you need to call me and tell me to come home from work, or wake me up. You don’t just leave him. Understood?”
I wanted to fire her. But I also felt the need to shield her from the crazy. She had such a good heart.
And I’m a sucker.
A few weeks later she called me at work to tell me her father might have attempted suicide. He had left her two unintelligible voicemail messages and hadn’t come home from work. The police were out looking for him. I left work and headed home.
I was a single parent with an infant son, and now, a troubled teenage daughter.
To be continued…
*names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent