The most profound mind-fuck of my existence — and the competition is stiff – was working as an illegal nanny in Canada. After being raised upper-middle-class on the U.S./Mexico border, the experience was a welter of uncomfortable race/class/privilege epiphanies from start to finish.
I logged hundreds of hours in the eight-bedroom homes of white people who fancied themselves “progressive,” with a “child-centered parenting style” (i.e. their overprivileged, entitled, ill-mannered spawn stomped all over them with tiny Uggs). I washed expensive dishes; pushed German-engineered double strollers; watched working mothers marinate in guilt while stay-at-homers unleashed their competitive instincts on the playground. Psychosocial minutiae was imbued with portentous significance by armies of specialists paid to address the kids’ ADHD; their Gifted and Talentedness; their hazelnut allergies. Every organic cheese stick was a building block to greatness. Bike helmets in the driveway! Raspberries cut into quarters!
I was an anthropologist of assholes.
One family had inherited the sort of wealth that permitted NEITHER OF THE PARENTS TO WORK. Yet, they hired full-time childcare as well as a weekly cleaning woman (she and I used to look at each other and scream with our eyes). The husband spent most of his time in his “office” on the fourth floor, where he worked on a novel that was never published; the wife hung out in her “studio” and did “cake-decorating art.” They’d both come down for breakfast, then tell the kids, “We’re going to work now!” I’d smile exactly the same way I did when the two-year-old picked up the garden hose and said “I’m a fireman!” These parents were “child-centered,” which meant that said two-year-old was allowed to choose how we spent our day. He would often, as two-year-olds do, change his mind 10 minutes into an activity, and then we’d have to drive somewhere else across town.
“I thought Bratlon and I would go to the park today,” I told his mother one morning.
“But…does he want to?” she asked worriedly.
She had a massive SUV — a Toyota Embargo Crusade or something — and when I drove it to Whole Foods, people wished me dead. I didn’t blame them. All the other nannies were from the Philippines, and they thought I was Bratlon’s mother. They wouldn’t talk to me. I fit in nowhere . And every day I thought, This is the life you could have had if you’d taken the path you were raised for. If you weren’t a dyke. If you wanted children. If you’d gone to law school. If you got your shit together. If. I also thought, Raising kids can’t possibly be the most fulfilling pursuit on earth, because if it were, this playground would be full of young fathers and male nannies.
I didn’t want their lives, just some of their security and comfort. I wanted to go home to people to loved me; who weren’t angry post-op transsexuals. It didn’t seem too much to ask. One night, I was broke but I craved something real, authentic, the best of its kind, so I bought a Calphalon pancake turner for $24. More of a symbol than a tool, really.
I also worked for a few nightmarish days for a family awaiting the arrival of their permanent nanny from Oaxaca (ironically, she had papers and I did not). This family was a smug melange of Wii; free-trade organic rosemary hand lotion; piles of V-neck sweaters with Latin school crest and motto. They made it clear that they chose me because I was white; that if they’d found me earlier I’d have been hired long-term. I spoke “good English.” (I fantasized about infusing the kids with accents; maybe a heavy Bronx intonation or a homosexual Pakistani lilt).
“Our last one was from Mexico, as well,” said the mom. “She hated the weather and kept crying to go home, until I had to say, ‘Look, Maria, I’m not your mother.’”
“I see,” I said, remembering all the shy, black-haired Marias from my childhood. Once, when I was 11, the day I left $200 in cash in a pair of jeans: a Maria folded it carefully and returned it to my mother, who tried to tell me how wrong the whole thing was, on so many levels, but I didn’t understand.
I remembered it again when the 10-year-old strode into the living room carrying a pile of bright new bedding, dumped it on the floor, and started up a vicious game of Wii bowling.
“These pillows cost FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS,” she told me in the voice of someone who had never been told ‘no,’ who had never been lonely or afraid or hungry for more than a minute; who knew herself to be the most important person in a benevolent world. ”You’re picking me up from school tomorrow,” she announced. ”My last nanny was the worst nanny in the world — she forgot to come get me at school.”
Here, she pulled out her best immigrant imitation: “‘Ohh, Mees, I forget to come geeet yooou, so sorrry!’”
“We’re getting a dog,” she informed me, hurling the imaginary ball down the imaginary lane. “What kind of dog it is, is extremely secret. It’s a very special mix of four rare breeds, and it is HIGHLY intelligent. We’re going to Paris this summer because my dad has a conference there, and we’re going to Israel for my Bat Mitzvah. I’m one belt away from my black belt in Tae Kwon Do.”
My phone started to ring. It was their mother, telling me she was going to be late.
“THAT’S an annoying ringtone,” said the kid. “I was in gymnastics for six and a half years. I can do an aerial. Watch. Watch me.”