I teach Mateo how to peel an orange, showing him how to poke his thumbnail into the skin to break the seal, then slide it all around, peeling in a big swirl. He stands over the trash can with his tongue sticking out, peeling orange after orange, more in small peel chunks than swirls, and eating them with loud mouth smacking sounds one after the other. Has no one ever taught him to peel an orange before? Have all his oranges all his life been peeled for him? Did I really just teach him something new? I’m the nanny, just an outsider peeking in. Mateo doesn’t belong to me. His parents’ methods of parenting don’t belong to me. So all I can do is discover what’s going on with him and Nico and Damien and Zoe, my four school-aged charges, and, ultimately, either join the parade or resist it.
It’s almost time for soccer practice and I refuse to untie Mateo’s soccer cleats and wrench them onto his feet for him as he, somehow, expected me to do. When I tell him he can do it himself, that he is quite big and smart enough, he looks at me like I just told him that I’m going to break his Kindle in two or some sort of heinous crime like that. I didn’t know. I just didn’t know that Mateo thinks he needs a lot of shoe help. And, you know what, I sort of don’t care. Because he did do it himself once I bid him do it, and quite proficiently I might add.
Mateo and Damien, both seven-years-old, are hitting each other with fake swords right in front of me. It’s against my better judgment, I’ll tell you that, because too often they look like they’re in it for real, a duel to the death with green foam and fiery hearts. These kids, they play hard, much harder than I ever played. The worst that happened in my childhood playtime were “earthquakes” striking our little imagined home in the snarles of tree roots behind our school as we played at house, imagined fear, lots of narrative drive and tossing ourselves about, no hard feelings, dusting off and rushing toward the next idea. This is very different than that, and even though they love it, more often than not it ends in tears and the desire to hit harder, harder, to make them pay. I don’t understand it. Not at all. And it leaves me wondering if my own children will someday do this, enjoy this, gravitate toward swords and hitting things with them. Do children somehow inherit aggression out of thin air even if you know nothing of it yourself?
I don’t know, because I’m not a parent yet. I’m just playing at it like I did as a child. I’m acting it out, the mother in this elaborate game of house, bidding them not run out into the street, not slip on the ice, not eat too much cereal or it will ruin their dinner. I’m cutting up apples, I’m carrying backpacks, I’m begging them to please zip up their coats and say thank you and wipe their noses and, goodness sakes, be kind to each other. Where I fit into their lives, the heart-y soul-y parts of their lives, I’m not sure. I entered in the middle of a whole thing going on, whole lives, linear things zipping along, me going down the on-ramp and trying to accelerate fast enough to scoot in.
The older kids, Zoe and Nico, both uninterested in their little brothers’ exploits and both age eleven, try to wrap me up in their interpersonal disputes, use me as an endlessly interested arbiter, a wellspring of complaint-receipts, while caring nothing for me or my ideas. I’m only useful to them when I help them keep their thing moving along. They will not listen to me though they ask me for help and assure me they like me a lot. They don’t like me so much when I tell them that homework is much better done without talking about other things all throughout and kicking each other incessantly under the table. Then I’m the bane of their existence, a hindrance to glorious friendship, the rock in their shoe, their annoying nanny–can’t she just go away? Why I want them to like me so much, I don’t know. They’re eleven. I’m twenty-two. They, all four of the kids, just very simply do not belong to me. Not at all.
It was easier when my nannying job throughout college meant caring for a baby, a tiny, tiny girl with few words and big wet eyes who I grew to love and to think of sometimes as my very own person. She didn’t have so much going on without me, my stepping in was more seamless. She didn’t have so many opinions, so many standards, so much to adopt and carry forward. There was not so much weight to her life. She just needed me. I fed her things, I talked to her, I gave her leaves to crumble, I let her pretend to make me food, I told her about my day and my thoughts about the world, I let her tell me everything she knew about Peppa Pig, I showed her a picture of the president and taught her how to say “Barack Obama” just for the fun of it, I read book after book, sang song after song, and let her wander around and babble at me. And she loved me back, just because I was there with her. Simply. Caring for my baby girl made me feel strong and motherly, able-bodied and hearted, loving enough to adore her through her crying, though she was not mine.
It’s different with these bigger kids and I feel different in it. With them I feel small and out-of-the-loop. Trivial. Like I’m only half of what it would be like if their real mom was there. Every time seven-year-old Damien cries because of some sort of approximation of injustice and declares that he wants his mommy, I feel sort of sunk. I’m so not enough. Not even close. Nothing I can say to him will be the right thing. Ultimately, how much do I matter to him? Not at all. No, no, not at all.
These children are not mine. Some day I will have children who are mine, and that day is so fantastically exciting and mysterious to me that I think about it more than I’d like to admit. I’m a person who has always been excited by my capacity for motherhood. I expect it like it could happen any moment (although I’ve taken appropriate measures against it at this early stage of marriage/life), and I crave it in dips and rises. Someday I will have a seven year old whose life I will be indelibly marked on, who will want me when he cries,who will know all about oranges far earlier because he is a child of mine, who looks sort of like me and lets me shape him, mold him, tell him what I think is right and wrong and sort of believe what I say, at least while he’s seven. But these children, the children currently filling my life, they are not mine. And it makes me feel something other than maternal. It makes me feel unremarkable.
But I’m still there with them four days a week, me and my tender heart, my sadness in feeling unremarkable. I do it all anyway. I bundle them into the car and take them to practices, I make sure they eat vegetables sometimes, I do the dishes, I tie their shoes, I try to encourage them to do more and more things by themselves. I answer all the questions they have, I say “no” a lot. I’m playing house, simple as that, feeling a little bored and a lot like a phony. I realize that to their parents I’m a service like a plumber or a maid, more vital perhaps, but really no different in terms of how the world of their home feels to them. They don’t come home and hope that things I’ve thought and said have impacted the lives of their children. In fact, they don’t really want that at all. They want the lives they’ve built for their kids to keep going on. I am not to change the course. I am to perpetuate, perpetuate, perpetuate. Keep the ship afloat and nothing else. Be as arbitrary as humanly possible. Nice, clean, sensible, fair–and extremely unremarkable.
I can do that, though it’s against my instincts. It forces me to remind myself that my nannying job is just that, a job. This is not my place to be especially creative. This is not my place to change any lives in big ways, to share the deepest parts of me, to open way up. No, this is my place to keep them on course, to not cut any impressions too deep into them, and maybe, just maybe, to teach them how to peel an orange along the way.
I really must be more impressionable than any seven or eleven year old is, because I can’t help but let them into my head, to wonder if I’m doing enough. If they knew how much I thought about how to be for them perhaps they’re know even in tiny ways to appreciate my presence, to not take me for granted as a city-kid privilege, the sweet 22-year-old who’s not their mom who hangs with them every day and cares about them more than she cares to admit. These kids are seeping into my heart, albeit far slower than my dear baby girl did. I sometimes remember to pray for them, to touch their heads, to tell them they’re great. I want to know more about them, more, more, always more, but at the same time I sort of know enough. The unremarkable-ness comes back in. I don’t need them to care about me, to understand the depths of my thoughts and feelings, to recognize me as a fully-realized human being. They can’t do that, not yet. But I can certainly see that my being there day in and day out impacts me deeply, makes me think and feel new things, consider childhood anew, yearn for my own children to mother, to shape, to love. Nannying is leaving dents in me, and if I’m truly doing my job well, as I aim to do, it will barely leave a mark on them.
This is me as a wee tender babe. Quiet, soft, sweet me, ready to love. Can you believe it, I still feel the same. Quiet, soft, sweet. Ready, ready to love.
Interested in more of my thoughts on mom life or lack thereof? Check out “Ode to Clog Mom” here!