I just read Bari Nan Cohen’s Babble piece Buyer Beware: Having a Nanny Can Be Hazardous to Your Marriage, and I could not agree with her thesis more — that outside help can drive a wedge in a marriage — though in my case, the wedge was a bit more corrosive than disputes over the division of labor.
I was a nanny for two families over a period of five years — from my late teens to my early 20s. It was how I paid my way through college. While it was a tremendous learning experience that helped pave the way for my future career, I learned more about family dynamics and dysfunction than I cared to.
I wasn’t subjected to any gross, obvious advances from the man of the household, which is the go-to trope among “disturbing nanny stories.” In thinking back, there was some subtle, sly flirtation from one of the fathers but, at 17, I was too young and naive and oblivious to understand what was going on. The dysfunction I became aware of … slowly, over time … was more insidious.
I was very young. I came from a stable, normal family in Montana where no one yelled at each other. I was a wholesome blank slate in many respects, which I think is a quality many families look for when hiring an au pair, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
Wholesome blank slates are not jaded or cynical. They’re good girls, apple polishers. They keep their mouths shut. They’re too naive to see the cracks in a marriage. They’re non threatening. They blend into the wallpaper.
I’m pretty sure I was hired to blend into the wallpaper (and help with dinner and homework). But when you’re hired to be a non-presence, you become a fly on the wall, the eyes and ears of a marriage and can become, with enough time, trust and familiarity, the lens through which husbands and wives see each other and their union.
In this instance, the father was a verbally abusive tyrant prone to random fits of rage which he’d take out on his wife, children and me. It was a classic case of undiagnosed bipolar disorder, though I had never heard of that at the time, and it almost goes without saying that he was the only one in his family not in therapy.
This man would tell his wife — a lovely, vivacious woman with a big heart and even bigger career — that she was stupid and ugly and ought to wear more makeup. He would say these things in front of guests at dinner parties then laugh like it was a clever and hilarious joke. From my perspective against the wallpaper, I was shocked. I had never heard anyone speak like this before (an unforeseen consequence of hiring a wholesome blank slate).
Yet, I would watch her laugh it off too, like everything was hunky-dory, like this was normal silly banter among spouses. I remember thinking, what is wrong with these people? Am I in crazy town? Why doesn’t she tell that jerk to stick it? (I was 17, after all.)
I worked for this particular family for a number of years and during that time, my dislike for him grew while my respect for her diminished. I’m ashamed to say it because she only ever treated me like gold — buying me clothes, giving me opportunities and pep talks — even as he treated us all so bad. But I was too young and too naive to understand that the reason she absorbed his verbal abuse was because she was conditioned to. It was classic battered wife syndrome, only words were the weapons. For her to confront this would have meant acknowledging theirs was an unsustainable marriage, a proposition she wasn’t emotionally prepared to accept yet.
I saw none of this at the time. Instead, I withdrew, becoming more cynical and sullen. The wholesome blank slate was disappearing. In my depression, I was blind to how lonely she was. I couldn’t see how isolated she felt. All I could see was a psychotically chipper doormat who always placated the tyrant and tried to buy the nanny’s respect. She knew I was withdrawing. A rift settled between us. She resented my indifference. I resented her for making me a witness to her repressed marital drama. I wanted so badly to quit but couldn’t until I had my degree.
Then one day — about six months before graduation — the father accused me of purposefully breaking the family computer then hatching a scheme to cover it up. It was completely delusional (to begin with, I lacked any sort of cunning to “hatch a scheme” whatsoever). I was fed up with the crazy and I just snapped. I told him to, “Go F himself,” and then I quit.
A couple of hours later, the wife came to me to apologize on his behalf. This absolutely infuriated me, as it was another example of her always enabling and condoning his terrible behavior. I blurted out as much — I recalling yelling, “He treats you like such sh**!” I will never forget the look on her face — a mix of fear, shame, helplessness and rage. She was busted. She couldn’t pretend life was peachy perfect anymore. She stormed out of the room.
The family and I eventually patched things up, the father cried when he apologized, I stayed on until graduation, but we were never the same. The nanny/family dynamic had been unequivocally altered. I couldn’t blend into the wallpaper anymore. Relations remained tense until the day I graduated and moved out.
A year or so later, she divorced him. I don’t want to say I was the catalyst, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened had this family never had an au pair, never had an outside set of eyes to witness what was really going on in their marriage. I imagine the wife would have eventually woke up on her own, but perhaps not. It’s impossible to know. So I was the wedge that Bari Nan Cohen writes about. But in my case, it was a particularly uncomfortable load to carry, and the reason I will dissuade my own daughter from ever working as a nanny.
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