“Do you think your nanny is too affectionate with your daughter?” my friend asked me at work the other day.
I understood exactly what she was asking. We had had our babies within a month of each other. We were both back in the office, and our children were at home with their nannies. We missed our babies terribly. We both wanted to know whether it was normal to feel the way we did. The answer was – is – complicated.
My husband and I hired a wonderful woman to care for our daughter Mia. I still don’t know how we lucked out. We found Tess* [not her real name] online, through one of those websites that’s like an OK Cupid for parents and sitters. By the time we met her, we had interviewed so many candidates that I wondered how I would keep them all straight in my mind, but Tess stood out. She was warm, funny, and took copious notes. We went with our gut. It could have been a disaster, like a bad first date. But Tess is marvelous, both deeply kind and careful.
On her first day, there were rough patches. Mia cried in the morning. It didn’t help that I’d overfed her before I left for work, because I was worried about my milk supply going down. She cried in the late afternoon, too, and her eyelashes were still wet with tears when I got home, but she was happier. She was lying on her back in her activity gym, and Tess was alongside her, bringing the dangly duckie into reach. Mia was laughing, and I could tell that she would be okay without me.
After that, she and Tess got along like peaches and cream.
As time went on, my coworkers would ask how my daughter was doing, and I would gush with relief. She’s great! She’s happy! One day after I’d been back at work a couple weeks, my father asked whether I was jealous of Tess, but how could I be jealous? I was too overwhelmed with gratitude. And I was so busy getting caught up at work that there wasn’t time to miss Mia. Next thing I knew, I was home again for bathtime, the best part of my day.
So when the jealousy came, it threw me for a loop.
My husband and I had left our camera with Tess so she could take pictures of Mia. On top of everything, she’s a terrific photographer and takes dozens of pictures a day. At first it gave me the visual evidence I needed to know that my daughter was happy and well cared for while I was away. But then it started to hurt.
One night just before I went to bed, I flipped through the day’s pictures. They began in the activity gym. Mia stared up at the camera through several clicks. Next she was on the sidewalk in her stroller. A nap ensued. Grass appeared in the background. She woke up in the park. She held up her head for tummy time. Then she beamed with love and happiness, as if the entire world existed in that moment, on that blanket. It was the most beautiful picture of her that I had ever seen.
I sat in bed that night, looking at the photograph, and it became quite clear to me that in that moment, on that blanket, my daughter’s world contained only two people. And I was not one of them. I wept.
This continued for several nights. My husband comforted me, and I learned that it was better not to look at the pictures at bedtime, not if I wanted to get any sleep. Sometimes I went days without looking at them.
After that, I started to notice all the ways in which Mia had become attached to Tess. When I came home in the evenings, she would look at Tess, as if she needed a cue for how to feel. When my husband walked in the door next, and all three of the adults in her life stood around her, she looked stunned and perplexed. Sometimes Mia seemed happier in the pictures than I’d seen her be with me. She and Tess could spend an entire afternoon at the park together; when I took her, she fussed after an hour. Why? Was it hard for her to relax with me? Had Tess become her main event and I the sideshow?
And if so, what should I do about it? Quit work? But we needed my job. My husband and I talked about whether we could get by on one salary, but with the economy so shaky and a mortgage to pay and college to save for, it didn’t seem to be in the cards. I checked in with my friend, who had just come back to work and left her son with a nanny. She was struggling, too.
“It bugs me when she calls him ‘My Darling.’ And when she kisses him – I feel like that should be my thing.” I could see where she was coming from. As much as I wanted Tess to love Mia, and Mia to love Tess, I wanted to be the one to shower Mia with kisses. Tess had done an admirable job of being affectionate without crossing over the invisible boundary of mother-love. But she showed me a picture she’d taken of Mia with her phone, “so I can show my friends my baby,” and it rankled. Mia was not her baby.
I reached out to another friend of mine, who is a nanny herself, and I told her how I’d been feeling. I’d gone to all this trouble to have a child. I’d worked so hard to build a stable life to bring that child into, and now someone else was living it. Sometimes, my friend said, she did feel like she was living another woman’s life: watching her children, entertaining other children and nannies in her home, serving them this woman’s tea. My friend’s words were as validating as they were haunting.
Of course, I knew what Tess meant when she called my daughter hers. The rational part of my brain knew it was a good thing that she cared enough about Mia to want to show her off on the weekends. But it still got to me. In a way, it felt true that Mia was hers and not mine. Tess discovered Mia’s first tooth. Tess was there when Mia rolled over for the first time. Tess was the one who saw – and probably provoked – the look of utter joy on my daughter’s face on that beautiful day at the park.
Maybe the funny feeling I sometimes get in my stomach is as simple as this – it both thrills me and kills me that someone besides my husband and me can make our daughter happy.
I have that picture of Mia on the blanket at the park on my computer now, as my desktop wallpaper. I see it every time I sit down to write or check my email. Despite my deep ambivalence about missing that moment in her life, every time I see it, it makes me smile. Tess’ knees are visible on the blanket, but sometimes I forget, and I think that they’re mine. Time and memory are playing their funny tricks on me, and I almost believe now that I was there, too.