Thursday, April 28, 2011


My Grandma Cecilia has fascinated me all my life; depending on who you ask, she died just days before or days after my birth. I prefer my mom's version, of course, which insists that her mother held on long enough to make sure I, her 49th grandchild, was okay. Growing up, I slept under a quilt Granmda had made. I even lived in her house, with Grandpa, during the last years of his life (he was amazing, and so much fun--my memories are really vivid, despite the fact that I was about four when he died, but that's a story for another day). I played with Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls the Grandma made. I learned to sew on a foot-powered sewing machine that she had once used. (For any relatives reading this, it was not The Sewing Machine that plugged into a wall and seems to have taken on an almost religious significance. I don't remember who has The Sewing Machine, but I'm sure it's someone who would not allow a ten-year-old to take it apart to see how it worked/why it did not work consistently.) Eventually, I knitted with wooden needles she had owned. I wrote poetry about her in college, after learning that she read insatiably, even textbooks, despite having ended her formal education somewhere near the eight grade, although I can't remember exactly when she is supposed to have left school to do chores for a stepmother who was, by all accounts, actually mean enough to qualify as a "wicked stepmother," and looks the part in ancient photographs. I doubt that Cecelia would ever have said anything like that herself, but it's pretty easy to glean from the stories her relatives told during my Aunts' family history project (again--another story).

I'm writing about my grandmother for three reasons--1) I recently told my four-year-old niece about her, 2) Peggy Orenstein wrote a blog post that made me think so intensely that my "response" turned into this and 3) I will interview my mom at New York City's Story Corps booth on Mother's Day, and she's gathering information about her mother so that she'll be able to answer my questions.

1) My niece is only four, and the idea that Mommy and Tia had a nana, too, which means that her Nana Rose had a MOMMY is totally mind-blowing. I started telling her about it, though, because I took her to a fabric store with me for the first time to pick out a pattern and fabric for a new dress (I've been sewing dresses for her since she turned 2, and I knit her a sweater when she was born). I then had to explain how one goes about making a dress, unfolding the pattern and showing her the shapes of all the pieces. She deserved a good answer to the question "Tia, can you make my dress today?" Since we were talking about sewing, I decided to ask her:
"Mira, can I teach you to sew one day?"
"Sure." (Not really listening.)
"It's really important to me, because Nana Rose taught me how to sew, and her mommy taught her how to sew." (Now I had her attention.)
"Nana Rose's MOMMY?"
"Yep. My nana. Her name was Cecilia. I don't really remember her, but your mommy does."
"Where is she?"
"She died, sweetheart."
"She was old and she got sick."
"That is just something that happens when people get old."
"Okay. Why?"
"I don't really know."
"Okay." (Pause.) "Tia? Did Nana Rose have one mommy?"
(Confused.) "Yes... everyone has a mommy."
"Well, my friends Eleanor and Katie have two mommies and no daddies."
(Ah.) "Oh, I get it. Nana Rose had one mommy and one daddy."
And we moved on to an art project that could, in fact be completed TODAY and not in a future that hardly exists for a four-year-old.

2) Peggy Orenstein is a journalist and mother whose recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, examines childhood, especially girlhood, as it exists now. That's a terrible summary of a really gorgeous book, so you should just go read it. Her blog continues many of the conversations her book begins, including several threads about toys, specifically, dolls. Her most recent post inspired a wave of wonderful nostalgia for me, and my response grew to ridiculous lengths for a comment, and is now here:

My sister (Holli with an "i") loved Holly Hobby and Raggedy Ann, and her kids will grow up with the original images of both: Holly Hobby and her male friend/brother? What's his name? They are, respectively, on a mug I found, vintage, made in the year Holli was born, affordable because it had once been cracked on the handle and repaired (I've never even been able to find the repair). Mirabai eats snacks out of it regularly (it's plastic, not ceramic, and therefore not too heavy).

But Raggedy Ann is our family's Queen of Nostalgia. My grandmother made dozens and dozens of Raggedy Ann (and Andy) dolls by hand (fewer Andys survive--I think fewer were made). Red yarn for hair, inexpensive blue fabric dresses, red and white striped legs and big lovely black cloth vaguely boot-shaped feet. These days, they're harder to find, especially for us younger cousins, most of them having been played with until they fell apart. Cecilia would eventually have 52 grandchildren, although I was the last one she knew about (there are 3 after me), and it seems like she made a set of dolls for just about everyone. We can date the dolls by their faces: earlier dolls have perfectly embroidered features, while later editions have faces painted on with fabric markers, evidence of aging hands. My sister lost hers during a lifetime of moving around (she attended either five or six elementary schools, back when Dad was a musician), and then, almost like a miracle, Raggedy Ann came back to her. Holli's teenage friend Nancy had been our grandparents' neighbor all her life and had received a precious Raggedy Ann from our grandmother. Her own mother obsessively kept everything in their house perfectly preserved, even the toys, which I distinctly remember not being allowed to touch when Nancy and Holli were in high school and I in preschool, tagging along over to Nancy's house whenever Holli was forced to babysit me. Over fifteen years later, word reached Nancy that my sister had had a daughter. The news traveled all the way from Australia, where Holli was living at the time, to Minnesota, where Nancy still lives, and this excellent friend lovingly packed up her perfectly preserved Raggedy Ann, and oh so generously sent it to my sister, despite having had daughters of her own. Raggedy Ann now sits on top of a bookshelf in Mirabai's room, and my niece can tell anyone who asks that she is very old so we can't get risk getting her dirty. She may or may not remember that Mommy's Nana made the doll, given that the concepts of Mommy having a Nana and her own nana having a mommy seem absolutely absurd and impossible. I made a connection just now, though, between something I learned yesterday and that doll who watches over our baby girl: my aunt said in an email "Mom [my Grandma Cecilia] wanted as many children as she could have" and something along the lines of "because she thought motherhood was her vocation." I also learned that my grandmother felt guilty if she wasn't doing something with her hands at all times. I firmly believe that she poured all of her love for each one of those children (15) and grandchildren (52, now), and great-grandchildren (we gave up counting) into the things she made, especially those dolls.

3) After I interview my Mom, I'll write another post about what I learned. I can't wait to record so much of our family's rich oral history. And now, I will make sure to ask about the toys Grandma made. Were there others, besides Raggedy Ann and Andy? Does anyone know how many she did make? And, finally, how on earth did she find the time?!

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Watchful Nanny

I read an article a long time ago in the New York Times in which the writer confessed that she had fired her nanny after reading said employee's blog. It's a great hook, but there was a lot more to the story, of course. Her nanny was including personal information about the family in her blog, and narrating her own exploits in New York's Clubland, including miriad drugs and vivid descriptions of sexual encounters. I am against the blog as a diary, a record of every single thought that passes through the writer's head (see the current controversy surrounding the UCLA student who video blogged a racist rant about Asian students in the university library) because I think it encourages an unhealthy lack of perspective. Another sticking point was that the nanny was blogging while the children were playing nearby. But this is not the reason the writer spent a sleepless week over her decision to fire her blogging nanny. The blog actually narrated the nanny's complete disregard for her employer's privacy. In any office, an employee blogging about the details of a fight she has overheard between two higher-ups would probably be fired immediately, assuming she was found out. So why was this so agonizing a decision for our journalist mom?

The nanny-mother relationship is just frought with emotion, and, of course, the feelings of small children are involved, small children who should not know that Nanny had to go away because she was having crazy drug-addled club sex and, what's worse for the family, detailing Mommy and Daddy's marital problems online for all to see. And this brings me to perhaps the most important realization I have ever had as a child care provider: I don't WANT to be "one of the family." Isn't it just obviously better for everyone if I am an employee, and not a faux family member? The idea of children in the loving arms of someone who is as close as possible to family is a lovely idea! But really think about what happens when your sibling or parent takes the kids. Are they CPR certified? Are they going to give your children their complete, entire, full attention? Do you expect them too? They're doing you a favor! When I am paid as a nanny, I am at work. I ask permission before using the internet during the child's nap (as I am doing now). I ignore phone calls unless it's clearly going to be a short call that is necessary/informative.

Now, I do not ignore my sister's kids when I'm babysitting them! But I will give my niece candy without asking Mom and Dad if it's okay. I don't feel badly about letting her watch another episode of Dora if I need to change her little brother's diaper, make dinner or just talk on the phone for a few minutes. I do not stop paying attention to my beloved young relatives, but I take some liberties I would never take while caring for children I'm not related to. There's a reason for this beyond the obvious (I can't get fired from being an aunt!)--if I ask an employer's opinion about everything from pacifiers to nap time schedules to what foods she prefers her child eats, then I am showing respect for her as the parent. Leaving your kid with someone outside the family can be scary, even if you've interviewed and background-checked like crazy first. You don't need the added stress of wondering if the nanny is doing things her own way without consulting you; there is a thin line between caring for a child and trying to parent somebody else's kid.

I do hope that I don't sound terribly preachy or sanctimonious, here, but it has just been SO helpful for me to think of my job as similar to any other paid position and to pretend that I do have a supervisor nearby at all times. I want to share my philosophy. It has probably gone over really well in interviews, but before I had fully articulated this idea, I sometimes felt uncomfortable without knowing why. Now, I know that by asking about every little thing, I can cover some ground that Mom might not remember to cover, and I get to feel totally comfortable knowing that if Mom or Dad walk in at any moment, I can feel proud of the care I am giving their child. (A note: I have thus far interacted with moms pretty much exclusively during the hiring process, and this is the only reason I have often excluded Dad from this post.) I also find that no parent is ever annoyed at me asking too many questions about how they want their child cared for. It's the best way I know of to express the enormous respect I have for these people who have taken on the awe-inspiring task of producing and raising children. If anything, I have even more respect for a parent who asks for some outside help--it takes guts and a lot of planning, and the decision often represents a very healthy assertion of the parent's need for grown-ups-only time!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Germ Problem

Very wealthy families have gotten a bad reputation, probably well-deserved, for refusing nannies any kind of collective bargaining power or at the very least a real contract. I learned about this in Manhattan--nannies fired for becoming ill without warning and nowhere to go. Of course, I was a babysitter putting myself through college when I lived in Manhattan, so if I lost a job, then I'd eventually find another, and I knew it. I was not, for example, an immigrant from the Caribbean in her fifties caring for three grandchildren at night, at home, and one or two wealthy white children on the Upper West Side during the day, earning less than minimum wage. Mine were never the problems of poverty. The problem that I face, along with the families I work for, is not life-or-death, but rather, logistical. Nevertheless, it is a real problem, and one I have no solution for.

I am in bed as I write this, with a cough that will not let go. My lungs feel shredded, especially in the mornings. It's a virus--I have no fever. But I've been sick for almost a week. Each day, I have hoped I'd be well enough to work. Each day, I have had to tell these families, sometimes much later than I should have, "No, I cannot come today." Now, if I worked in an office, three problems here would cease to exist: I'd get paid sick leave, the company would be equipped to cope without me and I could go back to work still coughing, and just tell my coworkers to use hand sanitizer. But most families don't have a backup babysitter, so they are forced into a kind of scramble for child care when I cancel. I don't get paid when I cancel. I can't "tough it out" for fear of getting the babies sick, too. And I have seen this--babies always have it worse. It's miserable knowing that you may have gotten a child so very sick who cannot even blow his nose yet.

And so, I miss the children I cannot see, for fear of passing on my germs. I earn no money, which is obviously a problem for my family, as my husband's income is not enough for two. And, more importantly, sleep-deprived moms must scramble to make a boss understand or round up another babysitter at the last minute. It's a depressing day, despite an excellent book and very cuddly cat.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Milestones Part 2

In case this isn't already completely obvious, I want my own baby quite desperately. It's just not time, though, and one cannot make a change like parenthood in a hurry! So I feel all the more privileged to spend so much time around other families. I'm learning a lot about motherhood and babies.

When I come home, though, my puppy--oh no! I should say "my dog"! He's a year old now, and not a puppy anymore! Well, my dog, Lewis, is my baby when I come home. The picture you see over on the right there shows me and my baby when he was just three months old. He gets all kinds of cuddle time and (healthy) treats and lots of long walks. My big sister's awesome dog adores the kids but seems to miss all the attention he got when he was the only baby. Lewis is getting all kinds of fun mommy & daddy time, including training, while my husband and I still have time and energy to give him our full attention. This is my gorgeous Lewis now (he's half Beagle and half Australian Cattle Dog, a breed we had to research--see the post "Before Adoption" for more of his story!):


I have the privilege to care for an infant, heretofore known as G, who is not only completely adorable (you'll see a picture as soon as her mamma gives me permission to post one) but smiles all day long! Well, she did smile all day long until her very first tooth started poking its way up. It seems that every time I spend a day with her, something brand new happens! Pure joy! Recent milestones include:
  • First tooth is suddenly visible! I can feel it too, if she decides to start chewing on my finger. I try to discourage this behavior, but she's very crafty.
  • She pointed for the very first time EVER! And I got to see it! Sweetest part? She pointed at a picture of her big sister when I brought her up close and asked her to show me Sister (P). Then, she did so on command when P came home from preschool! I got to see her point, a huge developmental milestone, but I also got to see P's big smile at this proof that the baby knows her, loves her and misses her when she's not home.
The family is going away on vacation for a two whole weeks, and I'm going to miss my little G so much! When she comes back, she'll have even more super-cool skills to show off. I can't wait to see her grow some more.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New Adventures!

After much painful consideration and hours of thought, I left a PhD program in English. To do what, you ask? To do anything I could find that actually made me happy. You see, it occurred to several relatives (I was a bit slow to catch on), that I was compiling "incompletes" left and right because, perhaps, I did not actually WANT to do my work because it was not actually something that I enjoyed doing anymore. Officially, I took a "leave of absence." I think I took a leave of absense, but I remain unsure as to whether the paperwork has actually been completed, having had no response from various departments who need to sign said paperwork. Whatever their computers say, I no longer go to graduate school.

I did get the point when loving relatives staged a sort of intervention, begging me to find a way to, well, be less miserable, and, what's more, I immediately realized that I was less miserably, nay happy, even, when I was babysitting! Admittedly, I had a really, really hard time accepting this as a new career. I told myself that I was already babysitting part-time, I could do more of it and make money until I "figured it all out." Since then ("then" was early January, by the way) I have become... dare I say it... a happy person! Not only am I happy sometimes, but I am happy most of the time, because I am always doing something that I choose to do! It's miraculous, and I wish everyone in the world had the privilege of feeling this way.

It might be a bubble. It might be a honey-moon period. I might just be ecstatic not to be writing papers anymore or, for that matter, grading papers. Maybe playing with blocks and rocking babies to sleep will lose its luster, and I'll come crashing back to earth. But right now, the baby I am caring for is stirring from her nap, and I am just so happy to be going to pick her up and hold her in my arms!

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Blog Feature!

Hi everyone! Well, I have been distinctly unproductive lately, because I've gotten myself all wrapped up in a silly game--who knew there was a gamer buried underneath all those layer of book-reading girliness? I would like to share this excellent news, however:

The amazingly productive blog 360 Handmade has featured my work! Go on over and check out the post! My Jack Russel and I are both very flattered.