“Ugh,” Mari mutters at the phone, glowing face-up on the table. “I click on one ad, one time, and now all I get are these ads…”
I glance over at her screen. In comic-bookish CGI, set in a bedroom, a chiselly man tilts a speech bubble into the face of an Attractive Young Woman.
“The boys just love you,” he says.
What the hell? I think. Is this some kind of brothel-themed version of the SIMS?
But his speech bubbles continue, and it soon becomes clear that the “boys” who “just love” the Attractive Young Woman are not that kind of bedroom clientele. They are the man’s children. Moments later, his lady steps out of the closet in an evening gown. The illustrator has expertly rendered the expensiveness of woman’s dress, the elaborate lay of her hair.
“We’re going to be late for our engagement party!” she chides the man, thereby revealing him to be her fiancée.
As they exit, the ad offers its first example of the gameplay. You, the nanny character, get to make your first decision. Click on your choice: will you crash their engagement party, dressed to kill with plunging neckline and high-slit skirt?
Of course you will! The ad now relocates you to the swank of the party, where you slither about the room, plotting your next move. How to divert your boss’s attention away from his soon-to-be-bride?
Why, by tossing yourself into the arms of his brother for a make-out session on the dance floor, of course!
Mari swipes away from the ad, but I’ve seen enough. There it is– my profession in a nutshell. At least, there’s the mass perception of my work, condensed into a poignant little box. I, and other young women like me, dedicate ourselves to a career with no colleagues, no benefits packages, no levels for advancement, and no long-term stability, and what’s our motivation? Access to other women’s husbands, ripe for the stealing, of course.
My first exposure to the ubiquity of the husband-stealing nanny in the public imagination started with an internet search. In my first home childcare job, it was my crappy luck to stumble onto evidence that the lady of the house was cheating. I knew well enough to keep my mouth shut, but even so, the situation put me at a risk. If she ever figured out what I knew, I’d be out on my ass. The only trace I’d leave behind in would be my name issuing from a toddler’s crying mouth.
Given the nature of the job, I figured I could not be the first domestic worker to find herself caught under the burden of a secret. So I took to the web, hoping to find solidarity and maybe some advice from other nannies who had gone through something similar.
I did not find solidarity. What I did find was article after article about nannies and husbands, intertwined. The headlines tell a pattern of celebrities blowing up their marriages by sleeping with the nanny, sometimes in the course of years-long affairs, sometimes even leaving the glamorous star-wife to marry the nanny-nobody. The treachery of cheating, the heartbreak of the wife, all magnify under the lens of the wronged woman’s trust in her subordinate. She opened her home and her family to the caregiver, took her on vacations, signed all her checks. And all the while, the nanny was a viper coiled in her house.
No combination of words in the search box yielded any different results. No matter how I arranged the quotation marks to make it clear to the search engine that the affair in question did not involve the nanny, the paradigm would not relent. According to the web, a house could not possibly contain both a nanny and a cheating spouse unless the two were in bed together.
Today, that first domestic job is far behind me. The inevitable implosion set me free when it came, and now I count myself among the luckiest of all women who work in the homes of richer people. My employers treat me well. Though my workplace is their home, they walk all the proper lines to keep my environment professional. Unaccusing. Safe.
But even so, I hold my body with a vigilance that I can’t shake, despite my intellect telling me that I don’t need it. I face the trope of ‘nanny as scheming seductress’ every morning when I dress for work. The physical demands of my job require range of motion– I spend my days squatting, crouching, crawling, running, dancing with a baby in my arms and a child grasping at each hip. Leggings are ideal for my workwear… but my ass looks great in a pair of leggings. Should I sacrifice their comfort for the coverage of a stiff pair of pants, the less to appear intentionally desirable to the father of the house and, more importantly, his wife?
There is no HR department at my workplace. Anyone who hires me is well within their rights to fire me over a shapely bum, a misconstrued giggle, a boob exposed by an infant’s tugging fist. If the man of the house decides to hit on me, if the woman succumbs to insecurity and frames me as a threat, I’m out the door, with a sticky story of my severance to explain to the unemployment office.
So for that, I walk a careful line. And I worry, even though I know there is no danger. I have been a woman long enough to know what lust feels like, radiating from a man’s eyes to trap you in its searchlight. It is a glare that has never burned my skin inside this house.
But still, I worry. I worry because sometimes he walks in on me lying on my back on the floor with my legs in the air, airplaning the little angel on my calves, and I know how simultaneously innocent and wanton the pose must make me look.
I worry because I have read too many articles explaining that men are instinctively attracted to any woman they see caring for their children. Too many articles cautioning well-to-do mommies to look out for signs of a husband’s desire for the babysitter, advising them to keep the younger woman close, the way you would an enemy. Your nanny is not as rich as you are, warn the articles, and her bond with your children could tip over into ownership. She sees all that you have from an intimate angle, and she wants it.
I have been a woman long enough to know another woman’s envy. I have felt the hate that a mother can produce when she compares herself against you and finds you guilty of being what she feels she is not– young, carefree and fun, pretty in a way that she believes that she no longer is, now that the strain of raising children weighs her down.
I also know that this hatred is unable to coexist with the easy confidence of the woman that I work for, now. I have read and reread the smile with which she greets me in the morning. It is absent of suspicion, I am sure.
I worry even though I trust both of the grown-ups in the house, and can feel them trusting me, too.
But I am not the only one wary of my body in the house.
I realize this one day as my boss, the father, helps me to riddle my way into a baby carrier. The straps rest on my shoulders. The belt’s around my hips. Both of my hands are occupied, balancing the weight of his son against my chest until the carrier is locked in to secure him.
“And then this one buckles there,” he says, pulling at the strap in question with his fingers. I wait for him to pop it into place, but he doesn’t. He holds it out, waiting for my hand to take it up.
His wife has helped me into a carrier before. When she did, neither she nor I thought anything of her hands buckling the baby safe against my body. Until he pauses, I think nothing of his hands, either, approaching my ribs to do the same.
But when he freezes up, I realize:
He’s afraid of me.
Until this moment all I know is my own vulnerability along this axis. For the first time, I consider his. An accusation out of me, even a baseless lie, could bring disaster down on him.
I could detonate a bomb inside his house.
Maybe this danger that he feels in me is power, a power that is mine to wield. Maybe it’s a trap, for one or the other of us, or both.
Or maybe we are just two people, dancing around each other in precise propriety, bonded in a vow of separation. A reciprocal vulnerability, each of us capable of the other one’s destruction.
I shift the baby’s weight into my elbow. For one precarious second, the tiny life of the man’s only son tilts, half-held, over the floor, while I swing my other hand around my back to catch the dangling strap.
Then I click the buckle in and the baby’s safe against me. The Dad’s free to retreat. I’m free to move.
If the tension inherent in our two positions were something we could talk about, I would take a moment, then, to reassure him. You are safe with me, I’d like to tell him. I mean you no harm, and I trust you not to harm me.
I see everything you have from an intimate angle. I see the wealth, the house, the love that you share with your children and your wife, and I don’t want it.
I only want to play my role here in your home.
I only want to keep the trust you’ve given me, until your family outgrows my hired love, and I move on.