My Daughter’s Other Mother
My husband’s job is taking us to New York. We spent months trying to decide whether or not to seize this opportunity. We both knew it was a great choice for him professionally, and living in New York has been something we’ve both always wanted to do. Our opportunity to move to the big city was here, yet still I hesitated. It wasn’t saying goodbye to our friends, though they are many and true. It wasn’t the fact that we’d just moved into a new house six months ago. It wasn’t the loss of the Pacific Ocean and abundant sunshine. It wasn’t even worrying about my children adjusting to city life.
One of my husband’s colleagues asked me as we sat around a dinner table at a New York restaurant with fabulous lobster risotto cakes on square tangerine-orange fingertip plates, “What’s holding you back? It is New York, after all. We’re not asking you to move to rural South Dakota.” True. I considered that, and answered honestly with a slight whine to my voice. “Umm. Well, I love our nanny, and I know she won’t be able to come with us.” His furrowed brow said everything it needed to. I sounded so utterly weak. A nanny? Really? Are you going to pass up this life opportunity because of a nanny?
My daughter runs into her nanny’s arms three mornings a week. My pale-faced, almost-bald blonde two-year-old wraps her arms around mounds of thick, wavy, black hair. My daughter speaks untroubled Spanish to her, and, when I’m not around, she calls her Mama.
And all of it is okay with me. More than okay. Maybe it wouldn’t feel okay with me if I were away from my children more than 20 hours a week, but as it is, I’m grateful that my daughter’s steward in my absence is someone she loves and trusts enough to give the name Mama.
Frances came to us when my son, now five, was 16 months old. She stood in my doorway, a woman in her early thirties, just a few inches shorter than me, with her black hair tied neatly back. Her hand trembled just a bit when we shook hands. She smoothed her flowered skirt behind her as she sat on my sofa. I asked a few questions. She answered them, but not elaborately, and I felt the weight of silence fill the room. I wasn’t sure what to think about her reserved manner, but I liked the warm gaze she directed at my son. A close friend, whose youngest daughter was entering school and would not need a nanny anymore, promised me that Frances had something special.
I trusted that gaze and my friend, and Frances came to our house. In the first weeks, her eyes were often downcast when she saw me enter a room, but I heard her soothing voice speak to my son when I was out of sight. As days turned into weeks, her hands stopped trembling and her smiles became more frequent. I have listened to her laugh amplify over the years, and I hear her real voice now, still soothing but also strong. She doesn’t look down when I enter the room anymore; she smiles at me over the heads of my children.
My son started nursery school not long after Frances started working with us, but she knew my daughter from the womb. She was there the day we brought Dorothea home from the hospital, and I remember the way Frances clapped her hands together when she saw Dorothea’s tiny red round face peeking out from her swaddle. She lifted her from my arms and brought Dorothea to her face. I could see how fully she shared our joy at having this new baby in our lives.
In certain ways, Frances is my mother, too. She knows how often I walk out the door without my keys, cell phone, sunglasses, or briefcase. More often than not, as I come huffing back up the driveway, she’s waiting there with my forgotten item in her hand. She changes the sheets on the beds before I ask. She reminds me to call a plumber when the sink leaks. She picks up diapers or orange juice at the store when she sees we are almost out.
At times, she fills the role of a partner in caring for my children more fully than my husband, whose work keeps him away from the house most of the week. I often meet Frances at a coffee shop in the morning, and she tells me stories about my children’s accomplishments or knee scrapes at the park the previous afternoon. And I tell her stories about what they ate or refused to eat for breakfast. We drink coffee together, enjoying a few quiet moments before I begin my work and she begins hers while my daughter flits back and forth between us, climbing from my lap to hers and back again.
I had to tell her this week that we would be moving. I spent most of the previous night looking up at my bedroom ceiling wondering what I would say and how she would respond. She walked into our coffee shop in the morning. Her smile was bright. She crouched down and clapped her hands together, and Dorothea ran into her arms. Tears gathered in my eyes, and I began. “Frances, I have some news.” A few minutes later, she stared out the window, tears in her eyes and her hand covering her mouth. Her untouched latte steamed into her face.
Though I am already crusading to find her a new job, and though we have pledged to pay her several months’ severance, none of that will change the sadness in her eyes. None of that will change the gasp in her voice or the trembling that returned momentarily to her hands. None of that will take away her tears and mine. None of that will replace the way my daughter calls her Mama now but might not remember her in a year.
Maybe if I had told my husband’s colleague, “We will have to leave my daughter’s other mother behind.” Maybe that would have made my hesitation more understandable — for both of us..