Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why I've gone from Mary Poppins to Cinderella

It started with the dire warnings of home accidents and toddler deaths, which I accepted as a matter of course. She is a mother; she worries. I am a baby-sitter; I try to assuage her fears. When she criticized my technique for opening a packet of cookies, I took it in stride. Entering unexpectedly at bath time, she gasped. "Too much soap in the water!"

"Yes," I said. "She was washing herself."

"But you have to control her!" she said. "Too much soap is bad for her skin."

"Yes," I said. "Sorry." And the next time I kept the soap out of reach.

Yesterday she encouraged me to have a painting session with the little girl, and told me how to put the plastic sheet down on the living room table, a smock on the girl. Then she left us to paint together, an activity that interested the tot for about five minutes until she got bored and started dipping her sponge stencils in the water bowl and squeezing them over the table. As the water puddled and my attempts at correction went ignored, as usual, I decided enough was enough. "Ok," I sighed, "you're done. Let's clean up." Never mind that set-up and clean-up took three times as long as the actual painting session. And so I mopped up and returned all the items to their previous places before beginning a new activity, as per the very precise instructions I had received.

The mother returned home an hour later, and stopped short in the hallway. "What's this?" she demanded, staring at the floor.

"Um," I said, peering at the splotches on the wooden floorboards. "It looks like water."

"But, how did it get here?" she demanded incredulously.

"I...I'm not sure," I said. "It must have happened during the painting."

"But she should not have been in here! That is why I told you to put the plastic over the table in the living room. You have to control her! I have the feeling you just let her do whatever she wants!"

"Er, she wasn't in here," I said, confused. "I'm not really sure what happened. Unless maybe it happened when I was putting things away. I thought I dried everything off but maybe I missed a bit, and it dripped."

"But look, it's over here..." she said following the trail of water stains down the hall. "...and here, and here too! These are very nice floors, and this will not come off!"

"I'm really sorry," I said. "I didn't know."

"Let's see," she said, grabbing a roll of paper towels and dabbing at the already long-dried stain. "No, you see, it's too late. It's already dried."

"I'm sorry," I offered again.

"But I just don't understand!" she said. "This is a very nice apartment, and we paid a lot of money for it. Yes, it's a shame you didn't see the water, but I have the feeling that you don't control her at all. You just sit back and let her do anything she wants!" And here I felt an already unpleasant conversation take a sudden turn for the worse, a transition that manifested itself in her taking two steps to the side, out of view of her offspring, perhaps, and crossing her arms over her chest. "Yes, I see you with her and you seem so hesitant all the time, it's almost as if you have no experience with children at all!"

"Well that's not true," I said through tightly gritted teeth.

"But you need to control her!" she said. "And you act so nervous all the time."

"Well, yes," I said, trying to speak as calmly and as slowly as possible, choosing my words carefully. "I probably seem hesitant because I'm afraid of making a mistake. I know you're a very precise person and I want to do everything the right way."

"Well that is why I'm here!" she said. "To show you the right way to do things, so you won't be nervous."

"You make me nervous," I said, point blank.

"Well honestly, it's not as if this is a difficult job!" she said. "I do not ask very much of you. It's not as if there are two or three children; there is only one child. And I do not think she is a difficult child."

Here I had to bite my tongue to refrain from giving my opinion on the subject, which is that where I come from, there are names for children who spit in your face and then laugh when you tell them no, who think it great fun to yank their hand out of yours and take off running in the middle of busy intersections, whose favorite word is no, who turn every mundane task that must be completed into a monumental, screaming and tear-filled debate...As I said, where I come from, there are names for these children, and difficult is one of the nicer ones. And yes, also, she's three, but given a spectrum of normal three-year-old behavior, I would venture a guess that she falls somewhere along the brattier end of the spectrum. But I guess that's what happens when your child is raised by an ever-rotating string of baby-sitters.

"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way," I said, half wondering if she would be giving me my walking papers, or if not, if I felt sufficiently outraged to walk out of there and never look back. I decided to see how the situation played itself out.

She let out a long sigh. "Here," she said, handing me the roll of paper towels. "Can you just..." and she trailed off while gesturing vaguely with her hand.

"Sure," I said. She went into the living room to look after her daughter, and I snuck into the bathroom and wet a paper towel with just the tiniest bit of water, and got down on my hands and knees to rub at the stains. I had the feeling she wouldn't agree with my methods, since water was apparently the evil element that caused the damage in the first place, but it worked, or sort of. The pigmentation from the watercolor paints came off, and what had been a dark stain turned into a lighter and less noticeable mark. Venturing into the girl's bedroom I saw even more paint-y stains that she hadn't seen yet, trailing up from the floor to the shelf where the paints were stored. Shit, I thought, I can't let her see this, and so I scrubbed those too. Then I returned to the hallway and set to work on the rest.

Returning from the living room, she saw me on my hands and knees. "What are you doing?!" she yelled.

"Um?" I said.

"I asked you to put the paper towels away! It's too late for that, it's already dry! I'll have to have someone come in and look at it."

"Oh," I said, "sorry." And I headed towards the kitchen with the paper towel roll.

"Where are you going?" she said. "No, they go in Louise's room. On the changing table!"

"Oh, um, ok, sorry," I said, returning the paper towels to their proper place.

And then, hoping that my hands weren't shaking too badly, I returned to the living room and tried radiate confidence and authority. Luckily the mother soon left us alone, and so the girl and I played a bit, and we even had a moderately successful bath time, in which neither too much nor too little soap was used. After the bath I decided to start preparing the girl's dinner, while the girl voiced her interest in watching "the Lala's." Recalling that I had once been told that I could put the girl either in front of the t.v. or the computer while I prepared her dinner, I told her ok, and sat her down while I tried to find my way through two remotes and thousands of channels. Then briefly remembering another, conflicting bit of information wherein one or another parent had mentioned that t.v. watching was for after dinner only, I paused. "Um, are you sure you wouldn't like to play on the computer instead?" I asked her, only to be met with a resounding no. I decided it was already too late to say otherwise, and so I let her watch t.v. while I headed into the kitchen. Just then, the mother returned.

"Hi!" I said. "So, um, she just had her bath and now I'm starting dinner."

"Hm?" she responded distractedly.

"She had her bath and I'm starting dinner," I said. "But, I guess the soup isn't ready?" I said, indicating the pot of healthy, green goo boiling away on the stove, prepared by the housekeeper.

"Hm?" she responded again.

"So, er, should I wait until the soup is ready then?" I repeated.

"Well, what time is it?" she said, looking at the clock. "Well, no! It's too early, you can't start her dinner yet! I told you you can start to prepare it at 6:30 at the earliest, or she won't be hungry!" I recalled my first day with her, when she had told me I could start preparing dinner at 6:25, but I decided not to split hairs. I looked at the clock. It was 6:20. "If you start her dinner now she will not be hungry, and she will not eat!" She looked at me accusingly.

"Ok," I said. "So...I'll wait."

"You have to turn the t.v. off," she told her daughter. "T.v. is for after dinner only," which of course provoked a series of wails from the little girl. "No, it is not time for t.v. now," she continued. "I don't know why she let you watch t.v. but it is not time." And she stomped upstairs to make some phone calls.

I then commenced to play extremely half-heartedly with the girl for the next few minutes, which mainly included letting her throw a blanket over my head while she, like a tiny drill sergeant, barked an ever more demanding string of orders I was supposed to follow. At which point the mother came back downstairs and pointed an accusing finger. "Well, you have to start preparing her dinner!" she said. "It's 6:40 now!" And so I shuffled to the kitchen and put her food in the microwave to heat. "Are you heating things up?" she said.

"Yes," I said dutifully.

"But you can't heat things up yet, you haven't yet prepared the table! You have to put down the place mat and the cushions like I showed you, otherwise if you wait to prepare the table the food will be cold and she will not want to eat it. You have to think about these things!"

And so I set out the cushions and the place mat, taking all of ten seconds, and returned to the kitchen to heat up the dinner. The housekeeper had left out a child-sized bowl of freshly made soup, with a plate over it to keep it warm. I added the croutons as instructed (three to four broken up into four pieces each) and some shredded gruyère cheese. The mother again thankfully returned upstairs, and so I brought the child to the table, placed a bib on her, and gave her her soup. She took one bite, and immediately started screaming and spitting. "Hot! Too hooottttt!!!" she wailed miserably. Shit, shit shit! She had burned her mouth on the soup, and which negligent baby-sitter hadn't thought to test its temperature? Her mother would have my head. My blood pressure shot up about a thousand points as I tried to calm her. "Shhh, shhhh, it's ok. Here, do you want some water?" I tried desperately. "Hey, do you know what we do when soup's too hot? We put an ice cube in it!" She seemed sufficiently intrigued by this idea, however once I had the freezer door open I remembered, Shit, we're in France. Where there are no ice cubes, obviously. "Or, hey, you know what else we do when our soup is hot?" I said. "We stir it around a lot and blow on it!" This suggestion brought on a renewed round of wails, which, miraculously, hadn't yet brought her mother running. If she caught wind of this, though, I knew I was toast. I finally somehow managed to get the soup cooled, and even got her eating it again with extra (and non mom-approved) helpings of croutons and gruyère. Her mother once again descended at a blessedly calm moment, as the girl demanded yet more cheese on her soup, and then refused to eat the rest of her meal.

"Did she have anything to eat after I left?" she demanded.

"Um, just a carrot that the housekeeper gave her..." I said timidly.

"Nothing else?"


"What about the cookies she had earlier?"

"Yes, she had the cookies you bought her for a snack."

"And how many were there?"

"Um, four?" I said.

"Ok," she said, apparently unable to find fault with that.

"Well, thank you Rachel," she said making it obvious that she was dismissing me for the day. "And I'm sure it will go better the next time."

"Yes," I said, putting on my coat and preparing to run.

"But still though..." she started, and I felt my pulse jump, and I wondered if there was any polite way to suggest to one's employer to just let it go already. "It is a shame about the floors, of course."

"Yes, and like I said, I am sorry about that," I said for what felt like the hundredth time. And I was sorry. But there was a limit to how much sorry I could muster over some water-stained floors, and I had about reached that limit.

"But you know that this is a very nice apartment, a very expensive apartment that we paid a lot of money for. And I'm sure that if you had nice things as well, then you would understand. Well, I'm sure you can understand."

"Yes, I understand," I said with my jaw clenched, wanting nothing more than to be outside so I could burst into the tears I could already feel pricking at my eyes.

"It's just that, I know it's an accident, but it's never happened before with any other baby-sitter. And also, with dinner, you have to prepare her place before you start to heat the food, because it just makes sense. You have to think about these things, you know? It's just like any other job. And really, I don't think I'm asking a lot of you, I don't ask any extra. I don't ask you to make her soup, or do her laundry. I could ask you to do these things, but I don't." Because you pay someone else to do them, I wanted to add, but didn't. "And it's just...you really need to be strong with her, you know? And I understand, I know what it's like to be nervous. I have some...problems in my life. And perhaps that is why I'm being hard on you. I am not the mother I should be at the moment. She needs someone who..." And here her face twitched strangely, and suddenly she was in tears. "I'm sorry," she said, "but as I said, I have problems in my life..." What the hell is going on here? I wondered. She's crying? So are we just going to have ourselves a little crying fit right now, the both of us, and then a nice hug afterward? No way in hell, I decided, and concentrated on blinking back my own tears as she sniffed and sobbed away. And suddenly I felt disappointed, or perhaps it was admiration I felt for this woman, because by breaking down she had made it effectively impossible for me to hate her. Though while I could no longer hate her, I still found it difficult to muster up much sympathy for the problems of a woman who had her beautiful, expensive Parisian apartment with her fancy floors, and more money than I could probably ever dream of, and all because she married lucky. How could I possibly feel sorry for a woman who has a housekeeper to clean her beautiful apartment, and not one but two baby-sitters to tend to her daughter during most of her waking hours each day, leaving her free to do nothing but pursue her singing lessons and shop for more pink clothing for her precious angel? I'd rather have rich people's problems than poor people's problems any day, I thought. She thinks she has problems? I wonder if she realizes that there are people out there who wake up one day and realize that they have done nothing but flit from one thing to another during their twenties without ever committing to anything, and so find themselves alone, rapidly approaching thirty, and working meaningless, unchallenging jobs for poverty-level wages. That some people are forced to swallow their pride and accept demeaning side jobs and the abuse of their employers, because they simply can't do without the extra 100€ a week of income that this job generates. People for whom this extra 100€ a week represents a 50% increase over their previous salary, and for whom it means the difference between eating or not at the end of the month. The difference between going to Spain during the school break later this month or staying at home drinking tea every day in their kitchen, because drinking tea in a cafe is an unaffordable luxury. There are problems and then there are problems, I am saying, and this woman's Emma Bovary fantasies didn't really impress me much. Still, though. She was crying.

"So," she said, wiping her face and attempting to pull herself together. "I'll see you on Friday, then?"

I let out a slow and defeated sigh. "Yes," I said finally. "I'll see you on Friday."


  1. WOW! Just wow! I'd have exploded in sobs. Good for you for not. Well, what choice did you have, really? But still... She's nuts. And sad. But rich.

  2. seriously man, no amount of money is worth someone treating you that way. I'd have told her to shove it and walked out...rich people think they are so much better than everyone else, but they aren't and this woman clearly has a superiority complex! Crying or not, I would have said "thanks, but no thanks!" You're a brave girl for hanging in there!

  3. Holy Flying Feck!! Crying or no, I'm fairly sure I would have at least ripped her a new asshole. It wouldn't have scored me any points, but damned if She can treat you like that! Grrrrr! I mad at her FOR you!

  4. Yay, outrage by proxy! Now this is why I have a blog!

    Seriously though, I'm walking that fine line between "Look at me taking the high road and being an adult and all that" and, like Crystal says, "Wow, no amount of money is worth being treated like that, and look at me selling out my dignity and self-respect for a fistful of dollars. Like a whore!"

    I'd say a lot hinges on how things go on Friday. Like seriously, nothing is worth this amount of stress. I didn't sleep last night thinking about it. And I love to sleep!

  5. I think I worked for that woman! LOL!

    Seriously, it seems like this is a pretty standard experience when you are au pairing for the wealthier families.

    Hi, I've never commente before, but thought I would de-lurk myself since I could really relate. I worked for a mom exactly like that, except there were 3 kids!! Unfortunately I'm a lot more assertive that you were in your scenario and lasted a full month.

    Trust me it'll get worse before it gets better! Sorry.

  6. Wow, that is nuts. The mother reminds me of a boss I used to have who was a complete micromanager (and I think possibly kind of a sociopath). When she sensed that she had crossed a line, she would burst into tears and talk about "personal problems." I stayed at that job far longer than I should have, to the detriment of my sense of self worth.

    I dunno Rachel - see how it goes on Friday, but don't be afraid to leave. Maybe you could offer English language tutoring for extra money? Is there a Parisian version of Craigslist?

  7. That is quite a - um - WOMAN you are working for! It sounds like it took everything you've got to get out of there with any shred of dignity that day. And it doesn't sound like you're enjoying la petite, either. Still, as you say, the salary represents the difference between eating and not eating at the end of the month. I truly hope it all works out for you!

  8. Holy shit, that woman has a serious case of the crazies. I really admire that you're sticking it out, I'd be curled up in the fetal position somewhere. This sounds like something out of The Nanny Diaries.

  9. Nightmare!! Oh my gosh, she sounds crazy. From what I'm gathering from your blog so far though, you don't live with her - that is a good thing! I've been a live-in nanny (thankfully with parents who weren't as crazy as this) and an aupair (with a famiy that was almost as crazy as this in different ways) and it's hell if you have to live with them!

    I'm going to add you to the list of blogs I follow. I'm currently looking for a nanny job in L.A so hopefully soon I'll have nice/funny nanny stories to share.

  10. You really do have quite a tolerance for incredible amounts of shit heaped on you. I still wished, while reading, that you had heaped some back on her while she was down, that's how much I hated her right then.

    Do you think she wanted to talk after that?

    I like Jane's suggestion to look elsewhere...C.'s getting paid well to have english conversations with adults! No fingerpainting involved! Yes, you have to find a few more clients, but...

  11. Having dealt with people at the Prefecture I can vouch for the fact that people talk like that! The woman obviously has real problems though. If you do decide to leave, you perhaps need to have a talk and tell her just what is what! Otherwise she will go through life thinking that all babysitters have problems!

  12. Yea, what a train wreck. The woman's nuts, and it sounds like she's pushing her daughter down the same path, and quick.

    I think the English tutoring is a good idea. When my parents were in Italy, that's what my mom did.

  13. i hate that some treated you this way.