Our house became a battleground as two previous “equals” – my husband and I – were torn asunder by the ancient conspiracy of silence about the good old-fashioned division of labour. I’d viewed some perfectly acceptable nurseries but the images kept getting overlaid in my mind with Romanian children and the buzzword of prominent child-psychologists, “institutionalisation”.
So I tackled the issue with my mother: “I’m thinking of getting a (mumble) nanny”. Sharp intake of breath from my mother: “You can’t have someone who isn’t family looking after your child!” Cue a weird conversation about why the hell she made me work so hard at school, culminating in a first-class English degree, if she only wanted me to stay at home looking after my children. God bless her maternal devotion: the answer was that she’d thought I’d pass that knowledge on to my kids.
Reeling from such a revelation and knowing that was never going to be enough, I set about finding someone who would help me out but stay at my house. When I say her name – even now – birds start tweeting and butterflies appear.
Maja was a beautiful, tall Polish blonde of about my age. On the morning she arrived at our basement flat, I fussed and flapped, asking if she wanted tea and taking her coat, completely blind in the ways of treating “the staff”. I wasn’t just a first-time mother; I was a cross-cultural communicator lost in a sea of social mobility.
We bathed my son as I blabbered on about where we kept the wipes. I tucked him in his pram, wondering what was taking her so long downstairs. When they trotted out to the park, I wandered into the bathroom. The wet towels were hung up, the dirty nappy in the bin, the baby bath emptied and the floor wiped down. I recall falling to my knees and thanking the goddess of domestic drudgery: my life had changed for ever. I sat at my laptop for the first time in 10 months with a clear head, knowing that I wouldn’t be interrupted.
Maja stayed for seven years, until she had her own son. She knew more about my life than almost anyone else and yet I knew very little about hers. The ultimate professional, she taught me about boundaries that I would certainly have blurred. The nanny sees you at your best and your absolute worst. I’ve been known to stand in the kitchen discussing overtime hours while bleaching my moustache.
In describing her nanny as her friend, Stella McCartney seems to be explaining that it’s a relationship built on mutual respect.
In our house, Monika replaced Maja. She doesn’t work for us, she works with us. When someone is responsible for the most precious things in your life, it is conceited to see it any other way – the power is ultimately theirs.
In her autobiography Bossy Pants, American comedienne Tina Fey confesses that there was a time when she worried about her daughter’s nails being cut too short. “I can tell 20 comedy writers what to do; I will happily tell a joke about Osama bin Laden or the Ku Klux Klan on live television; but I could not talk to the babysitter about the fingernail clipping… I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.” (She obviously can’t use the “N” word either).
Monika is as good with a power drill as a steriliser. She can fit blinds and tuts at my badly fitting dresses (I would rather buy budget clothes than lose her), before running them through the sewing machine. I know that the children would rather be with me, but they don’t know what a grumpy, resentful, horror-bag I would be if I wasn’t allowed to work. Now when I introduce her to people, she is “Monika, my marriage-saving, sanity-preserving, life-coordinating, child-loving… friend”.