Thoughts & Stories: Real Simple Contest Entry

About 6 months ago, I entered a Real Simple Magazine essay contest. Alas, I did not win, or even place. Over 75,000 entries poured in, many of which were from already published authors...so you know, I gave it my best shot. This essay came from molding a collection of different blog posts over the last 2 years. The thoughts in this piece are important to me. And though I'm no longer a Nanny, it speaks to a very important turning point in my life. I am perpetually learning the balance of a life lived free of apathy, and full of contentment.

-Jenni

"A Very Good Blouse"

I pulled the polka dotted fabric over my head, watching it settle delicately over my frame. Turning circles in the front of the mirror, I was pleasantly surprised to see that every inch of the blouse suited me well. It would seem that my fashion choice submitted itself in peace to my figure, rather than waging war against it like so many occasions before. With no slouching, busting or tugging to be found, I shrugged my shoulders and glided out my front door feeling just a wee bit beautiful.

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While this moment may seem uneventful to many, I could not have been happier. With my collection of sweat pants growing and modern youthful styles dwindling, I’ve found myself reveling in a rare well fitted blouse. The application of makeup is more daunting as I begin to experience the first signs of aging while rapidly approaching thirty. Working as a nanny I find myself more tired than what is normal for someone my age. In turn, a flattering top is a welcome friend indeed. 

It was previously assumed that by now I’d be married to a loving, strong, poetic, athletic, sensitive, rugged, handsome, adventurous, sensible, financially secure yet willing to be poor husband. Together, we would single handedly save small island clusters from poverty while making Oscar winning documentaries and writing love letters back and forth. After conquering the world (so to speak) we’d settle down in a vintage summer home to start a family. Older age would be spent drinking fair trade coffee, snuggling and listening to jazz.  To my nineteen year old self, this was not only an essential plan, but I vowed not to settle for anything less. 

In reality, after college boredom and some failed endeavors, I would wind up unmarried and working as a nanny for the next eight years. My old ideals often pop into my mind while folding laundry and watching the children knock over my perfectly matched sock piles. There is a certain amount of fulfillment to my job, but I cannot help wondering about all the fledgling business ideas, travel dreams and art designs I’ve left unfinished. Simply put, I never imagined this would be my life at twenty eight.

“Nanny” is such a drab title. People seem to visualize either Mary Poppins or a home wrecker that will steal your Hollywood husband. With this in mind, I’ve created many titles to fight against these stereotypes. Some of my favorites include “child technician,” “conflict resolution dishwasher,” “general household manager substitute,” and “sippy cup scientist.” No matter what you think about the nanny profession, at the end of the day, I’ve always done three things well:

  • In the nick of time, wedged my body in between a toddler and countless dangerous objects;
  • Been thrown up on, sneezed on, or changed a minimum of seven diapers;
  • Completed various household tasks while juggling art projects and games called, “kick the cardboard box.”

Snuggling up to germs became routine in my line of work as well. If you are a parent or caregiver you know exactly what that means. All day long children find unique ways to infiltrate this world with newfangled versions of the common cold. It’s a premeditated strike against all personnel taller than them with the capacity to say “No, you may not climb up on the roof with that umbrella.” I imagine kids and germs meeting in backyard tree houses secretly plotting the demise of every adult in a twelve block radius. While a child gets extra affection and grape-flavored Tylenol, you are slowly being infected. By the time they are better, you are officially sick. Its genius is it not? Kids know they’ll get excessive Blue’s Clues viewings while you’re preoccupied with the Nyquil child safety cap.

Aside from being perpetually ill during back-to-school season, taking care of another person’s child is a huge responsibility. As well as a painful process at times. The kids never love you as much, and they shouldn’t. Any good nanny wants the children they care for to love their parents the most, because it’s healthy. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that in secret you want those wide-eyed toddlers to love you just as much, despite the fact you will go home to your apartment when their parent arrives home from work.

This constant burden in your heart makes for a confusing social life. When surrounded by all my friends who have their own children I find myself casually jumping into “mommy talk” with them. I have amazingly gracious friends, but I’m sure they wonder why I want to talk about breast milk. Even more comical is when I break into a conversation about preschool with a mom at the park. While pushing our kids on the swings, everything progresses wonderfully until that mom realizes I’m just the nanny. More often than not, the discussion comes to an abrupt halt, and I am again left without adult conversation for the duration of my work day.

I do not easily fit in with my peers, due to my inability to intelligently discuss modern politics or the economic crisis. To most unmarried twenty somethings a narrative surrounding potty training set against the hip undercurrent of downtown night life is very uninteresting. I have a memory of being at dinner with some friends when I reached into my pocket to pull out my cell phone, only to find Thomas the Tank Engine instead. The little boy I took care of had made the great Indiana Jones swap earlier in the day.

Perhaps every person feels torn between work life and real life. I contend that working in a household can be the most rewarding and confusing of all professions. You live an act day in and day out, often without realizing it. For example, if I take the children I nanny into a local grocery store, it is assumed that I am their mother. The idea of being hit on in the frozen food aisle (as was the case in my previous life) has long been forfeited. After all, there is no repellent stronger or more terrifying to a single male than the screaming of an infant child. 

Older folks love to comment on how adorable “my kids” are. During the early years as a nanny I felt compelled to give a speech explaining that these children were not mine. However, now I’ve realized it’s easier to say, “Oh thank you, but they didn’t get their good looks from me.” 

There are times that I don’t want to claim the pretend life I am living in any form. I once ran into an old high school acquaintance at the mall. She looked amazing, balanced and chic holding a non-fat sugar free latte in her dainty manicured hand. I was wearing oversized hand me down sweats from my brother, frantically chasing a two year old who had decided to run towards the exit doors. The phrase, “Get back here or you’ll be in time out FOREVER!” cascaded from my mouth in a desperate high pitched frequency making everyone around me cringe. To say the least, I pretended I did not recognize my high school friend, despite her body language that indicated she was about to come say hello. I simply could not let that be my first interaction with her since homeroom nine years before.

Despite the unglamorous moments, it’s a gentle balance of setting boundaries with the children you nanny. When their warm squishy bodies burrow into yours for book time, it’s easy to get lost in the moment and love them too much. You can actually forget they do not look like you, and you are not their mother. Perhaps most painfully, should you leave your job in their young age, they may never remember you had been there. 

To love something that does not belong to you is a great risk. It’s taught me there is no love more pure than what a child offers. They don’t see your first signs of aging, nor do they even understand the idea of success. To them, they were your plan all along. The Lego city you’ve built together, the perfect dream.

Maybe I’ll never accomplish some of the lovely ideas I’ve kept tucked away in drawers. Some of my hopes will never emerge from the carefully hidden boxes in my heart. But I admire them from a distance in my very good blouse, feeling a simple joy in who I’ve become. I may go out to happy hour in that lovely shirt, walking beneath the city lights with my boyfriend. I could wear it to a picnic lunch with two special little people, jelly spilling on its polka dotted collar. No matter what the event, it’s always the perfect fit. For that, I am grateful.