The Other Mother
My two youngest, aged 21 and 22, are graduating in the next couple of weeks. As I prepare for these momentous events, I can’t help but think of the woman who had been their nanny from the time my guys were babies. I was so afraid when my last child was born just 13 months after his brother. I’d always had to travel for my work, and I needed someone wonderful to be with my two little ones. So small, so vulnerable. I sweated, fretted, and I prayed. I could not afford to keep both of them in the ultra expensive but world-class day care center the older one was in.
Providence was kind, and brought me Mary Jo (MJ) as well as her husband Michael, to be bonus (meaning part time, but fully loving) parents in the household. They weren’t “live in” but quickly established themselves as eminently trustworthy people who also became close friends.
While I sat in business meetings in far-away places, doodling smiley baby faces along the borders of spreadsheets, MJ was exploring community parks and pools holding the small hands of my two little tow-headed boys. The older they became, the more sophisticated their adventures in learning and exploring evolved thanks to MJ’s careful planning. A certified nanny, MJ was also a vocal advocate for her profession, and something of a local celebrity for her expertise; she was featured, along with my sons, in a Newsweek article in the early 90’s. The Oprah show even called on us to participate in a show on the topic of nannies after “The Hand that Rocked the Cradle” was released. MJ made it her mission to help the public understand what being a nanny really meant.
They say it takes a village to raise kids, which is probably true, but I don’t know if even a village can take the place of a single wonderful and ever-present parent. And if a mom is less than perfectly either of those things, the next best alternative is to have…well an alternate mother. Many apply for such a role, but few are worthy, and not a year goes by that I don’t silently acknowledge MJ as the best of the best.
Thanks to her, the boys’ childhoods were filled with experiences and joyful occasions. They learned about things without even realizing the lessons in the process, which is the mark of a master teacher. If recreational funding wasn’t available toward the end of the month, MJ would reach into her own pockets before she would allow an enjoyable and educational opportunity for the boys to pass by.
She and I put our heads together frequently to compare notes on which boy was doing what these days, and how we’d respond so as to present a united front. Sometimes she’d coach me, like the time she stopped me short as I walked in the door after a long day at work, breezing past a bit too quickly when one of the kids clearly had something to say. “I’ll be back as soon as I change,” I’d said, and MJ followed me to say: “Linda, please…this is important to him…I think you should listen to what he has to say NOW, because this is very special.” And it was.
We’d chuckle, sometimes shake our heads, to hear other people’s nannies complain of housework, of being called babysitters or “girls,” of being treated as second class almost- family members. MJ kept the house tidy enough, and it wasn’t beneath her to do the boys’ wash, but she knew none of that was in her job description. We needed her for something far more important, and we wondered how some parents felt a loving nanny unwilling to do heavy housework wasn’t worth the salary.
Some mothers we knew even became jealous of the attachment formed between their little ones and long-term, loving nannies, but I thanked God every day for the deep bonds that developed within the extended framework of our family (I also had two much older children in the household). I loved having such a capable back-up.
The highest compliment to her probably came from my oldest son who was in high school during some of those years. He’d stayed home from school ill one day, and was in his basement bedroom unbeknownst to MJ. When he emerged up the stairs in the late afternoon to get a glass of water MJ jumped, startled to see him. We’d forgotten to tell her he’d stayed home. Later he said, “You know Mom, I could hear everything going on upstairs all day. MJ had no idea I was in the house. She treats the kids exactly the same as she does when you are here.” He’d long acknowledged how he was glad, old as he was, that there was someone to come home to or pick him up from school when he was ill.
Another time, when the boys were much older and MJ was being screened for a new nanny job, someone called for references. My oldest son happened to pick up the phone, and he said, “Yes, you can talk to my mother, but I'm the oldest brother. Let ME tell you about MJ…” and he sung her praises to a stranger for half an hour.
MJ, I‘ve tried, but I always felt I could never express the extent of my gratitude for all you (and Michael) contributed to the boys’ lives. You helped them to become courageous, honest, good young men who know how to learn and seem to always have had some inkling of their "best selves." I really hope that you are as proud of our boys’ graduation into adult life as I am.
Those goofy guys may not express it, but they hold part of you in their hearts and are better people for it. Thank you, MJ, from all of us.