I am not a mother but am paid to do all the things that mothers do. I pour bathwater—warm but not hot. I squirt shampoo onto babies' heads and cradle their weak necks. I rub washcloths under arms and between bottoms. I diaper, comb hair, calm tempers, put away toys, cut fruit into small squares, lift little bodies into and out of strollers, wipe away the catotas that dangle from noses, sing songs, hold hands, dry tears. After a few days I feel the urge to sniff a freshly washed scalp, or to kiss the soft bottom of a foot. Without aiming to, I begin to care about a stranger's child. Some, I have even started to love.
Mothers like this. They want a nanny to love their children, but never too much. Loving means knowing, and mothers do not want to admit that you—a hired woman—might know their sons and daughters better than they do.
Since arriving in Chicago I have overheard, in coffee shops and in the park, mothers speaking wistfully about finding a nanny who will become "a part of the family." They mean, of course, a silent and reliable part, like a bolt in a lock or a belt in a fan—a part that may need to be replaced eventually but that, while working, is easy to take for granted. In Brazil, where I am from, there is no shame in having a servant and treating her like one. There, at least, everyone's role is clear.
My cousin Nalva has been a nanny longer than I have. Mothers slip their cards into her pockets and try to hire her away because she is not a bench nanny. Those kinds of nannies sit and talk to each other, letting the children run wild. Nalva plays with her little ones. She pushes swings. She helps her kids onto slides and claps when they reach the bottom. Most important, Nalva is pretty but not too pretty. "Mothers don't want a fashion model in their house," she says.
For all her cheerfulness and obedience, Nalva is able to keep her distance. She is able to act like family but know she is not. We have our own apartment in Humboldt Park, so we never have to seek live-in positions. Nalva has boyfriends to entertain her, and she takes nighttime classes to become a certified masseuse. But these are small distractions; what makes Nalva successful is something she does not talk about, except to me.
"I keep a space inside that's mine," she says, pointing to her chest. "No one else can ever know what's in here." And when a mother blames her for chipping a plate or for running out of baby wipes, or when Nalva feels herself falling in love with a child, she goes inside her space. I never ask what fills it; that is too private, even for me to know. Besides, I have to guard my own space.
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