Confessions Of A Governess: Knowing My Place

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Confessions of a Governess is a Mommyish series from the perspective of someone who gets paid to watch other people’s children. Moms, take a deep breath.

When I lived in France, I often watched children to make extra money. Prior to leaving for my year abroad, I had managed to save a pretty respectable sum of money. But between my developing taste for kirs and little French cardigans, I was beginning to realize that additional income would be needed. My host mother, an incredibly chic divorcee who smoked little French cigars but complained of smog, knew that I had babysat extensively in the United States and recommended me to a couple she knew with a young son.

The power French couple as it were lived in an apartment fairly close to where I was taking classes and, after meeting me a few times, decided that the arrangement would work out. The little boy was seven years old, an only child, and very high energy.  I remember being instructed to pick him up from school and prepare snacks for him before walking him to his piano lesson. His bedtime routine didn’t differ that greatly from what I was accustomed to doing for the children I had watched at home: homework help, dinner, a quick bath, story time, and then bedtime. It was all fairly standard.

His parents were both very dedicated to their careers. The father was a pilot and would often fly to other countries, staying overnight in exotic places, and returning with gifts for his son. His mother was an executive of some kind in the financial district of Paris. She tried to explain to me three times in French what her day-to-day job consisted of but I never understood her — and I don’t blame a language barrier.

When I took the job as the little boy’s babysitter, I was given strict instructions that he should be asleep by the time both parents, or one, came home. If they came home and found him awake, I would be blamed. The mother had a very particular way of stressing concepts to me which consisted of having me nod with her as she spoke. I took her insistence very seriously and often counted the minutes on the bus and timed bath times to make sure I hit that 8 pm deadline.

But as the parents came home and peered in on their sleeping son, I began to realize that the only time the little boy saw his parents was in the morning on the way to school and on weekends. Yet with the father’s flying schedule, sometimes he wasn’t guaranteed that time either.

The little boy began to realize this too and started intentionally dragging out tasks with the hope of seeing his parents when they came home. He started to become more difficult and less cooperative. Soon he began crying, begging me to stay up a little bit later. I did as the mother told me, whisking him off to bed anyway and refusing his demands. He started acting out and conveying his frustration in other ways like hitting and refusing to do his homework.

The parents started coming home to the sounds of him crying in his room. The mother began giving me snide looks as to indicate that I was disappointing her. I didn’t know what else to say when she questioned me except that he obviously missed them and wanted to see more of them.

The little boy’s behavior worsened. Every time I would leave the room, if only for a second, he would sneak the phone into the kitchen and call his mother at work. I remember being in the bathroom washing my hands and hearing his French words break into sobs down the hall. He would bring the phone to me with red eyes and say that his mother wanted to speak to me. Through the receiver, she said that he wasn’t allowed to use the phone. Why was I letting him? I said that I hadn’t. He had done it on his own. He missed her.

The little boy’s behavior became increasingly worse and I became more and more sympathetic to his situation.

I eventually stopped working for the family — an agreement reached between the mother and I in which I said that my classes were becoming more demanding and she said that she understood. My classes were becoming increasingly difficult, but I more so wanted to leave because of how much the child was suffering. I wondered why two very smart, highly intellectual people had chosen to have a child that they clearly didn’t have time for. With neither parent willing to budge even a bit with work schedules, I wondered if they thought that this schedule was working — what they said to each other when he cried in his bedroom at night.

And even though I was with their child nearly five days a week, I felt as the nanny that it wasn’t my place to question their decisions as parents. I was an outsider brought into the delicate dynamics of their family for an hourly rate to uphold their principals and enforce their rules.  And I was reminded of that when they shushed me from his bedroom, put the envelope of euros into my hand, and said that they would handle it.