Confessions Of A Governess: Serving Mothers Is My Feminist Act

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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.

I’ve been in service to mothers since I was 12 years old. I was recruited by a mother in my childhood neighborhood after she approached my father to ask if his daughter “did any babysitting.” It’s proved to be the best career move I’ve ever made. I have had consistent work from junior high to my post-graduate years helping women despite changes in location, schools, and schedules. But while babysitting through the years has indefinitely helped me, what I find  most rewarding when reflecting on the work is how I’ve been able to assist mothers in accomplishing so much.

The women that I’ve worked for have all had varying stories, but a lot of their needs for someone like me stack up the same. Working mothers, even those who work only part-time, have entrusted me with their kiddies while they forage ahead as providers for their families. Whether they have artistic passions or board meetings or work dinners, they have lives that take them from the home. Updating them on their child’s moments via email or text, I’ve helped keep their minds at ease while they concentrate on the work that for whatever reason they must do. A lot of these women feel conflicted about working as it is. Some are just trying to get their careers back on track after giving birth.

I know so well that conflicted look on a mother’s face when she comes home and asks me if her little ones are sleep. She appears relieved as she sets her keys on the kitchen counter, but there is that twinge of sadness when she peers into their room to see them already dreaming. Today was another day she didn’t get to be with them and even though she thanks me for putting them down, I know that double edge of disappointment at not getting to see them.

I’ve always tried to assuage this by sharing descriptive stories of the day’s events and always mentioning how much they missed her — because most of the time, they do. A mother I once worked for briefly only got six weeks off for maternity leave, a common occurrence in the United States. I started watching her baby shortly after and she told me that she would often draw the shades and cry at her desk when no one was around because she missed him so much. I made sure to send her photos of her baby throughout my days with him and although she still wasn’t with him, she often felt like she was.

Many women that I’ve helped have been going through a divorce or some other major life transition that involves boxes, moving trucks, and the arrangement of furniture. Trial separations, Daddy moving back in, Daddy moving back out — I’ve been the person that takes the children around the block to the park as mother and father hash out the final details of their divorce settlement. I’ve also been the person that plays music louder in the kids’ rooms while parents have it out downstairs.

Many times, children have looked to me to explain the shifting temperaments in their homes. Despite the spelling out of terms over the dinner table or their mother’s rule to not speak ill of anybody, they still know that something is off. Even though I was very young myself a lot of the time, they viewed me as closer to the adult world than they were and posed questions about why their mother slept so late on weekends or would shoo them from her room on some nights. They always recognized the amount of tissues in the waste basket as abnormal and often asked me to interpret what that increased number meant.

I’ve gotten so creative with answers but always without using words like “depression,” “divorce,” or “new husband.” It always seems more of the mother’s place to use words like that. And while some of these mothers have been more direct with their appreciation for my role than others, their relief at my arrival registers the same. I know every time that I load up the stroller or cook a meal that I’m assuming a role that is so crucial to their success as mothers.

Amy Poehler acknowledged this recently during her acceptance speech at the Time 100 Gala. When reflecting on the people who have helped her the most, she thanked the nannies who have watched her children over the years while she was pursuing her career.

Caring for children is admittedly a more involved job than others but to be deemed worthy of it is of the utmost honor. Stepping in to help mothers in need, especially considering how little time the government allots for maternity leave, is truly a feminist act. And while I do everything I can to help these mothers reach their achievements, I can only hope that I have more family friendly work policies when I become a mother.