The New York Times Magazine:

The Other Mothers of Manhattan

Exploring the bond between nannies and the children they care for.


(MediaQuire) Excerpt from article: When I was first pregnant, years ago, the husband of a novelist I admired told me I was lucky to be a writer. “No one has to know how much you’re with your child,” he said. “Relatives who think you should be home all the time can assume you are, and professionals will think the baby’s in day care.”

This struck me as disturbing advice, but I understood that I was a novice. And in fact, a vagueness about how much we worked, whether that work was financially mandatory, voluntary or somewhere in between, became the lingua franca of my conversations with other mothers when my son was small. You were either “being a mom,” as was the preferred way of describing the position in Los Angeles during those years, or you were “being a mom and something.” Being a mom and a pulmonary surgeon. Or being a mom and a writer, in my case. We were vague to cover the awkwardness of our differences. Those “just” being a mom felt pressure to append an “and.” (Why could other women be mothers, too, and get the rewards, both social and financial, of a career?) You could be a mom and spend 15 minutes a day with your child, as a children’s-television executive at my preschool confessed, or you could be a mom and spend almost every hour with her.

As an older relative who had a career once told me: Your behind can sit in only one chair at a time. If a mother is sitting in a chair at the office, someone needs to be at home with her child. In some cases, that is a father. Much of the time, the material manifestation of the conflict is a nanny.

Seeing Michele Asselin’s portraits, I remember the heightened sensitivity of my first months as a parent. The pictures are beautiful and idealized. The women look at the children with love. No one looks frustrated. No one looks bored. No child is having a meltdown. They conjure the dome of tender air that encloses a mother, whose body is coursing with hormones, and a newborn.

But these moments of private contentment, with the serenity and depth borrowed from the portraiture legacy of the Madonna and child, do not depict mothers with their infants. The women holding the children are nannies. Part of what’s striking about the pictures is that they position front and center a person who is often left on the editing-room floor when a family’s memories are being assembled. Nannies have told me that their employers crop them out of photographs of their children. On the wall of a West Los Angeles home, I noticed a blown-up photo of a baby in a pretty white dress, held by a pair of hands of a darker color. In her photos, Asselin captures a radiance between caregivers and children, often of different races.

When I met Asselin last month, she was pregnant, weeks away from having her second child. Over the course of two years, while her daughter was a toddler, she interviewed nannies in her TriBeCa neighborhood as she made their portraits. She told me she had been working as a commercial photographer — work that required her to travel. She liked the idea of long, in-depth undertakings closer to home, because they would allow her to spend more time with her children.

She mentioned that when referring to the person who was taking care of her daughter, she sometimes caught herself slipping between the term “nanny” — with its associations of full-time household staff in 19th-century England — and “baby sitter” — with its connotations of a high-school girl, part time, perhaps off the books.

I smiled, remembering those strange codes. In a whole generation — the children of the novelist and her husband were now in their 20s, the photographer’s were a toddler and one not yet born — not much had changed in terms of the given ease women feel about working and child care, even in places like New York and Los Angeles. The transparency men have enjoyed for generations, about their ability to frankly work while also reveling in fatherhood, is still complicated for women. Which is not to say that anyone can have everything.

Slightly more than four million babies are born in the United States every year, and 55 percent of their mothers remain in the work force. We go to college, live together or marry and have kids — often with little more thought to the daily routines of raising children than our grandparents gave them, when women by and large stayed at home.

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Slideshow and Interviews -  A glimpse into the private world of nannies and the children they watch over. glimpse into the private world of nannies and the children they watch over. glimpse into the private world of nannies and the children they watch over.

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