One Mother’s Day several years ago, I received a call from a 21-year-old University of Minnesota student. She was calling to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, even though she isn’t one of my kids.
The caller was our nanny, Maddy, just one in a long line of resourceful young women I found by placing classified ads in the Minnesota Daily. Every one of our eight nannies was a hardworking U of M student who needed extra money. And every one of them saved my bacon.
Actually, our first nanny was hired as a summertime convenience, as nannies are for many families — like a carefree alternative to day camp. Having Sara around the house simplified our lives, not unlike having a cleaning lady.
Shortly after we hired our second nanny, however, my husband, Rob, suffered a serious stroke. Overnight child care was no longer a convenience — it was a necessity. In those early weeks I asked Heidi to drive our frightened kids to hospital visits, to lead park and mall outings, and to comfort them as their worlds turned upside down. I remember our younger daughter, Julia, then six, sitting on Heidi’s lap and hugging her, depending daily on her constancy and affection.
Later, I counted on our nannies to retrieve the kids from school, help them with homework, take them to the dentist, even attend the occasional school event. They arranged play dates, oversaw school-supply shopping, refereed sibling squabbles, dried tears. My motto became, “I get by with a little help from my nannies.” But in truth, most days it was way more than a little help.
When my mother died, Kelsey bought the girls funeral clothes and drove them five hours to the service. When I was facing our first family vacation without my husband’s help, Stephanie came along so I could relax. When Julia was afraid of the water, our nanny Heidi, who grew up on a lake, taught her how to swim.
I was glad to have help when 13-year-old Grace began experimenting with makeup and asking for friendship advice. Thank God for Ashlee, who was there to guide her young charge through the thickets of female adolescence. After all, Ashlee had been through the whole ordeal only a few years earlier, whereas I wielded my first tube of lipstick during the Nixon administration.
Both of our girls were adopted from China, so I thought they could benefit from knowing older Asian adoptees. Kelsey answered my carefully worded Minnesota Daily ad and spent hours talking with the girls about birthparents and the complications of growing up Asian in the Midwest.
Hinting around for Asian nannies wasn’t my only advertising strategy. I also mentioned — in descending order of importance — my generous hourly rate, our home’s Minneapolis lakes location and the fact that our kids were girls, well past their preschool years (it being a babysitting truth universally acknowledged that boys and babies are tougher to wrangle).
Through the years, I became as fond of these young women as my daughters did. They told me about their boyfriends (many), classes (hard) and money woes (legion). And I offered advice on grades (worry less), marriage (wait) and travel (early and often).
My family has now attended four of their weddings, with another set for later this month. And we’ve met three of their babies (and counting).
So I guess it makes sense that I received that long ago Mother’s Day call. In a household like ours, so often fraught and overwhelmed, our nannies were more like daughters than household help. Daughters I only partially put through college.
Lynette Lamb is an editor at Macalester College. She said goodbye to her final nanny three years ago.
ABOUT 10,000 TAKES: 10,000 Takes is a new digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.