Finding Purpose as a Nanny

Discuss an experience that shaped your life.

As I watch the edges on the shiny four-by-six memories that I pinned to my wall warp and curl, I cannot help but feel my heart ache. I spent an entire school year and summer investing my time, energy, and love into my job as a nanny for six children, and now am faced with the challenge of redefining myself.

My first few weeks in a white Honda minivan were a big adjustment; I had to parallel park the van in front the kids’ schools and navigate along unfamiliar winding roads to bring Catherine to her horseback riding barn. I meticulously revisited fractions, spelling, and social studies with Jesse, who seemed to play every sport imaginable in addition to having hours of homework every night. Janie and Jake had soccer practices, Scott was working on his art portfolio and film class, and Chelsea had a sea of giggling girlfriends whose names, addresses, and faces I could not seem to get straight. I was not important to these kids; I was a stranger. Each evening, by the time I was finished working, I came home to my own family and ate dinner silently, out of words and energy.

However, I learned something every day—some small detail about what the doorbell sounded like, where the forks and knives were, and what time basketball practice was over. I learned which cabinet housed the band-aids, exactly what equipment Jesse needed for hockey camp, and that Catherine’s favorite foods were spaghetti marinara and Caesar salad. I started to sing along with the radio increasingly louder. Complaining and awkward silence during car rides were replaced with goofy singing, advice-giving, funny stories, and boundless questions. I think at some point Janie and Chelsea both realized that I am not too far-removed from middle school and that although I am not amazingly hip, I am not incredibly lame and boring either. Little things like an appreciative smile, a shared secret, or a compliment restored my self-confidence and made me feel slightly less like a stranger.

Until a certain point, feeling like an outsider had been a common thread through all of my experiences; at school, Girl Scouts, religious education, parties, various jobs, and even among cousins, I was uneasy, unimportant, and lonely. If I somehow made it into a group discussion, I would tug at my clothes and spin a few strands of my hair between my index and middle finger, painstakingly crafting a clever comment to say when the time was right, but never actually saying it. So, with a long history of silently and gawkily looking on, I was surprised how it came to be over the months that I was entirely comfortable being myself with the kids.

I got the most joy from lending them my creative talent. Whether it was hemming Halloween costumes, offering advice to Scott on his art portfolio, helping Janie bake and decorate cookies, working on school projects, making goodie bags for birthday parties, creating centerpieces, or performing any other odd jobs requiring creative talent, there was always some way for me to be inventive and share my ideas. I came to feel like a trusted and valuable resource where I had once just been an onlooker.

Certain memories stand out and make me particularly nostalgic. One lazy Sunday, three of us made a “band,” comprised of my guitar playing, Jesse’s singing, and Catherine’s very unsympathetic tapping on throw pillows. After practicing for less than ten minutes, which was all their attention spans would allow, we performed an impromptu song for the family. I have never felt more relaxed or excited to be on stage.

Another Sunday, I rushed outside with Janie and Chelsea to close the windows on my Acura. The rain was warm and falling in sheets, and we had no other choice than to remain outside, look to the sky, and extend our arms. We laughed as we spun around in the driveway, occasionally stumbling and bumping into each other, which made us laugh even harder. We went back inside giggling and dripping with rain water.

Yet along with the fun came tremendous responsibility. I took on the titles of nanny, babysitter, mediator, tutor, driver, mentor, and friend, all of which contributed to my identity both during and after work. Rarely a day went by without the opportunity for me to share a story about the kids. My job consumed my time, thoughts, and excitement, eventually leading me to grow apart from my high school friends. Honestly, though, I cannot think of how I would rather have spent my time. As soon as I pulled my car into my assumed parking spot in front of the house and walked in the side door, I suddenly became useful. I was needed and relied on; I finally fit somewhere.

In Catherine’s journal, she wrote an entry called “Leanne.” I remember one particular excerpt which went something like, “Leanne has been with us for nine months. She works on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. She takes me to horseback riding. I love her…” When I am feeling particularly melancholy, I think about the highly prestigious honor that was being a topic in Catherine’s journal. I even got an entry before Scott did.

I can also think about how happy it made me to represent Jesse at a sporting event. Whether I was sitting in the box above the hockey rink, on the stage in the basketball gym, or on the bleachers in the rain at a particularly muddy soccer game, I was beaming with pride and cheering her on. It made me feel so important to be there for her, from filling up her water bottle before the game to congratulating her afterward. The best and truest smiles ever displayed across my face were because of those kids.

It was this sense of importance that I fear I will never again truly find. I disappear into the crowd here, where I am not recognized for my “smart brain” or my distinct style of preparing Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Worse, I am not there to recognize their achievements on a day-to-day basis. I wonder what this week’s spelling words were. I hope that Jesse had enough time to study. It was the accumulation of so many seemingly insignificant facts about their daily lives that helped me ultimately assimilate, and in my absence from their daily lives I feel a growing void.

Here I sit trying to redefine my purpose. Every time one of the pictures on my wall catches my eye, my face lights up, but lately there is a resounding lump in my throat which grows and forces out tears. I look at their faces and think, What color is your soccer team? What does your fifth grade teacher look like? Do you miss me as much as I miss you?

Leave a Comment