Alone for the first night in years, it seems, my husband and I were visited not by the goddess of intimacy but by the squiggly bacteria which made out of him a coughing, sneezing mess. So instead of a romantic evening we ate clementines and watched two movies…
First one was “Fair Game,” the true story of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, who was “outed” by the Bush Administration as a way to not only get back at her husband, an Ambassador who came out contradicting pro-Irak war data which had been misconstrued, manipulated and fabricated to initiate the war. It’s with Sean Penn, appropriately, and Naomi Watts and, especially if you remember the events as they happened (I do remember Joe Wilson’s op ed piece in the Times and the events which followed), it is a compelling, if not disturbing, watch.
The second movie we watched was “The Help.” Never did read the book and avoided the movie, until now. I get the criticism of it—that it perpetuates this white heroine mythology and whitewashes (no pun intended) the civil rights movement—but I still think sometimes in order to reach a wider audience you have to sugarcoat things. If the masses who bought the book or flocked to the theatres (and now to their tv sets and computers) to see the movie took away even an inkling of the horrors of a racist society and its injustices then it is worthwhile.
Something that struck me on a personal level was the love with which these women, modern-day slaves, cared for their employers’ babies, or as one of the main characters, the black maid Aibileen, said…
“I done raise seventeen kids in my life. Looking after white babies, that’s what I do. I know how to get them babies asleeps, start crying and going to toilet bowl before their mamma’s even get out of bed in the mornin’.”
“Baby girl,” the child she cares for, is stereotypically blonde and pudgy, with pink cheeks and chubby fingers which reach not for her mother who is tight and cold and picks her up once a day, but to caress the cheek of her beloved Aibi. The scene when Aibi is fired without justification and walks away from the house leaving “Baby girl” sobbing inconsolably by the picture window, was devastating.
Before I had kids I perhaps hadn’t noticed, but as a working mother of three, living in NYC and in the semi-urban suburb of the city, boy did I notice the veritable army of African-American women who arrived each morning and left each evening, little blonde babies strolled and held and fed and changed.
Our childcare experience was long and varied, a mixture of babysitters (I never could say “nanny,” as to me it smacked of elitism) and daycare, live ins and live outs, with lots of tales to tell, including that of the woman who used my toothbrush and wore my clothes and who I found sleeping in bed when I came home early one day…
By number #3, with the two older children in a daycare up the street, we hired the best candidate we could find to care for our three-month old baby. The woman’s name was “Blossom,” and she was from Jamaica. She did not miss a day of work in the year she worked for us, insisting on walking from where the bus left her and back to it even in the bitter cold. She was active in her church and her choir, mother of several children (most still in Jamaica, but with one son who was entering the service). She set the rules, making it clear during our interview with her that she wouldn’t clean or cook, but would just care for the children, and that was fine with us. I’ll never forget the way she picked up my infant with such confidence, slinging her over her shoulder, singing to her some gospel song, and in turn allowing me to somehow leave her (and my other two slightly older children) each morning for the first year of her life.
I was indebted to her, incredibly grateful and in awe of her strength and yet gentle way with all of us. I also felt extremely uncomfortable with the situation, something in my gut gnawing away at me, which I never got over and which eventually led to my leaving work after well over a dozen years at the magazine, to stay home.
Skeeter (the white heroine) asks Aibileen–
“What does it feel like to raise a white child, when your own child’s at home being looked after by somebody else?”
Was I uncomfortable because Blossom was black and I feared becoming that stereotype of the white professional woman hiring the black nanny? I did hate that image, yes, but I don’t think so, and as a matter of fact I felt the same way about other babysitters who’d worked for us, who were not black. It was more than that.
Skeeter, the character in the book who pens the exposé which tears apart this small town, said this:
“Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”
Indeed Blossom and I both left our children in order to work. No doubt her need to work was more closely tied into how to put food on her table and provide for her family back in Jamaica, but I am no millionaire, and was working partly because I enjoyed it and because it was what I was raised to do, but also, and without a doubt, to pay the bills, to contribute to my family, my children.
Yet even when I was at the peak of my career and my job satisfaction, it was heart-wrenching for me to spend my days caring for another’s baby (in my case a weekly magazine), knowing that I was missing out on time spent with my own. Exacerbated no doubt by the fact that I have a dreadful memory and have never been one to chronicle my or my family’s life with the passion some do today, the early years of my two older children passed in a blur. There were many days when I left before they awoke and returned long after they’d been put to bed (by my husband, whose academic schedule thankfully allowed him to be home early), and it was only when I stopped working when my youngest was a bit older than a year that I realized how much I had missed.
I don’t mean to criticize anyone’s choices. We all do what we must and, hopefully what is right for our circumstance and as long as there is love I do believe that all works out in the end. I know working women who are far more bonded with their children than some who are home with them, and a million and one other circumstances which involve a myriad of childcare combinations. I feel fortunate to be able to raise my own children, yet right there is the problem. It’s a privilege not available to all, and there is so very much need for better support from our employers and our society to help the mothers who must work, all mothers, to have the ability to spend time with their families, to care for their babies. And when we can’t be there, we can at least love and support, respect those who do. Mothering, after all, is mothering.