When my twin sons were babies, we lived a block away from a day-care center, and just as I was setting out with the stroller for the first walk of the day—usually at 7:30, right after the first segment of the Today show ended—I would see mothers dropping off their children, many of whom were infants no older than mine. I'd slow down as I passed, taking an interested look at these mothers, who were always in such a rush, bogged down with diaper bags and teddy bears, and then I would walk on, headed for the park. The long, long day would begin to unfold: the walk, the end of the Today show, the morning nap, lunch, another walk, the afternoon nap, two solid hours of MSNBC (sometimes more), and then, at five or so, the last walk of the day. Often I would see the same mothers picking up the babies I'd seen dropped off ten hours before, and I would marvel at the sight. In fact, I sort of planned my day around it: it was my little treat. Think of all they've missed, I would say smugly to myself. I felt in every way superior to them: every day while they had been miles away from their babies, I'd been right there with mine, catching every little smile, writing down every advance—rolling over! eating a bit of mashed banana!—on the lined ivory pages of their baby books, importantly calling the pediatrician if anything seemed slightly awry. That so much of the day had been tedious and (truth be told) mildly depressing was itself a badge of honor. Unlike those women parking their kids in day care while they went to work, I was a mother virtuously willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her children, and being rewarded with the ultimate prize: I wasn't missing a moment of their fleeting, precious, and unrecoverable childhoods.
It was entirely snotty and rude and most of all silly for me to have this attitude toward those mothers. In the first place, the day-care center was in no way tony, nor were the cars that pulled up to it in any way luxurious; I'll bet that all those mothers worked more because of economic necessity than because of a desire for professional advancement or emotional fulfillment. More to the point, a majority of my sainted hours noting every little moue of delight or displeasure that crossed my children's faces were spent in the company of a highly capable and very industrious nanny who did all of the hard stuff. There was no need for me to be moping around the apartment all day; I really could have lightened up and had a little more fun, clicked off the TV and gone to the movies or lunch or shopping. But I felt anxious about the whole thing—very, very anxious. If I was going to stake out my turf as an "at-home mother," putting all my worldly promise in cold storage to do it, didn't I have to actually stay home? Fifty years ago a young matron lucky enough to have household help would have been up and dressed and off to the department store or the library guild or the dry cleaner's by midmorning, and no one would have questioned her inclinations as far as motherhood was concerned. But now, of course, the situation is so fraught with four decades' worth of female advance and retreat that almost any decision a woman makes about child care is liable to get her blasted by one faction or the other. Standing bravely in the crossfire are nannies, who tend to be the first choice of professional-class mothers who work (so much better than day care—the baby is still being raised in his own home, according to his mother's deeply considered specifications) and the guilty luxury of a good number of at-home mothers. And, as many of us have learned, the mother-nanny relationship has the potential for being the most morally, legally, and emotionally charged one that a middle-class woman will ever have.