From the kitchen, I could hear my 10-year-old son Benny moaning with a stomach bug. Coming into his room, I put my hand on his clammy forehead, checking to see if he was still feverish. But he batted my hand away and called out for Dora, his nanny. “I want Dora to rub my back,” Benny said. “Get Dora.”
That’s not the only time he’s asked for her instead of me. The other day, I rearranged my work schedule to pick him up from school — normally Dora’s job. I eagerly anticipated seeing his face when he scanned all the other moms and found me. But when his eyes finally met mine, they hardly lit up. “What are YOU doing here?” he said. “Where’s Dora?”
It’s a legitimate question. Unlike me, Dora is always around. She takes Benny and his older sister, Talia, on outings after school. She trundles them off to their haircuts and soccer classes and play dates. Dora and my kids have routines and rituals in which I have no part, often because I’m at work.
Still, it hurts every time they choose her over me. There is anger, yes, as well as pain and jealousy. And then there is a wave of guilt. Does she care for them better than I do? Am I inadequate as a mother? Who is their real mom?
These thoughts and feelings never sit well with me. Why am I so threatened by this wonderful woman’s relationship with my children? I have no reason to be jealous. Dora makes my life possible. She cares for my kids as if they were her own. She brags about Benny’s report card on Facebook and shamelessly trumpets his good looks. At Talia’s bat mitzvah, Dora beamed with a mother’s pride.
Mothers and nannies: It’s a complex relationship. I know moms who have fired their caregivers for becoming too attached to their kids, to say nothing of those let go for being more tied to their phones than to the children under their care.
Since the flood of women entered the workforce in the 1960s, generations of mothers have worried about finding responsible child-care providers. Reports of shaken babies and unattended toddlers add to their anxiety, leading to widespread use of nanny cams. Yes, watching our kids remotely gives us some comfort about their safety. But it also reminds us of all the moments they share with their nannies rather than us.
The resulting feelings are complex. We want our nannies to nurture our kids as we would. We want them to love them — but not too much.
My bond with Dora, though, is different, because Dora also raised me. She’s been with my family since I was 2 years old. She arrived in New York at age 20, after crossing the border in Mexico from Guatemala. At the time, my mom was desperate for someone to watch us while she started a jewelry business. I took to Dora immediately.
Dora did everything for me. She woke me up for school and snuggled with me at bedtime. She listened to my stories and chatted with my friends. She knew Jennifer liked Doritos and Debbie was fond of mac and cheese. And I knew every bit of her life as well — the latest updates from her family in Guatemala, their squabbles and celebrations. We watched the nightly news on Telemundo and Pat Robertson on the 700 Club. She calmed my nerves before finals and I, in turn, helped her study to become a citizen. When I was sick, she was always there to rub my back.
She’s been privy to every romance I’ve had. It was Dora who passed on the red rhinestone bracelet my first boyfriend bought for me when he was too shy to give it to me himself. And it was Dora who comforted me two weeks later, when the phone call came announcing he just wanted to be “friends.”
She protected me not just emotionally but physically. Her room was my refuge, my escape from a taunting older brother.
And I was there for her as well — such as when she learned to drive and required a booster seat to see above the steering wheel. I didn’t complain when it took her a half-hour to drive the mile to pick me up from school — or get anxious at the stream of traffic behind us as we made our way home. I was proud of her for taking on a new challenge, one she undertook for herself but also for me.
Why then, given a long history of affection for Dora, do I wrestle with the loving bond she has with my children?
My father, a psychiatrist, always said that the first few years of a child’s life are the most critical. The care and nurturing they receive during this time helps determine their capacity for love and empathy and trust. Neglect or deprivation in these years can have serious consequences. But the flip side, an overabundance of love and affection, has only positive benefits.
I’ve learned that with children, love is never a zero-sum game. Just as we wonder whether we’ll love our second child as much as our first, we question whether our kids’ attachment to their nanny diminishes the love they have for us. It’s an understandable concern. But I’ve now been on both ends of it. And I know — intellectually, at least — that there’s no reason to fret.
Do I still have twinges of jealousy when they’re cuddling on the couch? Yes. That may never change. But I’m comforted knowing that Dora is there for them as much as she was — and still is — for me.
Kai Falkenberg is a lawyer and law professor in New York City.
Find her on Twitter @kaifalkenberg.