‘No, I Am Not The Nanny’

America’s growing diversity has led to an uncomfortable situation for some parents. A group of moms talk about being mistaken for the nannies of their multiracial children. Joining the conversation: New York Times "Motherlode" blogger Lisa Belkin, Phaedra Erring and NPR Producer Jamila Bey.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. And this week we thought we'd talk about one of the interesting challenges of being part of a diverse family being mistaken for the nanny.

New York Times Motherlode blogger Lisa Belkin wrote about this in a recent entry. It was called, as you might imagine, When Mom Is Mistaken for the Nanny. And she's with us from her home office. Here with me in the Washington, D.C. studio are Phaedra Erring and Jamila Bey. Jamila, of course, is a journalist who often works with us here at TELL ME MORE as an editor and producer. And with us on the phone from her office in D.C., Carolyn Hall(ph). Ladies, moms, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. LISA BELKIN (Blogger, "Motherlode"): Thank you.

Ms. PHAEDRA ERRING: Hello.

Ms. JAMILA BEY (Journalist): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Now, Lisa, it's a pleasure to speak with you. Of course we are all avid followers of your blog. So I wanted to ask, how did you hear about this issue of moms being mistaken for the babysitter?

Ms. BELKIN: I got a letter from a reader saying you have to help me with this one. Am I being overly sensitive? What do I say? And I said, write about it. So she wrote about it in a wonderful essay. And the response showed that it may not be a common occurrence in my life, but it sure is a common occurrence in a lot of other women's.

MARTIN: Was this Nicole who wrote about this?

Ms. BELKIN: Yes.

MARTIN: Okay, and for purposes of discussion, we have to describe physical appearance. And I know that some people have a problem with that, but the fact is you won't get the point if you don't know what we're talking about. And Nicole is black. Her husband is white. And in her blog to you, Lisa, she describes how she's often mistaken for the nanny and she says that, I don't know, just give us a sense of it and we'll link to it on our site so people can read the whole piece for themselves. But describe what her situation is.

Ms. BELKIN: Yes. She is an African-American woman who has a blond-haired, blue-eyed beautiful little child. And people are constantly saying is he yours? And the question is he yours is an interesting one because few people said directly to her, are you the nanny? It happened often enough, though, that she equated the two questions. And a lot of the conversation on the blog was, are they the same question? And why is it bad to be mistaken for the nanny?

And there are so many layers to this in terms of what your identity is when you're in a mixed family and why it feels like such a slap to have someone ask you if that's actually your child.

MARTIN: Here are some of the comments that Nicole wrote about. On the playground: Are you working part time for this family? Because we're looking for a new nanny and you're so loving with her. At the school's front gate: You're one of the most prompt babysitters I've met. That must be such a relief to her mom. At the market: Please tell his mom that this little cutie is so well-behaved.

I'm sorry, I'm getting irritated and this isn't even happening to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jamila, tell us of some of your experiences. And for purposes of our discussion, you are...

Ms. BEY: I am African-American. That's incredibly obvious, especially if you're looking at my hair. My husband is Caucasian, my son, he's got blond hair and grey-blue eyes and I happen to think he's gorgeous and adorable. And...

Unidentified Woman: We agree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEY: And, you know, when he was very young, he looked just like his dad. Once he got teeth and his cheeks got all puffy, then he looks like me. But before he really looked as much like me as he does now, I was in an elevator one day, he was in a stroller and a woman looked at him and said, oh, so beautiful, so beautiful, are you looking for more work.

And I'm - I mean I'm a freelance journalist. I'm always looking for work. I assumed she knew me from somewhere. And I said, oh yeah, as a matter of fact, I am. And she said, oh well, you know, you're just so good with him. And when I realized what she was asking, it hurt. It wasn't just that, you know, oh well, you know, people mistake you for this isn't your child, but on the one hand it was, like, oh well, you couldn't possibly produce a child who was what I consider to be beautiful.

There's also the feeling of, oh well, if you can do that, you can do that again for my own kid and be loving with my child and I'd like to usurp your motherhood and, you know, give it to my own child. And I was angry for some time because I really didn't know how to respond to that. I just...

MARTIN: But I'm interested to hear you say that your feelings were hurt because I often hear you get annoyed about things, but it's interesting to me to hear that that hurt your feelings. Well, let me bring some of the other moms and hear some of their experiences. Phaedra, tell us your story. For purposes of this discussion, you are...

Ms. ERRING: I'm of mixed ethnicity. I am Native American, African-American, white. And so I have medium toned skin and I have brown curly hair, but I have light green eyes. And my daughter is blond and blue eyed and very fair-skinned, like her father. And we are from San Diego, California originally. And I had never experienced people thinking I was the nanny until I moved here. And suddenly there were nannies all around and they began to assume that I was one of them. They would sit with me and ask me if I was looking for another job or if I was working part-time. And many of them would speak to me in Spanish because they would assume that I was also Spanish speaking. And it was always a little uncomfortable to have someone approach me speaking a foreign language and assuming that I was not my child's parent.

MARTIN: Well, which of those things is the thing that bothers you?

Ms. ERRING: It's actually a combination of the things, because when people come up to me and speak Spanish to me, I'm very open to it. Being from California, people speak Spanish all the time. But to then have - find out that they were assuming that I was not my child's parent was, that was what really...

MARTIN: But tell me how it feels. What does it bring up for you?

Ms. ERRING: Well, I was irritated and I dont actually know what caused so much irritation, but it made me feel like, how dare you think that I am not my child's parent because you think I dont look like my child's parent or you think I look so much different than her. I dont understand how people can not see that people who dont look alike can be parent and child. I see an adult with a child and I assume that the adult is the child's parent until I know otherwise.

MARTIN: Carolyn, what's your story?

Ms. HALL: Well, I'm a white American woman and have married an African-American man with Jamaican ancestry, and we adopted two African children a couple of years ago, then shortly thereafter I got pregnant and we had our third child, who is obviously a biracial child. So our family is quite diverse. I found it very interesting in that when I'm out with just the older kids, I'll hear the same questions as some of the other women. Is that your child or even such things as what's the story, as if a pure stranger has the right to that kind of information.

But what I have really found interesting is looks that I get from people in the community who dont know anything about our family, and when they see it all, its pretty clear that at least the feeling I get, and it's been confirmed by other people, that it looks like the older children were children of my husband's from another relationship and in some way I came a stole him away from that family and maybe got pregnant, I dont know, and then the third baby came along. So...

MARTIN: How does that get communicated?

Ms. HALL: I would say looks.

MARTIN: So people cutting their eyes at you.

Ms. HALL: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Like you took that man.

Ms. HALL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Or you took...

Ms. HALL: I dont quite - there's not always...

MARTIN: I'm just wondering, how do you get that from a look that people think you took that man?

Ms. HALL: Well, you know, there's looks of hostility. And then there's contemplation of it in talking to other people who understand some of the context in which we're living. And when I've said it to other people, they're like that's exactly right. So it's really a feeling that's been confirmed by community and friends and family.

MARTIN: What about when youre with the baby, the 18-month-old baby who's biracial? Do you get a similar vibe if it's just the two of you? I dont know if that ever happens but...

Ms. HALL: No. It's just looks from her to me, her to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: You know, looking for me in her, trying to figure out what her - it's pretty clear to me that she's biracial.

MARTIN: But nobody ever asked if youre the nanny, if youre looking for work.

Ms. HALL: No. No.

MARTIN: No.

Ms. HALL: Oh, no.

MARTIN: So Lisa, what do you make of all this? I'm not making you the expert here, but you are the person who kind of collects a lot of the stories here, but...

Ms. BELKIN: No, and I'm not the expert. I also feel like I should describe myself, because I'm the only one who hasnt. But I'm Caucasian with reddish blonde hair and green eyes and so are my kids. My mother, interestingly, looks like I do and her sister is about as dark and olive-skinned as you could get, and her mother was often asked questions - way, way back when. So this isn't new. It's just so much more - there's so many more variables now and what's really interesting is how people care about how your family became what it is. And youre right. You wonder why is that anyone's business.

What weve got here is the intersection of so many things. It's race. It's class. The idea that, you know, you are being mistaken for the nanny, somehow insulting on a class level, and then you wonder what that means we think about the people who take care of our children. It's in front of your kids. And so many of the people who wrote in were saying they're asking me these questions in front of my children. How do I explain this to my children? And that's what resonated with me.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly conversation with the moms, and we're talking with New York Times Motherhood blogger Lisa Belkin, and Washington, D.C. moms Phaedra Erring, Jamila Bey and Carolyn Hall, and we're talking about the apparent need for I'm Not The Nanny T-shirts.

One of the problems with our conversations is all of our kids are young, so we dont have kids who are old enough to articulate what it feels like to have someone come up and question who is who. But Phaedra...

Mr. ERRING: I actually can articulate this though, because my mother is very obviously African-American, and when I was a baby, I was blonde haired and green-eyed and fair-skinned, and my mother was constantly, through my childhood, approached and asked if she was the babysitter or the - not the nanny, because it wasnt this common then, but always was she the babysitter and what was she doing with this child.

They actually, when I was born, they brought me into the room and took me back out because the nurses thought that they had brought the wrong baby into the room. So this is something that I have experienced as the child and as the parent. And...

MARTIN: This is interesting though. Is there a difference between the way you react to this and the way your mother does?

Mr. ERRING: My mother was much more hostile about it. She would get very upset with people and she would lash out at them. I remember her doing it and thinking, you know, why do you care about this? And now, as an adult, I can understand why she cared. But I dont feel the anger to the extent she did. But it might just be a...

MARTIN: What did she say?

Mr. ERRING: Well, she would generally use expletives and tell them where to go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Was she from San Diego?

Mr. ERRING: No, she's from L.A.

MARTIN: She was from L.A. Oh, okay, I was going to say I thought maybe youre just West Coast mellow about it. And so, Jamila, what, there are those who will say lighten up. Being a parent is a long road and youve got to save the energy.

Ms. BEY: Oh, you are too sensitive.

MARTIN: So I just want to ask you about that.

Ms. BEY: Well, you know, the thing for me is, and let's just lay it out here, my parents raised their children, all of us girls, to go and do better than I did. Go and do better than grandmamma did, and coming from a background where everybody in my family were domestic workers. So pretty much the slap in the face to grandmamma would be, oh, well, I'm going to be a maid, I'm going to be a nanny. And to have someone come up to me and say, oh, you are so loving with him, do you need more hours? On the one hand its like, of course I'm loving because this is my child. This baby has my blood and my flesh. There's the intellectual part of it that goes, do you know how much education I have? And all of that assumption of the struggle that my family has gone through to educate their daughters, all of that is negated.

MARTIN: I do feel, though, I have to stand up for nannies though, because I have to tell you that I dont know anybody who has a more important job in my household than the babysitter. And I just feel like this is very complicated for me. Because on the one hand I'm hearing you and I understand that you feel that youre negated - youre relationship with your child is being negated. On the other hand, I have to ask, what's so wrong with being a nanny?

Ms. BEY: My child does have a nanny and we love her and she's important to us. And I hate to try and say that and sound like some of those women who might have said of my grandmother, oh, well, we love Mammy. And it is a complex issue and that's why I've tried so hard to not just, you know, go the Phaedra mommy route, because I'm very good at letting people know, hey, this is what's up. You know, I dont want my son to see his mother being so angry and so vitriolic all the time, so I tend to just, you know, say something like look at our faces. He's my twin. He's just light.

MARTIN: I think this is a good place to turn to the whole question of what is a good way to respond to this. And Jamila, I have a couple years on you, so wait until people ask you if you're your kid's grandmother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Just try how that feels when youre not feeling particularly fresh yourself that day. So let's just try that.

But Lisa, why dont we turn the conservation in the time we have left to what are some of the ways people choose to respond to this? I mean I heard Jamila say she doesnt want to be in a tizzy all day long being irritated. She doesnt like how that feels, but she also feels like she wants to stand up for her relationship with her child. And, in fact, the blogger, Nicole, who wrote to you, talked about the same thing, wanting to come back with a snappy comeback or something.

Ms. BELKIN: And that was largely what she was exploring in this piece. So Nicole Blades's answer is, I'm curious, why do you ask? And she figures for people who are asking for the wrong reasons, that puts them in their place. For people who want to say, oh, because he's so adorable, he has your ears, or because I'd love to arrange a play date with my son, that gives them a way to answer the question there.

Put yourself in the shoes of some of the people who are asking - I'm not saying the ones who are trying to steal nannies, but to put yourself in the shoes of the people who say: Is he yours, is that your son? It's now, readers are telling me, one more loaded question. There are people who are making conversation and saying, oh, is that your son? He's so cute. And we've now, we now have another sort of loaded question.

MARTIN: Phaedra, what are some of the things youve worked with and thought about as a way to respond to this?

Ms. ERRING: Well, what I've generally done is I have just answered the questions that have been asked me very directly and straightforwardly as though they weren't loaded questions, because it's the easiest way to maintain my decorum.

MARTIN: Carolyn, what about you? How do you respond and what are some of the things youre thinking about?

Ms. HALL: I think, what do they say - the mamma bear comes out in some ways, depending upon who the question is coming from and the environment. If it's just sort of intrusive questioning, then I'm a bit more open to being calm and sharing information. Other times I feel like there's judgment passed upon our history, and thats when I really struggle to find a response, especially if the kids are present. They're only three now, but wanting to make sure that they feel confident and comfortable in our family is, I think, the fundamental, you know, foundation of it, is seeing a comfort in their parents. And so I try to maintain that. And I'll say anything from, yes, they're mine, they're all mine. Or, you know, some people will say where did you get them from?

MARTIN: Oh no. Stop. My uterus. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: You know, what do you say? Sears and Roebuck? I dont know. So but, you know, at times...

MARTIN: Youre dating yourself.

Ms. HALL: It's true. So true.

MARTIN: Say H&M.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: So I'll work on that. So you know, I really have given this a lot of thought. So as our family moves forward and there's greater complexities with the society and school and friends and our relationship with our children, we'll be able to really give a good answer. Anything from funny to serious. But to me the main thing is to be consistent and - in our love for the children. And nothing's going to change. And we're unique and special for who we are. And we just have to, you know, sort of keep going and thrive as best we can.

MARTIN: Carolyn Hall spoke with us from her office in D.C. Writer and New York Times blogger Lisa Belkin joined us from her home office in New York. Phaedra Erring and Jamila Bey joined us from our Washington, D.C. studio.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: If you want to read Lisa's piece in its entirety, we hope you will. We'll have a link on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. But I dont know where to get one of those I'm Not The Nanny T-shirts, so thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BEY: Thank you for having us.

Ms. BELKIN: Thank you.

Ms. ERRING: Thank you.

Ms. HALL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

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