Author's note: I have changed the names of the characters mentioned in this piece. “Malie” really is her first name, though.
Mrs. Eleanor Broadstreet had an inventive way with words. “Is something going around at school, pretty girl?” she’d ask her daughter Millie.
“You’re sounding a little snurfly.”
Snurfly: sniffly, and then some. A word (one of many) for just Mrs. Eleanor Broadstreet and her sweet baby girl, who was my close friend through middle school. A sniffle, from what I gathered, was more delicate. A snurfle came at a more gnarly phase of the common cold. A snurfle was deep. Viscous.
She was similarly creative when it came to firing the nannies—or, at least, finding reasons to fire them. As if by celestial clockwork, the beginning of each September would sweep in a breeze of scraped knees, lost teeth, and a fresh face to pick up Millie from school. Some classmates would strut in with new glitter pens, braces, or breasts. Millie accumulated all three of those things over the course of some years, but the nanny acquisition was an annual tradition.
Prudence had allegedly stolen some of Mrs. Broadstreet’s most precious jewelry. Elizabeth wasn’t “the right fit.” Jenny, the one I liked best, suddenly “wasn’t needed anymore.”
The women Mrs. Broadstreet hired were too young or brown to even think about invading the sacred, distinctly-Anglo-Saxon mother-daughter vocabulary, but they probably got as much face time with Millie as her mother did. If the speculations that float through the parental gossip mill are to be believed, Mrs. Broadstreet fired the nannies because she felt threatened by them.
By necessity, Mrs. Broadstreet looked for women who could work long hours—and those hours made the nannies all the more disposable to her. She had a keen nose for Millie’s affections, and dumped her employees like trash when she caught the fumes of attachment in late-summer heat.
By the age of 10, I had devised an informal taxonomy of caretaking. Babysitters were girls with ponytails who were paid in cash and had homework to do. Nannies didn’t usually have homework to do because nannying was a full-time gig, and they showed up every day—not just when your parents were going to a gala, or on a date.
And yayas were nannies for Filipinos like us. They were usually Filipino themselves, often lived with the families they worked for, and kept house in addition to taking care of children. At large gatherings of Pinoys, being mistaken for a yaya was (is) the most humiliating fate that could befall any woman.
At one summertime party, one of my titas was halfway into the pool when her husband pointed out that she and the family’s yaya were wearing the same swimsuit. She was mortified. The yaya was wading in the shallow end, making sure the kids didn’t drown, oblivious. The swimsuit was a blue “tankini” with pink stripes. To this day, my tita doesn’t like to talk about it.
The tankini catastrophe and other instances like it are something of a toothless in-joke when they are contained among Filipinos, but they become venomous when white people are thrown into the mix.
A white neighbor in our apartment building once got into an elevator with my mom and asked how long she had worked for our family. The implication was clumsy and heavy: People who look like you do not live in this building. Her assumption was a particularly strange one because I look a lot like my mom, and by racist transitive property, I also shouldn’t have been living in that building.
The neighbor lived on the 12th floor, which allowed just enough time for a stammering reply or a bloated silence. Those kinds of comments come from a kind of muscle memory: Mrs. 12th Floor’s eye had been trained to recognize a brown or yellow lady holding hands with a child in a pleated uniform. At mid-afternoon on a school day, the sidewalks of the Upper East Side are rife with these symbiotic duos, like a capitalist biblical ark. They roam and graze and sometimes stop for ice cream.
But the sting of the comment said as much about nannying as it does about me or my mom or the lady who lives on the 12th floor. It pushed the same button that launched Millie’s nanny rotation, that made Tankinigate what it was: the fact that some women are hired do what so many do for free. The fact that motherhood and nannyhood can so easily look the same.
I only had a yaya for a little more than a year. My mom was of the stay-at-home variety, but at the very beginning, she didn’t know much about cooking or cleaning. So in September 2000, my parents hired Malie, who grocery shopped, watched me in the afternoons, and lived in a small bedroom by the kitchen.
Malie might have been pretty if it weren’t for the mole. It was a grand feat of nature, that mole, so impossibly round and raised and brown, like a gumdrop or a doorknob. Smack in the center of her forehead like a poem on a page. A wild and perfect coincidence of genetics.
I only say she might have been pretty because I don’t quite remember what the rest of her face looked like. Each time I try to construct her from memory, the picture starts at the mole and expands radially, clumsily adding features of various people I’ve met in the last 15 years.
After she left, my dad and I would sometimes refer to her as “Molie.” The joke practically wrote itself.
I first heard the term “intimate labor” when a visiting journalist talked to my class about her investigation of workplace abuse in nail salons. The phrase (which seems to rarely emerge outside feminist academic circles) encompasses more than just sex work. According to the authors of Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care, it describes any work that relies on “touch, closeness, and personal care”—the intersection of intimacy and capitalism.
Intimate labor sweeps masseuses, manicurists, housekeepers, nurses, and nannies alike into its purview. Depending on who you ask, it might also include therapists and people who staff call centers. It’s hard to define intimate labor, I imagine, because it’s hard to define intimacy.
Is work automatically intimate, for example, if it takes place in a home instead of an office? If the lady polishing the floor of the kitchen is an intimate worker, does the same label apply to the boy from around the corner who mows the lawn?
Childcare seems like the textbook example of intimate labor: it involves bubble baths and poop and wiping spaghetti sauce from small, sticky mouths. Folding tiny t-shirts, being ready with a tissue when the tears or the snurfles hit.
Sometimes, Malie let me brush her hair. Most of the time, she clicked her tongue at me impatiently. She always kept a bag of Sunkist gummy candies in her bedroom, although she denied it whenever I would ask for some.
I’d sit patiently on the floor among her cardboard boxes, wondering if it would be the day she finally gifted me a sugary, gelatinous slice of citrus. I’d say, “Malie, may I please have an orange today?” And she’d say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
It’s odd to characterize a relationship as intimate when you can hardly remember what the other person’s face looks like. But there’s an unimpeachable intimacy to routine and denial, to lying and leaving without saying goodbye.
Looking back, I suspect that Mrs. Broadstreet already disliked Elizabeth when I climbed up that tree during a playdate with Millie. That day, gravity was on the matriarch’s side.
When I was lying in the mulch, I looked up Elizabeth’s nostrils while her eyes scanned my torso and limbs for damage. The fall left me largely unscathed, save for a headache and a few bruises, but Elizabeth called an ambulance nonetheless. She probably knew I didn’t need to go to the hospital, but perhaps she saw it as a chance to stave off the inevitable letting-go.
I liked Elizabeth, but she was gone by the end of the summer. I learned this when the next nanny came to pick up Millie from school in September.
My dad jumped the gun on 2008. The crisis scattered thousands of working adults, wrenching them from their desks and flinging them back home unfettered. A great diaspora of moms and dads.
But my dad set up his home office a little while before that. He ditched Wall Street long before Wall Street could even think about ditching him. At the same time, my mom took an office job at a nonprofit near our house. So Dad became the ambassador of our family at school pick-up, waiting among mothers and nannies and the occasional fellow father.
He’d chat with Ed, the afternoon security guard, who either retired or died recently—I can’t remember which one. Either way, I recall a shout of remembrance over the alumni e-mail list, hands clutched over hearts. A celebration of his service to the school.
“I loved Ed,” we all said. He knew nearly every student’s name, and would say goodbye to each of us as we jostled our way to after-school freedom. “He was so nice.”
I imagine the school lobby reeked of flowers and formality.
At the nonprofit where my mom worked, there was a Human Resources guy who was in charge of ordering the sheet cake for send-off parties. When people decided they could no longer stand their bosses or got offers from places where people hated their lives less, he’d say, “I’m sad to see you go. What kind of sheet cake do you want?”
My mom’s closest coworker friends had beat her to leaving, so I can’t imagine her send-off gathering was much of an emotional affair. If I had to guess, I’d say she picked a chocolate sheet cake with vanilla frosting. GOOD LUCK, ANINA, it would say in sugary cursive.
I picture polite farewells, an earnest but uncomfortable toast, and the impersonal photosynthesis of icing flowers under fluorescent office light. The goodbye sheet cake was an honored ritual, like saying hello in the break room or sitting in adjacent cubicles from 9 to 5 every day.
There was a religious studies teacher, Mrs. Clementine, who started teaching at my school decades before I was born. At the end of sixth grade, the head of the middle school, Mrs. Rogers, announced that Mrs. Clementine was going “to someplace even better” the next school year.
We all thought she was dying, but it turns out that she was just retiring and Mrs. Rogers had chosen her words poorly that day. Like either-retired-or-deceased Ed, Mrs. Clementine was laureled in her departure. The faculty, every colleague seemed to say, was a family—and it was losing one of its most beloved members.
These days, the employees-as-family analogy—in domestic or educational or corporate labor—makes me itch. The bouquets of carnations, the store-bought cakes, the homemade goodbye cards: vestiges of an affection that comes about because there is money on the line.
I am not trying to say that the bonds between colleagues are less valuable or meaningful. I am trying to say that the contours of so many relationships are sketched out by economic necessity, and that’s an unsettling thing to realize. Malie didn’t spend a year of her life wiping my ass because she loved me, after all.
Any way you spin it: Florida is not “someplace even better,” Mrs. Rogers.
On the day she left, Malie told me she was going to see the Statue of Liberty. She told my parents she was going to get a haircut.
It was her day off, October 2001. Although she didn’t think much of it at the time, my mom remembers that Malie had carried me around the apartment that morning, even though I was four and more than capable of walking around on my own.
When my parents and I returned from the movies or church or errands, Malie’s bedroom was empty, save for any things we had lent or given to her—she didn’t risk being seen as a thief. Her close friends claimed they didn’t know where she had gone. The doorman said she always left for her days off with a bag and came back empty-handed, like she was building a nest elsewhere.
Malie was not missing or fired; she was just gone. We haven’t heard from her since.
According to her Facebook profile, her last name is “Williams” now. She got married during the summer of 2002. She lives in Queens. There are no public pictures of her face—all of her display photos are pictures of her two young sons.
She beat level 124 in Candy Crush Saga. She prayed for Paris. She carried me around the apartment the day she left.
I’ve always sworn I would recognize her instantly if I saw her on the street. We’d be walking in opposite directions on some bustling gray avenue, and it would all lock into place: two pairs of eyes, one mole. The small girl she took care of, fifteen years ago. My yaya, for a little while.
Maybe she’s seen a dermatologist by now and the locus of recognition is gone. She’s married someone called Williams, and she has two kids of her own, and she got that haircut a little while back.
It is so easy for work to imitate family—sometimes, it does so explicitly and purposefully. I never thought of Malie as part of my family because she clicked her tongue impatiently and never gave me a gummy orange. But even if she had been gentler, if my smile had rotten over with the sugar of a thousand Sunkist slices, I’d hesitate before the word “family” because she has her own family and has always had her own family and that’s why she came and took care of me in the first place.
I’m privileged to remember our yearlong kinship in terms of love and feelings and goodbyes. I like to think that she carried me around the apartment and looked at the newly-revised skyline and wondered what the future, vast and breakable, would look like for her. I imagine she cast her gaze upon the skyscrapers and pictured her next home, registered the 30 pounds of person in her arms and visualized the children she would have some day, the sweet boys she would love more than she ever had to love me.