Friday, November 2, 2012

Yoselyn Ortega and the Critical Mom

No second chances--no "okay, we'll pay you more, and you do a little housework, or we'll have to let you go."  Which is the latest morsel of information on Yoselyn Ortega and her motive for apparently murdering her charges.  No.  When things go wrong with the nanny, you offer her a vacation or you say, "Here's ___________."  Fill in the sum.  And say goodbye.  This is the point where you know that SHE WILL NOT IMPROVE.  And you don't owe her more than a generous severance pay.  The children always come first.   You can't defer to their remaining affection for the nanny when your hunches tell you something's off.   If there's any moral in this sad story, maybe it is that the parents felt that they had to be decent to the woman who had worked so long for them, who had seemed so wonderful, loved the children.  It's the very decency of the Krims that destroyed them.  
Nannies, au pairs, almost always feel exploited.  Sometimes they feel that way because they are young and far from home.  Sometimes we ask too much of them.  Sometimes their lives implode and we don't see it.  But from the moment that their discontent becomes evident, we have to address it.  My first au pair, the one who became a friend, looked sad and grumpy at one point, and I asked what was the matter.  At nineteen, and because we had been friendly though a local swimming club, she didn't like to tell me.  She just said, "Oh, nothing," and after talking to my husband, I said, "I think you need a vacation--it's an enormous change coming here to New York after growing up in a small German town."  And I sent her on a visit to my best friend, where she walked in the woods, met American teenagers her age and made smoothies with them, and got enough sleep.  I asked my friend to do a bit of sleuthing and find out what was bothering her, and my friend did find out:  the au pair felt exploited, felt that we were asked too much, but felt better after the end of the vacation.  She found out some au pairs were making more than she was making--and it turned out they were working longer hours, too.  But she seemed happier after her vacation and the rest of her year went without incident.
Our second au pair seemed unsure of herself before she started working for us.  She loved the idea of going to New York for a year, but I had the uneasy sense that she had vague dreams of glamor and no idea what working long hours with an 18-month-old would be like.  The mistake I made lay in imagining that she would get used to New York and to me and to her work.   Instead, every attempt I made to ease her transition--buying her classes, access to a swimming pool--made no difference.  She grew increasingly non-communicative, her face discontented.  I arranged for her sister to visit, and things went better for a while, but eventually I grew afraid that she would harm my son, and since she kept saying she was lonely, I got friends to come over and stay "just to help you out," but she wasn't fooled.  "They're checking up on me!" she yelled.  I said I thought she looked worn out, and just wanted her to have some help.  That must have felt like a big insult, and she stomped out, after throwing her swimming pool card at me.  My son walked after her, saying "Bye!  Bye!" and she ignored him.  A day later I got a phone call from a lawyer who lived around the corner, and with whose family she had moved in, asking what was going on--she said we were exploiting her and had thrown her out!  I told him I had been afraid for my son's safety.  How old was my son?  When I told him, he burst out laughing:  no wonder I was scared.  We arranged for me to bring over her mail, and I arranged for friends to stay at my home and babysit until we found someone else.  We were extremely lucky.

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