This time two years ago I stand in my employer’s bedroom and watch as a four-year-old girl is drowned, stabbed, electrocuted, strangled, burned and buried in an avalanche. Again, again! She is jumping on the bed with her socks on and her hair clips are falling out. I vary my tone as I count down from ten, hyping her up like I’m in showbiz. THREE! TWO! ONE! and she feigns impact, falls flat on her back, writhes and throws her arms above her head onto the pillow. We are both laughing because it is funny. Her mum appears at the door as we are doing being eaten by a lion. At work the next day, she asks: Would you be interested in babysitting sometime?
It is 2008 and I am fourteen. I am babysitting for two or three families a week. When the kids are in bed I go through the cupboards eating handfuls of snack foods, sprawl on the couch, flip through the books on their shelves: Tim Winton, Elizabeth Gilbert, Alexander McCall Smith.
In Logroño I live in the basement. It is 2012 and I am eighteen, working as an au pair, and there are bars on my one high little window. If I climb the ladder I can look out into a concrete yard which serves as a toilet for the neighbour’s dog. Going downstairs to my room I often think about Hoopie, a live-in carer who spent two years in the basement of my grandfather’s house. Hoopie was a hoarder, I think, and we weren’t allowed down into her room. Once I asked whether she was part of the family, and my dad said kind of. During my first couple of weeks in Spain, my host mother makes it clear to me that some foods in the kitchen are for her husband only: walnuts, cereal, dried fruit, leftovers in the fridge. The digestive biscuits and tuna, on the other hand, are hers and I shouldn’t touch them. I know where everything is hidden, and I snack on walnuts, dunk the biscuits in my tea, pick at the leftovers when she’s asleep.
Trial of Au Pair Reveals Unease in U. S. Society.
narratives of familial fragmentation
hierarchically structured domestic groups
It is 1997, and 18-year-old British au pair Louise Woodward is indicted for the murder of a child under her care. From that point onwards, she exists at the centre of one of the most sensationalised legal trials of the late 20th century. ‘Every working parent’s deepest fear has a new face: one with a milkmaid’s wholesome roundness, clear blue eyes and a broad serene brow,’ says the New York Times. A week later, in the same paper: ‘In her round, placid face you could read what you wanted to read. Was she a monster in the guise of an irresponsible teen-ager? Or a kind but naïve girl who was exploited and abused?’ Woodward pleads not guilty: ‘Her voice so soft that she was repeatedly told to speak up’. Her defence lawyer, Mr Good, insists: ‘This is not a child killer. This is a child lover’. The sentence is soon reduced to manslaughter, and after 279 days Woodward walks free.
The mid 20th century, Miriam Forman-Brunell writes in Babysitter: An American History, saw a rise in the middle-class American anxiety that second wave feminism would destabilise domestic structures. ‘If our daughters lose their desire to become homemakers, we shall lose our homes’, wrote one columnist in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1944. The modern babysitter was ‘notorious for sneaking her boyfriend in the back door, talking on the telephone, sitting glued to the TV, eating her employers out of house and home, neglecting the children, and enticing the man of the house.’ This anxiety was given concrete form in the urban legend of the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs, in which a babysitter receives a call from an unknown man, telling her to check the children – the call is coming from inside the house. A body of similar narratives sprung up, recasting the babysitter as scheming seductress, object of male desire, victim in horror films and literature. While popular culture pined for the golden age of babysitting, the babysitter herself was disciplined for transgressing social boundaries – private/public, family/community, labour/leisure, childhood/adulthood, girlhood/womanhood.
Children Minding Children.
(interloper? daughter? )
It is 2012, the year I turn twelve, and the year I start babysitting. I am obsessed with Ann M Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club, a middle grade fiction series narrating the experiences of a group of friends running a babysitting business in the fictional town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. Mary Bronstein refers to the series as ‘a child of the mid-1980s…a group of tenacious young businesswomen who can be and do anything, but choose to take care of children, conduct housework and obsess over appearance.’ My favourites are the ones about Mary Anne: She’s shy and she has brown hair, and is short like me. Also, at the age of thirteen we are both dating guys named Logan.
The first time I encounter the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs myth, it is 2008 and I am fourteen. I watch When a Stranger Calls at my friend’s house: It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Afterwards I start sitting outside the children’s bedrooms with my knees tucked to my chest, waiting for the sound of a car in the drive.
In her analysis of the media coverage of Louise Woodward’s trial, Siobhan Holohan writes that the case ‘was bound up with debates about working mothers and the collapse of the nuclear family,’ and that the main protagonists, Woodward and Deborah Eappen, the children’s mother, were being framed ‘in terms of their particular gendered attributes’. While Eappen was chastised for neglecting her role as wife, woman and mother, Woodward was seen to have failed to make ‘the successful transition from girl to woman’, and infantilised accordingly.
interlocking structures of constraint
Trusting A Stranger.
amalgamation/matrix of power
Since the first Baby-Sitters Club book was published 1986, the series has gone on to span 131 books as well as multiple spin-off series, a feature film and a television series. Recently, Scholastic has released a number of graphic novels and ‘modernised’ the series in 2009 for its 25th anniversary. Audible has announced that it will release all 131 titles in 2019 (starring Elle Fanning). In early 2019 Netflix announced a ten-part reboot. Directed by Broad City’s Lucia Aniello and produced by Ann M Martin, the series promises to ‘tackle themes around divorce, racism and belonging.’
In a 2016 interview with the New Yorker, Martin states that in writing the members of the club, she ‘wanted to portray a very diverse group of characters, not only from different racial backgrounds, but from different kinds of family backgrounds, religions, and perspectives on life.’ Martin’s diverse group of characters consists of seven upper-middle class young women, five of whom are caucasian, one of whom, Claudia, is Japanese-American, and another of whom, Jessi, is Black. Reflecting on reading the The Baby-Sitters Club, Audible editor Abby West says that growing up, being paid to watch ‘your niece, cousin, nephew, little sibling’ had always felt like a ‘white people thing’. In a 1992 paper, Christine Jenkins addresses the tokenism inherent in the series’ self-lauded ‘diversity’, arguing that Jessi and Claudia, as token figures, are made to act as spokespeople for the ‘melting pot generation’, voicing opinions that make the ‘equation of racism with personal problems’, and neutralising any plot lines that could actually maybe interrogate structures of white supremacy within American suburbia and childcare more broadly.
I am the only white student in my Spanish class in Logroño. The teacher singles me out for praise in a room full of older Pakistani and Moroccan women. I am working illegally. I overstay my visa by three months. You won’t have any problems.
Amalgamations and matrices of
My white body moving through
someone else’s kitchen
Holohan points out that the Woodward v Eappen case contains the disjunctive element of ‘the white woman occupying the structural position of the ethnic worker’. The word ‘au pair’ dates back to the 19th century, and refers to the cultural exchange of young women between European countries. I meet only two other au pairs in Logroño and they are both blonde-hair-blue-eye white. Ritta Helena Lundberg writes that au pairing is generally regarded as an ‘opportunity for privileged young white people – especially single young women – from Western countries to travel and spend time abroad at a certain time in their lives.’
It’s 2018 and Peter Dutton has granted a visa for a white au pair just months after cracking down on ‘border control’. In Manhattan a woman is fired from her nannying job after her employer accidentally sends her a racist text message, and in Georgia a white woman calls the police on Corey Lewis, a black man leaving the subway with the two white children he is babysitting.
Late at night in Logroño the father and I argue about immigration in the kitchen. Afterwards I call my mum, and say I didn’t realise people really thought this stuff. My mum, whose Lebanese features are darker than my own, worked as an au pair and aged carer in London in her early twenties. She recalls one woman calling the agency to complain that they had sent a coloured girl. Mum laughs. And I called my mum, a bit upset, and she said – ‘Well, they did send a coloured girl! Why are you so offended?’ The reception in the basement cuts out halfway through the conversation.
Vance Joy playing on a UE boom
The golden age of
structures of constraint
Slicing watermelon and strawberries
on the marbled bench top
Two years after Louise Woodward is released, Manjit Kaur Basuta, a British woman of South-East Asian descent, is tried and convicted under questionable evidence for the death of a 13-month-old boy in her care. Her lawyer argues that Basuta is the victim of subliminal racism, noting the conspicuous lack of media coverage both in Britain and the United States. She is sentenced to at least 25 years in prison to almost no public outcry. British journalists acknowledge parallels between the two trials; some use the term sympathy fatigue.
Love your nail colors! My host mother writes on Instagram. Besos! Guapisima! In the four years since I worked as an au pair, she and I have spoken on a near-monthly basis. Other au pairs have come and gone, some from Australia or New Zealand, but ‘not like me’. Two girls ask me about visas, and I don’t know exactly what to say.
Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez writes that ‘different realities and fantasies of time collide in the private household.’ The space of the home and the space of paid work are discontinuous: they accumulate. I think this is probably true, and it is often uncomfortable. But if you’re allowed to be in the Club, then I guess it’s also like–
the golden retriever showing me his belly
narrative of familial fragmentation
on the sun-baked polished wooden floor.