The warnings began as soon as I announced my pregnancy on Facebook.
Within a few days of my post, my usually unremarkable inbox became a flashpoint of dire advisories. Well-meaning friends, mostly from outside India, perfunctorily congratulated me. Then they went on to issue lengthy TSA-style communiqués warning of “constant exhausting backbreaking vigilance,” domestic landscapes of spit-up and laundry, and sleep deprivation to come.
They were all wrong.
Flash forward 20 months, and Z—my now almost 2-year-old daughter—eats her organic made-from-scratch lunch in an immaculately clean home. After that, she will follow her afternoon routine of indoor play time, nap, snack, and trip to the park.
These activities occur daily within five to ten minutes of their scheduled time. For my part, I can choose to join in her routine or blithely continue to sip my coffee and daydream about the days when I had a career. No pressure. The heat is palpable as parents everywhere throw questions at me. No, I don’t live in Downton Abbey but yes, I do have help. And so my battle has been a different one.
One of India’s quieter exports has been registered nurses, hardworking women who are the backbone of many healthcare institutions around the globe. But today, many of these women are choosing to stay back in India to work for a new kind of employer—privileged urban families with newborns. Nurses or “sisters” typically work in 12-hour shifts and charge about $30 per shift. Families typically employ two nurses—a “day sister” and “night sister”—to provide round-the-clock service until the baby is a year or older.
This dependence on the help is quickly becoming the norm among many families I know.
As the urban Indian family shrinks in imitation of the West, many of us who were raised in the constant doting presence of grandmothers and aunts are now rearing our own children in a much lonelier manner. Since I don’t have unfettered access to Z’s grandmothers (one lives in a different city and another has a full-time career), the “sister” is often the only woman around with information born of experience.
She has remained my sole access to home remedies for coughs (roasted carom seeds wrapped in a warm cloth), massage tricks (gentle concentric circles moving upward towards the heart) and first food recipes (finger millet porridge with a touch of ghee and a few weeks later, the addition of sweet jaggery).
While moneyed Indians have always had ayahs, matronly nannies ubiquitous in affluent households, this 24/7 highly professionalized care is astonishing and new. Nurses are expected to be alert to the baby’s slightest movement often preempting the onset of colic or hunger, staying awake all night (sitting on a chair next to the crib) and ensuring that the schedule moves like clockwork.
They are also the keepers of The Book, a meticulously maintained log in which every detail of every day is entered and cross-checked; how much the baby ate, how long she napped, the number and extent of dirty diapers—it’s all entered in The Book. Every day. Babies may or may not benefit from such a meticulously maintained database but the message to the mother is unflinchingly clear: we are the pros, we are in charge, and your involvement is entirely optional.
Finding the right combination of “sisters” is crucial; ideally they will complement each other and work together in tandem like trapeze artists swinging the baby artfully from one shift to another.
In order to identify the high performers and weed out the shams, information is routinely swapped within the overlapping circles of veteran mothers and the newly pregnant. In my second trimester, I started down the road of reference checks and recommendations, and called Parul, a dinner party acquaintance. We went through the motions of banal pleasantries before the conversation could turn to the business at hand:
“So listen, the reason I’m calling is because I hear you had Sister Josie for your first. She’s coming pretty highly recommended all around but since you had her most recently, I want to know what you think?”
The conversation took a conspiratorial turn when Parul said “Listen, don’t say that I said anything bad about her but she once fell asleep while holding my baby. I freaked out. Granted it was middle of the night, but still. She’s a night sister. It’s her job to stay awake.” Falling asleep in the middle of the night sounded reasonable to me but clearly I had a lot to learn.
These frothy conversations between mothers about “sisters” is usually restricted to trading information frequently punctuated by a snippet that demonstrates our total dependence. “Last month, my nurses took the weekend off from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. For two days, I didn’t give my 6-month-old a bath. I was just so scared to do it alone,” exclaimed a mother over drinks at a friend’s house.
As an obsessive new mother with access to far too much recorded data about my healthy child’s every moment, I spent hours scouring The Book. Ironically enough, there were many days when I spent hours looking at The Book and far fewer with my child. I then went on a mad hunt for my old college TI calculator and embarked on complex algorithms of milk intake (measured to the last milliliter) weighted against number of bowel movements with a correction for mood and level of activity. Because there was so much data available, my addled mind started seeing tormenting patterns (none of which really existed). In those early mad months, I would often wake up from a deep sleep terrified, sweating, and desperately groping for The Book.
As I dwelled in my data-driven dementia, my daughter grew increasingly accustomed to being mothered by these quiet figures in white. She often demonstrated clear, if heartbreaking, choices. At nap-time, Z wordlessly hands over her yellow burp cloth to her nurse and so I stand by uselessly watching my daughter lay her little head on another woman’s shoulder.
Around Z’s 18-month birthday, she started really talking. I was so proud at each new eruption and one that made me especially happy was “Nana.” I was delighted to hear Nana, which means maternal grandfather in Hindi. But my soliloquy about blood being thicker than water was cut short—Z was looking up adoringly at someone else. “Nana Nana Nana,” she babbled to Anna, her nurse.
A few weeks later, Z had added some more inclusive words to her repertoire and I was beginning to feel better. Around then I received a call from a friend, tearful and desperate.
She needed an urgent nurse recommendation, someone who could start duty that very night. Her nurse had left and she didn’t know how she was going to survive the night alone in the baby’s room. ”It was late last evening,” Rohini said, “and my son was wailing and wailing before bedtime.” But Rohini’s attempts at pacification were consistently met with flailing arms, screams, and more tears.
In a sequence that would set off the worst kind of power play, the baby cooed happily in the arms of his nurse and recommenced wailing with Mommy.
The two women continued playing pass-the-parcel with the baby until it was clear that the little guy fancied the other. Not mother. “I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. He’s my son. Why couldn’t I calm him down? What was that woman doing that was so different?” she said. In a fit of misplaced anger, Rohini asked her nurse to leave. She stayed in her son’s room that night and somewhere around the 4a.m. meltdown, she shamefacedly texted her nurse: “I need you. Please come back.”
Others are dealing with the lost territory in less confrontational ways. As I have begun to vocalize my own angst, I have met a few other mothers willing to acknowledge the complicated sum of emotions that you inherit when other women take care of your child in your presence. Past midnight, when the baby is in bed and the staff is asleep, my friend quietly sneaks into the laundry room. There she sits, patiently waiting for the machines to finish whirring.
“Sometimes, I’ll sit there and wait for an hour,” she says. “In the morning, when they first realized that I was ironing and folding baby’s laundry, the staff were shocked. They asked if there was something that they were doing wrong—maybe I wanted the towels folded in a different way? But how do I explain that all I want sometimes is to feel involved. I want to feel like I can do something for my baby.”
Unfortunately the angst, whether confrontational or restricted to the laundry room at midnight, only seems to increase as the baby grows up and begins to loudly vocalize preferences. In hushed whispers, one of my friends tells me that she “hates” her 5-year-old’s nanny. “He calls her his best friend. If she’s his best friend, then who the heck am I?” she asks.
To most outsiders, the situation might come across as confusing. After all no one is forcing poor little rich mothers to hire the help in the first place. Many of us realize that we are caught in a vicious cycle where we feel overwhelmed by the competence of the sisters, frequently validated by the child.
Have we entrenched ourselves in a situation that we love to hate? Is the convenience of the help worth the price? Have we traded a conflict zone of unfolded laundry and poopy diapers for an equally exhausting corridor of guilt and negotiations? Many of us will waver about the answer and most will not even acknowledge that there is a battle.
Z had a friend over this morning. They were riding their little bicycles each with a nurse close at hand to make sure that nothing untoward occurred. When she wanted my attention, my daughter yelled out “Madam.” I cringed. I’ve been teaching her not to call me that that but it slips out here and there.
“Don’t worry, Madam,” her friend’s nurse said. “They all do it.”
All the names in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.