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NANNY’S DAY

(first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2012)

 

Everybody knows you don’t keep a nanny for more than three months. The agency even asked me, when I hired Steph, if I wanted to make an appointment to interview someone new in February. I actually laughed out loud – I can barely keep an appointment I make a week in advance – and told them I would call.

Which I intended to. I really did.

But then the case that was supposed to settle didn’t settle, and Sammy had an allergic reaction to peanut butter, which was scary and also very time-consuming, and then he had a regular cold, which meant I spent all my spare time cuddling on the couch with him and… I don’t know.  The three months passed and slipped into four and then five. And I didn’t notice.

Until Saturday morning, the week of the trial, when I was home because I had told the  managing partner that if I was going to be in D.C. working the trial for most of the next week, I was going to spend that weekend – Mother’s Day weekend! — at home with my son. My insistence on spending most Sundays at home had already “compromised my partnership track,” and he scowled and muttered before he agreed to an entire weekend, but I held firm.

So I made pancakes, and we were sitting at the table eating, and I was trying to decide whether playing Chutes & Ladders or reading books was a better use of our quality time, when Sammy made a face and pushed his pancakes away.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

He stuck his lower lip out. “I like them better when Steph makes them.”

“Oh,” I said. The sense of guilt was so familiar I barely registered it. Of course he liked Steph’s pancakes better; she made him breakfast five days a week. I blinked away the slight stinging in my eyes, and forced myself not to go through the well-worn mental calculation of how many more hours she spent with him than I did. “Okay. Well, I made them, and these are the ones we have. Are you going to eat them?”

He shoved the plate across the table. “NO!”

“Fine,” I said, a little snappily. I don’t enjoy making pancakes, and it’s not like I need the calories myself. But rejecting food, I reminded myself, was one of the few ways a three-year-old had to assert independence. I should let it go. I kept my voice even. “If you don’t want to eat, Sammy, that’s okay. Do you want me to read you Nate the Great?”

His face screwed up. “I want STEPH to read it to me!”

“Sammy – ”

“I want Steph to take care of me all the time.” He glared at me, lower lip jutting out. “She said that she would, if that’s what I want.” The tantrum took off then, tears rolling down his smooth round cheeks. “And that’s what I want!”

Which was how I ended up at my kitchen table at three a.m., ignoring the mountain of trial prep piled up to my right, instead reading frantically through my three-page contract with the childcare agency.

The clause was there, in fine print, near the bottom of the second page:

 

The CAREGIVER, Steph Seyon, agrees not to sue for custody at any point during or subsequent to the period of this agreement.

 

Short, simple, reassuring. And never tested in court.

I drummed my fingers on the table, trying to turn my attention to the two hours of work I still had to do before I went to sleep. But my eyes seemed glued to that single line. The agency had added the non-custody clause last year, after one of the popular news-vids had run a segment on nannies who successfully sued parents for custody of their children. The clause sounded iron-clad, but nobody knew if it would stand up in court. Everyone was waiting for that first test case, when a nanny tried to sue for custody of her charge despite the non-custody clause.

She said that she would, if that’s what I want.

I did not want to be that test case.

A wail erupted from the other room. I turned the contract face-down and hurried in to where Sammy was sitting up in bed, his face screwed up, tears streaming down his round face. An instinctive sympathy lanced through me, so sharp it hurt.

“Mooooooommmy!”

I pulled myself onto the bed – the rail-field, keyed to him, flickered as I passed through it – and wrapped my arms around his small shaking body.

“What’s the matter, Sammy? Did you have a nightmare?”

Ten minutes of incoherent wails later, I managed to get him back under his blanket, still whimpering. When I tried to slide off the bed, though, he locked his arms around my neck.

“NO! Stay with me, Mommy!”

“Sammy, I can’t – ”

In a split second, those ten minutes were undone. Sammy launched himself at me, screaming, and I vainly tried to disentangle myself. Being overpowered by a three-year-old was a regular occurrence in my life, but I was tired and worried and achy, and my patience snapped. I grabbed both his wrists, held them away from me, and slid through the rail-field.

He was repelled by the field when he tried to follow me, and his wails reached ear-splitting pitch. Though I knew the rail-field was designed with enough flex to keep from hurting him, I couldn’t help wincing.

“Sammy. I can’t.” If I got into his bed, he would be up for an hour trying to get me to tell him stories. “Mommy has a lot of work to do, and you need to sleep. You’re a very tired boy – ”

“I don’t WANT you!” he screamed, battering at the field with his fists and feet. “I want STEPH!”

And that was the end of any chance of my sleeping that night.

#

I had planned a trip to the aquarium for the next day, and was looking forward to Sammy’s wide-eyed wonder when I showed him the dolphins. But I was so exhausted from my sleepless night that instead, I ended up letting Sammy watch two hours of television while I napped on the couch. On Mother’s Day. Go me.

“Two hours?” Annette said, when she showed up for movie night. “That’s what Becka watches on a good Sunday.”

“You’re too hard on yourself,” Kate agreed, flopping backward on the couch. “Motherhood isn’t the priesthood, Margaret. You don’t have to forswear all wordly things.”

Kate’s ex-husband had custody of her daughter, and Annette was a stay-at-home mom; this was going to be a pointless discussion. I smiled weakly and went to get wine for both of them. Last week, Kate had broken up with her latest boyfriend, so I’d made sure to get her favorite (and very expensive) wine. She grinned when I handed her the glass, and I settled on the couch between her and Annette.

It was our yearly Mother’s Day ritual: we got together, ate pizza, drank too much, and watched Goodbye Nanny. I wasn’t looking forward to it this year.  But I flicked on my v-screen, and began drinking even before the movie started.

“The case imprinted on America’s memory,” drawled the voice-over, and the screen lit up with the overdramatized version of the story everyone knew. It started from the point of view of the nanny, a plump fifty-year-old woman who had raised someone else’s child from infancy, grown to love him “as if he was her own” – the phrase they used back then. Then it switched to the mother, with her business and recreational trips, her strings of affairs, her history of neglect.

“I never really wanted children,” she told one of her lovers in one of the most famous scenes of the movie (famous mostly because the lover was played by Steve Yu). “But since he exists, I guess I love him. It’s biological, you know?”

By the time the lawyer revealed that she didn’t even know the name of her son’s favorite teddy bear, we were all bawling. But we saved our real tears for the end, when the nanny lost the case and was led away. The little boy flung himself against his mother’s grip, her long fingernails cutting into his shoulders, screaming, “Nana! Nana, don’t go, please stay with me! Nana, why are you going away? WHY?”

The movie ended there, and text scrolled across the screen. The decision had been overturned five years later, reversing the bioist trend of American custody law. Too late for Edward Seiver or his nanny. But in time to save the next generation of children.

THE NEXT GENERATION OF CHILDREN remained on the v-screen, black on white, for a full minute. Then the credits rolled.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” Kate said, propping her feet up on a couch pillow. Annette was still sobbing. She’d only had two glasses of wine, but she got tipsy fast. “They’re thinking of renaming Mother’s Day. Calling it Nanny’s Day or Caregiver’s Day or something like that.”

“Doesn’t really have the same ring, does it?” Annette sniffled. “Still, it’s about time. Mother’s Day is kind of bioist.”

“Most children,” Kate said, wiggling her toes, “are still raised by their parents.”

“That doesn’t mean we can’t show sensitivity.” Kate and I exchanged amused glances; Annette tended to get self-righteous when drunk. “There’s a reason this movie is shown every Mother’s Day. To remind us about the dangers of bioist privilege. Just because we’re their biological mothers, that doesn’t automatically mean we’re the ideal people to raise our children.”

I burst into tears.

Twenty minutes later, the entire story was out, and I was still sobbing. Kate and Annette did their ineffectual bests to comfort me, but it wasn’t until Annette went to the bathroom that Kate slid down onto the floor next to me and lowered her voice.

“You’ve got to fire her,” she said. “Tomorrow morning.”

I swiped at my eyes. “But – what if she wants – ”

“What she probably wants,” Kate said, “is money. Not custody. That’s what most of the nannies want, and why most of these cases never go to trial.”

I bit my lip. I knew that was a horrible thing to say, borderline bioist. But I hoped it was true.

“I know a mother who lost a custody case,” I said. “I mean, my secretary knows someone who knows someone. The nanny moved to California. The mother hasn’t seen her son in five years. He probably wouldn’t even recognize her if she did see him.”

“You won’t lose Sammy,” Kate said. “Not you, Marg. You’re a good mother. Sammy loves you.”

And that’s what I want!

Just a tantrum; kids will say anything to get a reaction. Even so, I couldn’t speak for a moment, my throat tight with fear.

“Tomorrow morning,” I said finally. “Thanks, Kate. I’m sorry I ruined movie night.”

Kate shrugged. “There will be another Mother’s Day next year. Or whatever they’re going to call it.”

Then Annette came out of the bathroom, and Kate and I fell silent.

#

The firing didn’t go well.

“I understand that you want him to learn another language.” Steph’s lips twisted on the words. “But I think Sammy will be very upset by this. Perhaps more than you realize.”

I smiled tightly, hating this woman who had fed, bathed, and played with my son for the past seven months. Seven months! How had I let it come to this? “I think he’ll be okay.”

She folded both her hands on the table. She was a short, thin woman with shiny dark hair that she wore in a long ponytail. I had scoured through the five pages of reports from previous families she had worked for – all waxing ecstatic about her rapport with children – but I didn’t know much about her personal life, except that she was in her mid-40s and divorced. I wondered if she had children of her own to love.

She said that she would, if that’s what I want.

Maybe she hadn’t said it. Maybe Sammy had misunderstood, or lied. I didn’t dare ask her.

She watched Sammy every day. I usually came home barely in time to put him to bed. How different would his life really be if she was the one who put him to bed, who stayed with him on weekends too? The news-vids had a story every week about a mother who had lost custody of her child to a nanny. The reporters were generally smug about it. The mothers, obviously, deserved it.

A shiver ran through me. I said desperately, “I could give you a bonus. A… a large bonus.”

“I do not want money,” Steph said flatly. “I want what is best for Sammy.”

Great. Now I had insulted her. I should have known better than to listen to Kate, whose opinions had always tilted right-wing.

Sammy was in the other room, frowning with concentration as he colored in a picture of a horse I had drawn for him. I glanced at him through the door, wanting desperately to go kneel next to him and wrap my arms around him and giggle with him over his color choices for the next half hour. But I had to go to work. Every morning until now, I had comforted myself with the thought that he really loved playing with Steph, that he wasn’t sorry to see me leave.

“Is it your intention to fire me regardless of how it will affect Sammy?” Steph asked.

The slight formality of the sentence warned me. I stared at her for a moment. She smiled at me, a sharp-edged smile of triumph.

“No,” I said. “Of course not. I just thought it was worth discussing.”

Once I was at work, a quick search of the firm’s case database told me why that sentence had sounded memorized. It was. It was the sentence the nanny had used in McAvoy vs. Chen, a successful nanny-custody suit in Kentucky five years ago.

I stood there staring at the screen for a long moment. Then I bolted from my office.

#

“It’s not too late.” Beverley Ganteaume swiveled her chair around and folded her hands on her desk. “I understand how this feels, Margaret, but please calm down. The hysteria about the nanny custody issue is mostly media-driven. Most nannies have no interest in adopting the kids they watch. And even when they do, ninety-nine percent of the time, the nannies lose the custody battles.”

But one percent of the time, they won. I didn’t have to say it. Beverley had three kids, and switched nannies every two months, like clockwork.

“But this is planned.” I knew I sounded paranoid, but I didn’t care. I trusted Beverley. “You should have heard her; it was like she was following a script. You know how everyone is waiting for the case that tests the non-custody clause? I’m going to be it. They’ve chosen me.” I swallowed hard. “Because they think I’ll lose.”

Because they thought I was a bad mother.

Beverley grimaced sympathetically and turned back to her computer. “Let’s not jump to conclusions just yet, okay?”

Beverley was younger than I was – I had been her mentor when she joined the firm, and we had become close friends – but she was the custody expert. She tapped her fingers on the screen. “There’s no caselaw on the preemptive non-custody clause, but… it doesn’t look good. The whole point of the modern custody system is that a child should be taken care of by the adult who has the strongest emotional attachment to him, not the one with the strongest biological ties. I don’t see a court ignoring the results of an attachment test because of a few lines in a contract saying the nanny can’t sue.” She pursed her lips and blew out a short breath. “Did you offer her – ”

“Money. Yes.”

“She wouldn’t take it?”

I shook my head numbly.

“That’s concerning.”

There was a 3-d picture of Beverley’s kids rotating above her computer. I looked at it, but I didn’t see her girls; I saw the picture on my desk of Sammy, tilting his head at me with his bashful half-grin. The thought of him being taken away sent a stab of pain through my chest. Suddenly the hours until the workday ended seemed like far too long to go without seeing him. On some days, I wished I could just quit my job, go home, and play with him on the living room floor until he was old enough for school.

On most days, I knew I would have gone stark raving mad after a few days of it.

So instead, I was at work, where – if I was really honest with myself – I wanted to be. I like immersing myself in my job, figuring out the complex legal problems I was so good at. I liked being an adult surrounded by adults. It was better than doing the same twelve-piece puzzle for hours at a time.

So Steph was the one doing that. Steph was the one who could do that, day in and day out. It didn’t seem like sufficient reason for me to lose him. Not when I loved him so much.

I gripped the arms of my chair. “I’m a good mother, you know. There’s no way she loves Sammy as much as I do. I mean, she’s more patient with him and she spends more time playing with him, but that’s because it’s her job. She doesn’t have to worry about getting dozens of other things done at the same time. I spend as much time with him as I can. Every second that I’m not working.”

“Margaret.” Beverley leaned forward, a single crease running across her broad forehead. “I know.”

Another unspoken line hung between us, that neither of us needed to say: But does Sammy?

Only the attachment test could say for sure. And I wasn’t going to let it come to that.

#

“Well, well,” Daniel said. “I think the word irony could be used here. Don’t you?”

My stomach twisted, and I wished I’d made this call audio-only. My ex-husband’s smug, handsome face made me want to put my fist through the v-screen.

Instead I turned back to the kitchen counter, so that my back was to him. I’d known he would gloat; I’d known I would have to endure it. So here I was, enduring it. “Glad to hear you’re capable of three-syllable words now, Daniel.”

Or not so much.

He laughed. “You were pretty eager for the attachment test during our divorce, weren’t you? When you were so sure which of us would win?”

A breastfeeding mother versus a man who hadn’t even bothered to take his paternity leave? No, it hadn’t been much of a contest. I had been the one who could comfort Sammy when he woke up at night, the one he called for as soon as he could speak, the one he clung to when he was scared. Back then, the attachment test had benefited mothers. Besides, Daniel hadn’t even wanted Sammy. He’d just wanted to take him away from me.

Sometimes it felt like that was all anyone wanted.

“I told you that if you wanted to raise him yourself, you were going to have to quit – ”

I tuned him out, something that had grown more difficult now that I was no longer in practice. After his fourth round of reasons why Sammy was going to be messed up because of the way I was raising him, I decided he’d had enough time to get it out of his system. And if not, too bad.

“I’ve always made it easy for you to see Sammy,” I said evenly. “Even when I don’t legally have to. I did it because I thought it would be better for him. Do you think Steph will do the same?”

That silenced him. Not that he had ever taken advantage of my openness, but Daniel was always more motivated by what he didn’t have than by what he did.

“You sound pretty sure she would win,” he said finally.

“I’m not sure at all.” Even as I said it, fear twisted through me, thick and sour.  Sammy. “But I don’t want to take the chance.”

“Sure you don’t. That’s why you’re desperate enough to call me.” Daniel stretched his arms above his head. “What do you want me to do about it?”

I took a deep breath. “Date her.”

He dropped his hands. “What?”

“Start a relationship with her. Then dump her. If she sues for custody after that, it will look like a cheap attempt at revenge. Or at least confuse the issue enough that I can get the case thrown out before they order an attachment test.” Or convince the agency that I wasn’t a good test case after all.

There was a moment of silence. Then Daniel said, “I’m impressed.”

I didn’t doubt it.

#

The story was on the pop-up screen the next morning: Bioist Blackmail. It was all about the crazy neglectful mother who had asked her ex-husband to compromise her loving, selfless nanny because she couldn’t accept being replaced in her son’s affections. There were already fifty-seven comments, but I stopped reading after the first three:

 

Wouldn’t it be simpler for her to just read him a few bedtime books? But I guess she didn’t have the time. I wish I could say I was surprised but I’m not.

                                                            — Anne from New Jersey

                                                               43 people liked this

 

I’m not surprised either. She’s a mom, she did what she had to in order to keep her kid. I’d do the same. I know you’ll all just label me bioist, but I don’t care. It’s true.

                                                            — Loving Mom from Alabama

                                                               3 people liked this

 

I used to be a nanny and trust me, this is typical of most of the moms I worked for. I felt sorry for their kids, I would have sued for custody myself if I didn’t have five kids of my own.

                                                            — A Nanny from USA

                                                               26 people liked this

 

There were no names in the article, which only meant the news service hadn’t yet completed the verification process. I was sure the names – my name, Daniel’s name, Steph’s name – were encoded in, ready to pop up as soon as it was legal.

My first thought, buried in a wave of shame, was: Thank God Sammy can’t read.

Daniel answered on the first buzz, already smirking. “Why, hello, Margie.”

“You… you… why? Do you want Steph to have our son?”

“No. I want him.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. Luckily, it was a vid-call, so he could see me gaping.

“Well, clearly you shouldn’t have him.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to ask for a repeat of the parental attachment test. By law, that has to happen before your nanny gets tested.”

True; that law was one of the remnants of the old biologically-based custody laws. It had been struck down in 38 states, but Ohio wasn’t one of them. Yet. “Daniel,” I said, as calmly as I could (not very), “you can’t honestly think you’ll win? You’ve seen him three times this year.”

“And we had fun each time.” Daniel leaned back. “I’m not the one who’s been yelling at him and putting him in time-aways and ignoring him when he wants to play. Which of us do you think he loves more now?”

“That’s – that’s not how it works!”

“Well,” he said smugly, “I guess we’ll find out.”

#

Our attachment test was recorded, so Daniel made sure to look his best. His best was very good, a fact that made me hate him more.

I hadn’t bothered to get dressed up, beyond a maroon business robe and a smattering of hypno-cream on my face. And that was only because I was hoping I could make it to the office afterward. Today’s trial didn’t scare me at all; I wasn’t worried about the result of this attachment test. And since they never televised the boring ones, where custody remained with the mother, no one would see what I looked like.

Sammy looked frightened as they fitted the brain-wave recorders to his head, and my heart twisted. Nothing had ever made me hate Daniel more than the things he was willing to put Sammy through, just to get to me. I wanted to hug my little boy and tell him it would be okay, but because this was an adversarial test, neither Daniel nor I was allowed to be with him. He kept saying, “Mommy?” as he cried, but Daniel’s smug expression never even flickered. Arrogance makes smart people stupid.

We walked into the testing room together, which was new. Back when we had been tested for our divorce, we had entered through separate doors on opposite sides of the room. The attachment-measuring technology had, obviously, been refined over the past couple of years. But the indicators were still there, probably for dramatic effect: two lines, one red and one blue, running up the back wall. There were cameras trained on the wall and on each of our faces.

Mommy!” Sammy screamed, and hurled himself across the room into my arms. I grabbed him to me and hugged him close, breathing in his soft clean scent and whispering that it would be okay. After a  moment, I looked over his shoulder. The red line had lit up all the way to the top. The blue one had barely budged.

I smiled as I buried my face in my son’s hair. “I’m sorry, Sammy. I’m sorry we had to do this. But it’s okay now. Mommy’s here, and we’re going home.”

In a small voice that was still loud enough to be picked up by the mikes, he said, “Will Steph be there?”

#

I got the summons from Steph three days later. The attachment test was scheduled for less than two weeks away, which meant the case had been fast-tracked. Which meant someone with power had arranged for it.

I was staring at the summons, my throat so tight I couldn’t breathe, when Steph walked into my living room.

We looked at each other. There was nothing to say. Sammy was still asleep, I had to go to work, and we both knew the law. Until the attachment test was done, I couldn’t keep her from taking care of Sammy.

And afterward, she might be the one who could keep him from me.

I knew what I had to do: walk out the door. It was the only thing I could do. But I could no more move than I could speak. In the bedroom, Sammy grunted in his sleep, and the blankets rustled. On most days that would have been my cue to delay leaving for a few minutes, in case he woke up and I could kiss him goodbye before I left.

His innocence made my heart hurt. I was supposed to protect him, and I didn’t know if I could.

“Margaret,” Steph said. “This doesn’t have to get ugly.”

My eyes stung. My heart shrank in on itself. “Please,” I whispered, not caring how humiliating it was. “Don’t take him away from me.”

Steph shook her head. “It’s not about you, Margaret.”

“I’m late,” I said, when I could breathe again. It took all my control to keep from slapping her as I walked past her out the door.

#

My firm’s detective agency was expensive and discreet. After telling the senior partner I had to drop the DC case (he didn’t argue, so I knew he had read the news article), I called them.

They were fast, too. Within two hours, I had a three-inch file on Steph sitting on my desk.

For all the good it did me. She was, of course, completely clean.  If the agency’s goal was to make sure the non-custody clause was struck down, they wouldn’t choose someone with the slightest flaw to sue for custody of my child. It had to be crystal-clear who would be the better parent. Steph had even gone to law school for a year, then dropped out because “she wasn’t attracted to the lifestyle.”

I frowned over that for a moment; something about it didn’t make sense. Then I shook my head. It didn’t just make sense, it was perfect. Such a contrast to me, the ambitious, career-driven, wants-to-have-it-all mom who wouldn’t put her son first.

I swore and slammed the file shut. Well, what had I expected? She had been chosen, just like me. I had kept my previous nanny for seven months; the one before that had quit on her own after a year. The agency must have known I would do it again. That Steph would have time to make Sammy love her. Love her more than he loved me.

Did he really? I thought of him as a baby, his wide blue eyes following me everywhere, blindingly trusting. I thought I had fulfilled that trust. When I had first gone back to work, everyone had assured me that hiring a nanny wasn’t a failure on my part, that Sammy would be perfectly fine. And I had believed them. He was still so happy to see me, when I came home at the end of the day. He knew who his mother was.

Didn’t he?

As if in answer, my v-screen lit up. I recognized Daniel’s light-pattern and straightened eagerly. A shouting match would feel good right about now.

But it wasn’t Daniel – at least, not in person. He’d always been good at revenge. This time, he’d sent me a clip.

From Goodbye Nanny.

It was a ten-second clip, so fast I didn’t have time to turn it off. The little boy, wailing, bewildered pain on every inch of his innocent face. The scream, ripped from his throat: Nana! And the mother, cold and triumphant, not aware – or not caring – about how badly she was hurting her little boy.

I sat at my desk, breathing hard. And then I flicked my finger at the screen and touched replay.

“Nana, don’t go!”

I played it again.

And again.

Daniel wasn’t quite as good as he thought he was. Every time I watched, I was struck anew by a streak of righteous happiness, almost pride:

I am a good mother. I am not like that.

I will win this case.

It wasn’t until I was on my way home that I realized I could do better than that.

#

When I walked in, Steph was on the floor doing a puzzle with Sammy. She didn’t notice me right away, but Sammy did. He looked up, grinning so widely his whole face seemed alight. “Mommy, look! I did the whole thing by myself!”

“That’s amazing,” I said, clapping my hands together. “Wow, Sammy. I’m so proud of you!”

Steph scrambled to her feet. “I’ll see you tom – ”

“Actually,” I said, “why don’t we talk. Sweetie, do you want to take the puzzle apart and do it again? Come tell me when it’s done so I can see it.”

Steph trailed me warily to the kitchen. I pulled out a seat, sat, and said pleasantly, “I didn’t know you went to law school.”

She leaned back against the counter, knees bent as if she was ready to run. “I did. A long time ago. I thought being a nanny was more suited to my personality.”

“That would work for you,” I said, “if you wanted custody of Sammy. But I don’t think you do.”

She glanced into the living room, where Sammy was tearing the puzzle apart with glee. “What are you trying to say?”

“I think you should know,” I said, “that I’m going to concede.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What?”

“I’m going to concede custody to you. I’ll explain that I realize I was never cut out to be a mother, and that my son should be with the person who can love him best. And then I’ll ask for generous visitation rights. I don’t doubt I’ll get them.” I smiled. “So. Congratulations?”

  Her mouth worked. After a moment, she said, “Why?”           

“Because I won’t let him be a pawn.” Anger surged through me, and it was a moment before I recaptured my cool, clinical tone.. “I know why this case is important to you – to the agency. But I won’t let you put my son through this just to prove your point.”

“Margaret.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to take Sammy away from you.”

 “I know that. And I don’t want to take him away from you,” I added, which was a flat-out lie. But I knew she wouldn’t call my bluff. Not now that I understood what this case was really about.

I waited until she reached the door before adding, sweetly, “You’ll always have a place here.”

Until the agency pulled her off, to try again. She was too good a candidate not to be a part of their next attempt. Especially the fact that she had gone to law school, and so no one could argue that she didn’t understand the contract she had signed.

The next mom probably wouldn’t figure that out.

I ate dinner with Sammy (Steph was a great cook – I would miss that), let him watch an edu-show while I cleaned up and answered some emails, then read him a book and got him into bed. I waited until I heard his breathing even out, then went to his room and stood there looking down at him for a while. He was sleeping with his butt sticking straight up in the air, his cheek mashed against his pillow, so sweet that I risked waking him up by leaning over and kissing his forehead. He muttered something, but he didn’t wake up.

Not wanting to push my luck, I tiptoed out of the room and shut the door firmly behind me. Then I settled on the couch and selected my saved version of Goodbye Nanny.

This year’s Mother’s Day viewing hadn’t counted; I hadn’t enjoyed it. Tonight, I fully intended to appreciate every second. After all, it was the reason I had figured out what the agency was really after.

There’s a reason this movie is shown every Mother’s Day.

There was. But not to help the nannies. To help the mothers.

This was why my friends and I were yearly riveted to this film, the one that made the case for our children being taken from us. It wasn’t because of our deep belief in the rightness of attachment-based custody. My belief, I now knew, was barely skin deep. I doubted Kate’s or Annette’s – or most mothers’ – was that much deeper.

No. We loved that documentary because we weren’t that mother. For all the tiny guilts that piled upon us, day after day – missed school events and unhealthy dinners and not hearing our kids because we were sorting mail – we weren’t as bad as that mother. We could tell ourselves we had nothing to worry about.

But we still fired our nannies every three months.

Which must make life difficult for the nannies.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the nannies lose.

They didn’t want the clause struck down. They wanted it upheld. That was why I had been chosen. Because I wasn’t that mother.

Because Steph had been a law student, nobody could argue she didn’t understand the non-custody clause. Because I was pretty decent as a mother, nobody could argue that upholding it was unnecessarily cruel. The court might – might – have upheld the clause. And wouldn’t that be better for everyone?

“Better luck next time,” I said under my breath, and I meant it. In the bedroom, Sammy let out a soft snore. I flicked on the movie and settled back to watch.

 

– The End –