The Woman in Our House by Andrew Hart
I always thought of happiness as something yet to come, a goal or target I might reach, or that might reach me, when all the wrinkles of the present were smoothed out, the loops of absence closed, so that contentment would blossom through my life like spring in a cold place. Till then, happiness was always just around the next corner, out of reach, and endlessly deferred as a necessary condition of ordinary life.
Which is not to say I was unhappy. Just that I was still waiting for real happiness, looking for it, like a woman standing by the shore of a wide, gray sea, waiting for a glimpse of distant sails on the horizon.
Stupid, perhaps. But it felt real, wet and cold as that great sea, though I knew it was also just a habit of thought, familiar as the crib where my daughter sleeps, its sugar-maple rail smooth beneath my fingers. I waited for happiness like I waited for dawn on the long, restless nights after Grace was born, knowing that before it came, she would wake, hungry and crying, and I would have to get up to feed her in the dark.
Then came the solar eclipse: August 21, 2017. And it changed my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course. I had dutifully purchased the eclipse-watching glasses—making sure they were rated ISO 12312-2, as advised in the Charlotte Observer—and had tried to make it feel like an event for Veronica, our eldest, but I had begun to find the country’s swelling obsession with the thing a bit baffling. When I learned that even with something close to 98 percent of what the radio announcers were calling “totality,” it still wouldn’t actually get dark where I was, my enthusiasm took another hit.
The day of the event, I almost forgot about it. Veronica, who had been sulking over how much of my attention Grace had been getting, lay on her bed and fell asleep, a few feet from her finally silent sister. I stood in the doorway watching them sleep, wondering how to use this unexpected break in the middle of the day, and was suddenly struck by how dim the room had gotten. Curiously, the sky beyond the curtains still looked bright and blue, but indoors, it felt like evening. I went downstairs, absently picking up the flimsy cardboard glasses with the black lenses for which I had paid an outrageous twenty dollars each, and stepped outside.
Only then did the full strangeness of the thing hit me. There was a constant, excited chirping of crickets and cicadas, but the birds had fallen completely, uncannily silent. The light was . . . hard to describe, flat and tinted somehow. The leaves of the dogwood in the front yard cast odd semicircular shadows and left ghostly afterimages on the concrete driveway. The sun itself seemed distorted, and when I looked up in my absurd glasses, I saw how it had squeezed down to a mere sicklelike sliver, golden bright around the upper edge of the dark sphere that was the moon. I actually gasped, feeling the ancient and alarming bewilderment of the thing, the unnaturalness that had generated all those myths they had been talking about on the radio, the dragons and other monsters that people had thought were trying to devour the sun.
This, I thought, was an event, after all, and I knew I should get Veronica up to show her. The impulse soured in my head. She would be grumpy at being woken, and would be as likely to shrug the thing off as unworthy of her attention as she was to celebrate it or share my awed and watchful silence. Guiltily, I realized that I didn’t want to risk it. That I would rather experience the moment by myself, relishing the rare stillness for what it was, and keeping it as a private treasure. I got so few of those these days. I had been a professional, even a rising star. Now, I was a wife and mother. I had been pushed to the side of my own life, my star eclipsed. That produced another gasp—not awe this time—but a startled, even horrified, realization.
Perhaps happiness was not something I was moving toward, something coming very slowly but inexorably closer day by day. Perhaps it was both distant and locked into a separate orbit of its own, forever apart, never drawing nearer but moving as I did. Always on the other side of the moon.
I have thought back to that moment many times since, wishing it had been different. Perhaps if I had taken Veronica out with me, or stayed indoors in the first place, things would have been different.
But then again, maybe not.
The eclipse was, after all, only a metaphor. My brain would have found another eventually.
In any case, the following morning, it came out. I hadn’t planned it. It just slid out when I wasn’t looking and rolled out into view like a dropped ball.
“I want to go back to work.”
The thought that I had been pushed aside—eclipsed—had been steeping in my head all night, soaking into my consciousness as if waiting for the moment when its truth would drive out the guilt that came with it. I’m not sure that moment ever came, but it became at least familiar.
Josh looked up from his cereal, his spoon hovering two inches from his chin. His brow wrinkled as it always did when he was choosing between things to say, gauging what I was hoping to hear.
“OK,” he said. “Great. You can go part-time, work from home, right? You need more help around the house?”
It was almost the right answer, but he hadn’t fully grasped what I was saying. I spelled it out.
“I mean, I want to go full-time again. I can still work from home, but I’ll have to go back to New York from time to time, and we’ll need real help here. A nanny.”
Again, the hovering cereal spoon, the wrinkled brow.
“You’ve been thinking about this for a while,” he said. It was almost a question, but not one I needed to answer. “Anna, you really think . . . I mean, the girls? You’d be OK with someone else looking after them?”
Our daughters, Grace and Veronica, are nine months and three and a half, respectively. I have been home alone with them since they were born.
I love my kids. I would walk through fire for them. But in the last two months, I have become convinced that I would be a better and more attentive mother if I was not with them all the time.
Does that sound self-serving?
Perhaps, but I still think it’s true. I’m a capable woman. Not a genius or a prodigy by any means, but capable. I did well in school, got an English degree from Dartmouth and an MBA from Boston University. I interned with Ramkins and Deale, literary agents in New York, and became a junior agent five years ago. My husband, Josh, is in finance. For the first two years of our marriage, he worked in New York. Not on Wall Street but close enough, and I thought that was where we were going to stay, working our way from a small Queens apartment to something a little grander on the Upper West Side.
But my husband is good at his job, and one of the consequences of competence is promotion. It had never occurred to me that that might mean moving to an entirely different part of the country at a moment’s notice, but that was what happened. Four years ago, he came home with a choice: stay where we were, doing the same jobs for the same money for at least two more years, or take a leadership position in Charlotte, North Carolina—where your money goes a lot further—for a significantly increased salary.
It was tempting, but we were settled and liked being so. Still, we forced ourselves to take the full week he had been given to make his decision, and on that Wednesday, we were ambushed by something unforeseen.
I was pregnant.
Suddenly, we weren’t looking at being settled either way, and the move to Charlotte became not simply a job but a massive shift in lifestyle, in our sense of who and what we were. When people—Josh included—had asked before if I wanted kids, my answer was always the same: not yet. But confronted by my unexpected and unplanned pregnancy, it changed. I wanted a family, and for reasons I couldn’t explain, I wanted it now.
Charlotte seemed as good a place as any to begin.
I didn’t leave Ramkins and Deale, but I went on hiatus, passing my fledgling client list on to my colleagues and asking that I be taken off the website and the internal LISTSERV. After years of working my way toward my dream job, I put it aside without so much as a second thought, sure in my bones that the tiny life beginning inside me was all I would ever need.
I continued to feel that once Veronica was born. We moved into a sprawling mansion of a house in the swanky Myers Park region of Charlotte, a neighborhood where we were surrounded by bankers, traders, lawyers, doctors, and their largely stay-at-home wives. For a while, it was good. Veronica was perfect, a portion of myself and not myself, of Josh and not Josh, who fit into our lives like she had been destined to be there. I had worried that I might not feel connected to her, the way parents should, but those fears had evaporated the moment I held her. To be with her felt right in ways nothing else ever had.
So when I learned I was pregnant again two years after she was born, I was delighted. I knew the logistics of raising two children at once would be challenging, but I felt more than ready. I felt euphoric. But though I reveled in my second pregnancy, I’d be lying if I said it was as easy. The mystery and excitement I had felt the first time was replaced by anxiety about all the things that could go wrong, and when the doctors put me on bed rest for the final two months before delivery, I grew increasingly bored, uncomfortable, and restless. When I realized that even Veronica had stopped being a comfort, my low-grade apprehension spiked, becoming something urgent and frightened, like a trapped animal. Despite everything I had been through, I was going to be a bad mother, after all.
I wasn’t. Not really. But I felt the constant tug of exasperation, of exhaustion, and it didn’t stop with Grace’s birth. Quite the opposite, in fact. While Veronica had been a quiet, easy baby, Grace wouldn’t sleep through the night for months and settled into a routine that was fussy, prone to tears and to not eating, so that for a time when she was four months old, she was briefly hospitalized for failing to thrive.
It felt like failure. My failure.
Josh did his part, particularly when asked, traveling as little as possible, keeping the late-night drinks meetings to a minimum, and taking his turn walking the babies in their two-seater buggy. But there was only so much he could do, and after a month of him gamely getting up to keep me company while I nursed Grace, I told him—less kindly than I meant—that it was a waste of time and wasn’t achieving anything. The next day, seeing the hurt in his tired eyes, I apologized, but the point had been made. I couldn’t do this well by myself, but no one could do it with me.
When Josh suggested I get help, I thought he meant psychiatric. I reacted badly and then, embarrassed by how quickly my mind had gone to my well-being rather than Grace’s, continued to sulk and bicker with him as he tried to clarify that he had meant someone to cook or mind the children for a couple of hours each day. We had, like everyone else in the neighborhood, a cleaning team who came in once every couple of weeks. Having grown up doing the cleaning myself, I couldn’t turn the job entirely over to professionals, though most of the wives who lived close by did, even though hardly any of them worked. But I resisted. I knew I was doing a lousy job, but knowing that didn’t help.
It was no wonder Josh responded so cautiously to my sudden desire for a nanny.
“Is this entirely about the girls?” he asked.
“As opposed to?”
“I don’t know.” He ate a mouthful of Cheerios to buy himself time. “I mean, do you want to work, or do you just not want to be responsible for the girls all the time by yourself?”
I felt my back arch and my face set, though I knew it was a fair question. There was just no way to ask it without sounding dissatisfied with my performance as Mommy.
“I think,” I said, my voice hard enough that I decided to take a breath and start over. “I think I need to be something other than . . .”
“A wet nurse,” he completed for me, when the words dried up.
“No!” I said. “Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. I miss work. I miss reading and being around adults, even if it’s only in my head. There’s only so much Bob the Builder, Caillou, and Thomas the fucking Tank Engine I can stand, Josh. Sorry,” I said, realizing with a shock how raw that had sounded, then realizing—worse—that as my voice had gone up a notch and threatened to break, tears had started to form in my eyes.
“Thomas the fucking Tank Engine?” he said. And then he was laughing, and I tried to be mad at him but couldn’t be. I started laughing, and then he said we’d talk about it all when he got home from work, and I felt like a bridge had been crossed or a weight had been shifted off my shoulders. Something. I felt better. Better than I had for weeks or, God help me, months even.
It was a glorious day. Grace slept between feedings while Veronica colored and ran around in the garden. It was breezy and the sun was bright, but not as relentlessly hot and humid as it had been. The crepe myrtle at the front was in full bloom, vermillion flowers improbably vivid against the rich waxy green of the leaves. Everyone talked about the magnolias in the South, but I had been dazzled by the crepe myrtles, the full-on tropical intensity of those blooms. I gazed at them now, Grace’s tiny form cradled to my breast as Veronica ran around the tree, laughing at her increasing dizziness, and felt the kind of privileged joy I hadn’t known for months.
But I remembered the semicircular shadows of the dogwood leaves as they had been during the eclipse, and I felt the truth of the private message they had sent me.
Happiness wouldn’t just arrive like dawn. I had to go to meet it.
I spoke to my neighbor Tammy Ward about hiring a nanny, and she gave me a doe-eyed stare and asked if I was serious. I told her I was, and she pointed me toward a local service for au pairs, then asked me lots of questions that I hadn’t thought about: how many hours a day we’d want her, what skills or experience we’d expect, and how much we were prepared to pay. I thought that if we were going to do this, we may as well do it right. What with Josh’s travel schedule and my desire to really put some time into rebuilding my client list, I wanted someone who would be far more than a babysitter.
Tammy nodded thoughtfully. We were sitting in her vast, open-plan kitchen drinking coffee while her kids slept upstairs, and she was making a list in a round, childlike hand on a pad with clothed rabbits in the corner. Her scrawny terrier, Angus, came in periodically to yip at me, till she shooed it from the room in a voice so molasses sweet that it was impossible not to picture my other, and rather more acerbic neighbor, Mary Beth, miming throwing up.
“How many hours a day?” Tammy asked.
“I don’t know. Five? Six?”
“Morning or afternoon?”
“Well, it will probably vary. When Josh is out of town . . . I don’t know. Let’s come back to that.”
“Skills and experience. You want her to have any special training?”
“Like what?” I asked.
“A relevant degree, something in education, perhaps. First-aid training.”
I bit my lip. This was all sounding suddenly quite daunting.
“I guess so,” I said. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“And how much are you prepared to pay?”
She looked embarrassed by the question, but I shook it off.
“Whatever it costs.”
She looked vaguely impressed.
“If money is no object . . .”
“Well, I wouldn’t say . . .”
“I mean, if you can afford it,” she said, looking at me, then tapping the list with her pen, “you might want to consider someone full-time.”
I thought about this and nodded, glad that it had been she who’d suggested it.
“And if you are thinking that this person will be spending a lot of time with your girls,” she added, “I don’t think you should confine yourself to local services. When we lived in Ballantine, I had two separate friends who got their nannies from a placement agency based out of Utah.”
“Yep. Apparently, it’s a whole big thing out there. Mormons and all. A lot of them go into family-type employment. It’s a traditional-gender-role-type deal.”
I could hear the quotation marks she placed around the words, but she wasn’t being snide. Tammy rarely was. I’d often suspected she was more politically conservative than I was, but in this case, that didn’t bother me.
“Really?” I said.
“I guess the women grow up being trained to look after the house, the kids. Maybe that’s a stereotype, but still. There must be some truth in it because there are a lot of Mormon nannies, at least till they have families of their own.”
“Huh,” I said. “And your friends were satisfied with them?”
“Over the moon. Best thing they ever did. Both of them said so. I can get you some agency names if you like.”
“There’s more than one?”
“Oh yes. But I’m sure they can help point you in the right direction.”
“Right,” I said, feeling a tiny thrill of excitement. I was actually going to do this. “Great. Thanks.”
“One thing, though,” Tammy cautioned. “They’ll have to live in.”
“What do you mean?”
“With you. In your house. These agencies send someone for six months, a year, or whatever, and they live with you.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. We’re pretty private people.”
Tammy pursed her lips slightly, as if she knew as much and thought it a minor failing.
“Would give you the flexibility you want, and would save you money in the long term,” she said. “Not paying an hourly rate, I mean.”
“Right,” I said, nodding vaguely. “I guess so. I’ll have to think about it.”