in the margins

Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember the au pair chronicles—a serial about how it is that I ended up in Germany and what it was like spending 10 months au pairing for a insanely rich family in Frankfurt am Main. Well, I’ve been busy writing new installments to share with you during operation whirlwind baby. But since a hell of a lot of new readers have become regulars since I first began the series a year ago, I thought I would start by re-publishing the series thus far—both to buy me baby time and to get everyone caught up before continuing the saga. You can find an index of the entire series here. This segment was originally published on January 14, 2010.

Slowly, we got used to each other. We went to the park where the twins ran around with friends, and I sat on benches reading and writing letters. Franz Joseph threw sand in an infant’s face, and the mother whose stomach the infant was strapped to at the time screamed at me for five minutes when I came running, screamed at me as if I could have prevented his actions through eye-power alone, as if one year babysitting these children would have any effect on the aggression problems already germinating. Joseph was a sweetheart, but wasn’t good at expressing himself with words. Instead he communicated physically: throwing sand, toppling all of the furniture in his room, throwing small metal planes at his bedroom door as I closed it behind me.

Franci was easier to tame, but at four was already showing signs of the moody diva she would probably become as an adult. She liked to play Barbies and dress-up, loved glitter and princesses and the color pink. Her brother liked playing cops and robbers, knights, and having car races that he accompanied with the sounds of revving motors and explosions that were always on the tip of his tongue. We played doctor and hide-and-go-seek, drew pictures and had tea parties. They dressed up in costumes and sung along to their favorite songs—Robby the Pirate and Hoppel Hase Hans (Engl: Hoppel Rabbit Hans)—for an audience of stuffed animals on the steps. Most days it was a pretty plush job.

Bath time was either a godsend that would keep the twins happily playing for 45 minutes while I read on the stairs or a curse that left all of us soaked and disgruntled. I threatened no dessert, and they got dessert anyway. I threatened no TV, and they would successfully haggle for a half an hour. With five children in the house, most nights find you too tired to argue. “It’s important that we never contradict each other in front of the twins,” Janet had told me the night before my first working day. “Feel free to discuss anything with me in private, but if we undermine each other in front of them we’ll lose our authority.” A reasonable idea, when put into practice.

When Joseph had a tantrum, and he had a tantrum at least once a week, I would leave him in his room to scream it out. Later, I would carry him upstairs and shut the soundproof doors to the fourth floor for a time out. He could scream for hours. His mother took a more aggressive approach: “Do you want to go sit in the cellar?” She would ask him calmly as she dragged him down the stairs. “Because there is a monster down there and if you don’t start behaving I’m going to make you sit down there all by yourself.” Sometimes she’d tell him that the neighbors had already called the police, that they were on their way to arrest him. When his screams turned to scared tears she would take off her “bad cop” mask and led him gently back to his room.

One afternoon in the park I was reading an article about motherhood: “The function of the mother is to internalize forms of domination and treat them as love.” I picked up my pencil, and right next to that line I wrote in large capital letters JANET COLE.

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