Yes, I’m Their Mommy, Not Their Nanny

One of the things I love most about my home country of South Africa is just how upfront people are … especially black people. On our recent trip home, several conversations about our babies duly fit this mould.

For background: last year, Dan and I had twins. Since they’re still young and very portable (as well as just delicious to hug), we like to wear them whenever we go somewhere with them. If it’s just one of us out with them, we’ll sometimes tandem wear them (one on the front, the other on the back). I think our blue and beige Ergo carrier set has become famous by now. The company should pay us for all the free publicity its getting from us.

The most common conversation we have about our babies in the US goes something like this:

Twin Peeker: Twins???!!! [usually with great emphasis and maybe two fingers raised to indicate “two babies!”]

Us: Yes [smile and try to politely move on quickly to finish grocery shopping before the babies’ next nap time  finds us in the store]

Twin Peeker: How old? [not getting the hint]

Us: [fill in the number] months [trying to move on as quickly as possible without appearing rude]

Twin Peeker: Boys?

Us: Boy and girl [we’ve since taken to often colour coding them when we go out; apparently people get too confused when a girl wears blue or red or green … anything but pink! *eye roll*]

Twin Peeker [incredulous, with big eyes, gives one of three sets of responses]:

(i) Perfect!!! You must be done!!! OR Two for the Price of One!!! OR Pigeon Pair!!! OR Double Trouble!!! OR

(ii) I LOVE TWINS!!! OR I always wanted to have twins!!! OR My children/ grandchildren/ sibling and I/ friend’s kids/ distant cousins twice removed who I’ve never met are twins…!!! OR 

(iii) Which one’s the good one? OR Do they give you any sleep …? OR Better you than me!

You get the picture.

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The point is that only twice have people commented on our babies’ complexion; and both times it was friends of ours who sheepishly observed, “I hope you don’t mind my saying this but I’m surprised at how fair skinned they are”. To which we laugh and say, “So are we! So, no, we’re not offended by the comment at all!”

As it happens, what is surprising is that not more people have come out and said it; even though we can often tell that they are thinking just that … or, at least, wondering! After all, I am a pretty dark skinned lady and my kids at this young stage could almost pass for white. As the lady who checked us in for our flight to return from South Africa put it (and I’m translating): “You were beaten, mom. Dad beat you. His genes won: 10-nil.”

So, it was not a surprise at all – and, in fact, it was kind of a relief – when my compatriots would openly observe this fact. I give them full points for courage.

They could however work on execution.

Of several interesting dialogues, the most incredible conversation I had was in a grocery store in Hermanus where a black lady who worked in the bakery or such walked by as I was kissing my little girl a million times on the face in a game she and I like to play, especially when she starts to get a bit antsy in the carrier.

Checkers Lady: Hayi Bo! Owakho lomntwana?! (Hell no! Is this your child?)

I quickly deduced that she must think I was the nanny and it was inappropriate to kiss my boss’s child in such an unconstrained manner.

Me: Yebo, owami… (Yes, she’s mine.)

Checkers Lady: Yini-nje emhlophe wena umnyama?! (Why, then, is she white when you’re black?!)

This lady had initially asked me these questions while walking past but she had since stopped to clarify her confusion. When I fumbled for an answer and it became clear I didn’t have one to promptly give her, she moved on and simply concluded out loud:

Checkers Lady: Hayi, andiqondi! (No, I don’t understand.)

I stood there befuddled for a moment then burst out laughing and went into an adjacent aisle to tell Dan, who was there wearing our little guy and looking for a food item. As he too started laughing with incredulity, it emerged that he could supply me with plenty of answers I could’ve given – the best one being, “Because my husband, her father, is the whitest possible guy!” (quoting a good friend of ours who had once observed this fact). I hate those moments when you think of the right answer just after the moment has passed!

In a similar vein, while we were holidaying with my family a week later the lady responsible for cleaning our temporary home told my sister on the first morning she met her that she’d seen me helping my boss with his kids while he was out walking earlier that morning. My sister had to explain that he wasn’t my boss but my husband, and these are our twin babies.

We laugh at these conversations because we understand that it is still confusing for people that there are families that look like ours. We have now graduated in a sense from the most common response we had to give people when it was just the two of us being, “Yes, we’re together”, to my now having to say, “Yes, they’re my kids”.

Perhaps, in the same way I colour code my kids blue and pink to avoid having to say a million times when we go out that they are boy/girl twins, I should buy my kiddos the t-shirt I came across a few years ago that reads: “She’s my mommy, not my nanny”.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Lotusdrifter says:

    I can so relate to this. Thabisa and I aren’t together anymore, but we had similar issues. A pharmacist once said, “It is very nice of you to have your domestic worker on your medical aid.”

    1. SMW says:

      Man, it’s amazing the assumptions people make, isn’t it?! I guess it’s all about plausibility frameworks; and it’s still just that implausible to many people that people of different races could be members of a single family. Thanks for sharing your experience! On Sun, 17 Sep 2017 at 2:02 PM [ MIXED UP ] blog wrote:


  2. reta m macgregor says:

    just keep trucking you are wonderful parents

  3. Hi, just read the op-ed in the NYT, and wanted to say, ”Well said”! I myself moved to Israel, where we have a great mix of colors and origins! My area has a lot of Ethiopian families. We have our unfairness and strains here, but mostly of the difficultly of their coming from such a different culture. I’m an art teacher, and was so pleased with the talent of an Ethiopian girl in my class. I chose her work a few time to show the other, and hung up a few pictures. She changed classes. I asked one of her friends why. Because you singled her out, she said. She’s so modest, and it’s not considered nice or proper to try to be ahead of others. So we all need to adjust, but it’s going pretty well in general. I’m sure your family will thrive with such determined and thoughtful parents. Good luck! (I’m now a grandmother of 6.)

  4. David says:

    Very fun, funny, and insightful blog. I love the South African I live with because I can always count on her to be blunt, honest and see things I missed. She constantly reminds me of the lyrics in a song from La La Land … “A little bit of madness is key. It gives us new colors to see. Who knows where they may lead us. That’s why they need us.”
    Thanks for the article in the NY Times!

  5. Mike Black says:

    Seems every thought you have is race race race. Who’s the racist ?

  6. JoAnn Outs says:

    I have a bi-racial daughter who is now 47 but when she was about 2 years old, I had the same thawing happen to me in a neighborhood store. “That’s your maid’s child” was the gist of the comment. He passed by quickly before I had a chance to say something. I live in the Midwest where my daughter was raised but she lives in Queens in NYC. She is happy there because Queens is the most diverse county in the US.

  7. Barbara von Oppen says:

    I was devastated about your lynching article. I had not read about it yet. I live in Chicago, our daughter lives in Barbados and she has two beautiful milk chocolate colored children, that I adore. What can we do to change the outlook of this country. The developments since DT was elected is shocking. My husband and I are German, so we know from our history how horrifying racism is. Do you know of an organization I might be able to join to end this trauma? Yes, first America Has to confront its past.
    You look like a wonderful,beautiful and happy family. May your life never be clouded by those dreadful situations and memories.
    Peace to you
    Barbara von Oppen

  8. Hadiza says:

    I tell people I’m the wet nurse. Then I smile and make like I am busy if I can’t walk away

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