the fight

The Friday before Christmas I came home early to find my nanny and my housekeeper in the foyer screaming at one another. Seven-month-old Flynn, who like usual was secured to the nanny’s back, was watching the whole scene wide-eyed. I wiggled him off the nanny and into my arms.

Much to my surprise, the yelling did not stop at the sight of me. The women did not apologize and, embarrassed, stumble back to their separate jobs, as I would have expected. Instead, the screaming intensified. I was here to act as judge. They would each present their case and I could decide which of them was truly awful.

She locked me out of the bathroom. She acts like she’s too good to eat any food I cook. She only cooks food she knows I won’t eat. She doesn’t say hello to me in the morning. She purposefully slams the door loudly so the baby will wake up. Such accusations – each of which was accompanied by a long and convoluted story — continued for a half hour, me watching the whole scene wide-eyed just as Flynn had been before.

Let me be perfectly clear. This wasn’t a lively discussion. It was screaming. Thirty minutes of it — of two grown women, screaming like children.

Finally Flynn started fussing. “Sorry,” I said, “I need to feed him.” I hustled off to the kitchen to prepare a bottle, relieved that I had an excuse to extricate myself from this awful situation that for some inexplicable reason I hadn’t extricated myself from before. However, the women and their screaming followed. I let it continue for ten minutes before I finally interrupted.

“Okay,” I said slowly, in my rusty French. “Here’s what I want to say. I know my French is not perfect, but I understand the majority of what you’re telling me. It seems there are a lot of problems between you two. I don’t need to know all the little details about these problems. What I want to know is this: what are you asking from me?”

They both stood silent for a moment before the conversation began again – slowly and calmly this time, in a manner that made me think my question would soon be addressed. But before long voices and tensions rose, and then again I was simply listening to screamed accusations. This time they were mostly coming from the nanny. The housekeeper comes to work late. She leaves for three hours in the middle of the day. She doesn’t work unless you’re here to see.

The housekeeper began to defend herself, but at this point I was done. I didn’t care about who was or wasn’t telling the truth. I cared that this argument was happening in front of my son and that I’d somehow allowed it to continue this long in my presence.

“Look,” I said, “I’m done for today. It’s a holiday weekend. I came home early to spend time with Flynn. I’m done listening. And you are both done working. We’re all done.”

And with that I took my baby upstairs to his room where I stayed until both of them left. Is this what it had come to? Hiding out in my own home? I decided at that moment that I could not leave Flynn in a house with two women who so obviously hated one another. Even if there was no future screaming (which I doubted) there would certainly be tension, and that wasn’t okay. One of them would have to go, and although the nanny certainly wasn’t blameless in this fight, it couldn’t be her. Flynn loved her, and we liked and trusted her. This whole thing seemed very out of character. The housekeeper, on the other hand, had never been great. I would never fire her based on the nanny’s accusations, but a lot of the nanny’s accusations confirmed suspicions we already had.

When Andy came home and heard the story, he agreed. After the holiday weekend we talked with Human Resources at the Embassy to learn about the process for letting someone go. Then, after work, we braced ourselves for a difficult conversation. Andy felt sick as we waited for the housekeeper to finish her shower. I paced around in the kitchen. Neither of us has been in a position before to so negatively impact another person’s life. We felt awful about it. We wanted to change our minds, but we didn’t because we felt more awful about the idea of not doing right by Flynn.

Let’s just say the conversation did not go well. There were objections and protests. “I don’t accept this,” she said, throwing the letter we prepared back at us. Then her kids peeked their heads into the doorway. Her kids being at our house so often without our knowledge or permission was one of the problems, but still, I didn’t want to fire anyone in front of their kids. But they stayed. Then she called her husband, and he came over too.

She asked how she was supposed to feed her kids without a job — with those very kids standing right there, staring at me. Rationally I reminded myself that she quit her last job with an Embassy family because she didn’t like the work conditions, so if she were really concerned with feeding her family she probably wouldn’t have done that. I knew her husband had a stable job with another Embassy family. I knew we gave her a generous Christmas bonus as well as a generous severance. Rationally, I knew we gave her plenty of buffer to find a new job and that we did all we could to make sure those kids were fed.

We tried our best to explain our position. We apologized. But after an hour of explanations and protests, again, we decided we were done. “This is not a conversation for the whole family,” Andy finally said. “And it’s not a negotiation. We have already made our decision. It’s done.”

In the week since then, there has been a noticeable difference in the mood at our home. The nanny is clearly happier. Even though we now have to cook our own dinners and do our own dishes, we feel far less stress in the evenings. And, interestingly, the house is really just as clean as always. Letting the housekeeper go was the right decision my kid — I’m sure about that — so why can’t I help but think about hers?

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4 Responses to the fight

  1. Jeanne says:

    This is one of many hard decisions you’ll have to make now that you’re responsible for someone other than yourself. You did what needed to be done for Flynn. And you were generous to the housekeeper. The fact that you still feel bad is normal. But what you did was right.

  2. Camille says:

    Oh WOW. That is so awkward…I can’t even imagine.

  3. Kaitlin says:

    That is crazy! You handled it very well and in French! I am impressed!!

  4. Jill says:

    I found that it was never easy to discipline staff or let them go … though similar to you, I had to do both at our last post in India. You have a conscious … which is why it’s difficult to stop thinking about their family. But you have an obligation … to put yours first.

    You clearly did the right thing.

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