A Novel by Ann Patchett and My Lost Job: Connected by Grief Over Someone Else’s Child

I wrote my last post after talking myself out of quitting one of my jobs; I had had a horrible run-in with the grandmother of the infant in my care and was unsure that I wanted to work in a hostile environment. Last night, the decision was made for me when this child’s poor mother informed me that she couldn’t employ me any longer. I don’t know what happened, exactly and was even told by my former employer that “I am not sure you can envision the scene that took place around this decision.” I suppose that she gave in to her own mother’s ultimatum: fire that babysitter or else, something I really can’t blame her for doing in the circumstances. To give you an idea of this grandmother’s, um, tenacity, I will tell you that yesterday morning I was emailing about schedules and by evening found that I was not going back at all. It’s a complicated story and not really mine to tell. I do know that a grandmother has let her own needs supersede her daughter’s wishes and her grandson’s best interests. I am angry and sad. I didn’t get to say good-bye. I’m not sure I want to.

I felt more relief than sadness whenever I thought about how I was supposed to be at work today. I spent the day listening to the rain that would have forced me to spend even more time with the grandmother, had I stayed at that job. I also listened to the audiobook of State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. (Actress Hope Davis is the narrator and does a much better job than the narrative voice in my head ever could have. I could practically smell the humidity of the jungle.) The book is incredible, unbelievable and completely plausible at the same time. It brings back memories of all the times literature has captivated and held my attention; I probably thought of five paper topics for each of the many tropes I caught and am certain that I missed quite a few. Birds, flight, water, dreams, breath, illness, medicine, childhood, parenting, pregnancy–and those are just the completely obvious ones. Literary references would take three English professors a week to catalogue.

I immediately wanted to write about the book for the blog because its main topic is reproduction. The book review I had planned was folded in to my own story about this child I will no longer babysit when the novel’s plot began to wrap itself around the theme of love for someone else’s child and the complexity of that emotion. I am now unable to untangle my thoughts about yesterday from my thoughts about this story. It is not Patchett’s central theme, but her description of the love and passion that one can feel for someone else’s child hit me square in the chest.

I know that I have no right to the baby I have “lost” and that he is not mine. But when he fell asleep in the carrier strapped to my front and it was my job to protect him from the sun, hunger, discomfort he could hardly have understood, that role was mine. I was in charge, in that moment. My arms feel empty. And yet he is not mine. I have no way to fight to keep him in my life. There is nothing I can do but grieve.

I won’t give away how the novel I finished today touches on that particular set of emotions. But I can tell you as much as the first page says: a drug company has sent an employee to the Amazon to check on the progress of a fertility drug in development deep in the jungle and has now received a letter informing them that he has died there. The project is being run by a brilliant but inaccessible scientist, and the only way to find out what really happened, in detail (the letter is very brief), is to send someone else after him. The drug company’s interest lies in developing a chemical compound that will allow women to have their own children, to maintain their own fertility, well into their fifties, sixties, even their seventies. But because this drug is being developed in the middle of the jungle in the Amazon by foreigners observing an indigenous tribe whose women never seem to lose their fertility, the most important theme centers around what we called “the other” in my English classes. Patchett has written a protagonist and antagonist who are childless women; their lives happen to center around the reproduction and offspring of other people. If I tried to list the circumstances and traits that separate these women from each other and from other people, this blog post would turn into a dissertation. Their separateness defines them. But don’t get the wrong idea–the decision to remain childless hardly rules the lives of these women. Instead, the simple fact that they have not yet had children sets events in motion that could not have otherwise taken place. Their “otherness” lends the book an emotional structure and keeps the plot from straying into the many other lives these women encounter. The sprawling nature of both plot and setting require this, and it’s a brilliant device.

Of course, the plot forces both women to confront their otherness and tears down some of the walls that have kept them oh so very separate. It’s completely fascinating to watch. What’s the parallel to my own life? Being a nanny is all about carefully constructed walls that can only give the illusion of separation. Call me the “babysitter” and not the “nanny” even though I spent more time with the baby than you did, today, if it makes you feel better. Avoid talking about my life outside my interactions with your child if it helps you see me as just an employee. But it is always better when parents acknowledge that everyone gets attached–child to babysitter, babysitter to child, even parent to babysitter and vice versa. That is something He’s not mine. And yet I grieve. Dr. Marina Singh would understand. Ann Patchett clearly understands. It was nice, today, to see my feelings recognized in something published, since I had begun to wonder if I was just being melodramatic. If an experience has been mirrored by fiction, it feels deeply shared, somehow. I would not say that this is a book about love for children that belong to other people–that subplot surprised me quite a bit. If you were to ask me what the book is about, I’d quote an NPR reviewer who also loved State of Wonder and just say “Wow.”

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