Dinner has been eaten, homework is done, and 11-year-old Theo is happily playing cards with the woman he counts as his friend and confidante.
His nanny, Christine Yvette Lewis, has been part of this upper West Side, Manhattan family since Theo’s 16-year-old sister, Isabel, was a baby, as we read in this report in the New York Daily News.
Her nickname for Theo is “Loverboy” and, for Isabel, it’s “Dora Dee.”
And she describes her relationship with the kids’ mother, Annie, as “sisterly camaraderie.”
“Some people regard childcare as a humble occupation – they look down upon it – but there is a lot of love, respect and integrity between us,” says Lewis, who prefers not to give her age.
“My salary is obviously important, but when I serve these kids a plate of food and they say ‘Thank you,’ it’s worth a million bucks.
“It’s the same when I leave at night and their mother says: ‘Thank you’ and I hear myself saying back: ‘You’re welcome.'”
Supervising the siblings on a part-time basis, Lewis plays a key role in the smooth running of the household.
It allows single mother Annie, a facilitator and a life coach, to do the job she both needs and enjoys. At the same time, the kids are loved and cared for by a vibrant personality from a different culture.
“I feel like I am in partnership with their parents,” says Lewis. “Children are a precious commodity – they are little lambs, gifts from God – and it’s a privilege to help raise and nurture them.”
She explains that her job has “evolved” over the years as the family’s needs have changed. It began as a full-time position before the children went to elementary school.
Now they are older, Lewis mostly works between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. when they return from classes.
The arrangement suits her well because she likes to spend her free time pursuing her twin passions of writing poetry and performing music.
She is also an advocate for Domestic Workers United, the organization that campaigns for the rights of home workers, such as nannies and housekeepers.
Lewis, who lives in Brownsville, came to New York in the mid-1990s from Trinidad and Tobago. She is qualified in early childhood education and literacy.
She ran a child-care facility in her home city of San Fernando and, as soon as she arrived in the U.S., sought to provide for herself and her young daughter, Jamie, now in her mid-20s.
Like many first-generation female immigrants, she responded to a newspaper advertisement for a baby-sitter.
Since then, she has worked for a small handful of families.
“It can be a complex relationship because you are bridging cultures and working in the home of someone who doesn’t know you from a can of paint,” says Lewis, admitting that she sometimes has a “love-hate” attitude toward being a nanny.
“Some mothers, especially the new ones, often have insecurities about another woman being with their kids,” she explains.
“But you have to work around each other and trust each other. You learn to communicate because it’s in the better interests of the child.”
For the most part, Lewis’ employers have been wonderful. But she has some war stories.
One mother from the United Kingdom insisted that she never ate McDonald’s in front of her child because it set a bad example. She also banned her from snacking on peanuts in case he developed an allergy.
Worst of all, the same woman asked Lewis to read aloud stories from an old-fashioned version of “Mother Goose” that contained an overtly racist rhyme.
These days, by contrast, Lewis is “treated with integrity” and paid a “fair” wage in her current job.
But other home workers are not so fortunate.
“Some parents won’t buy a cow because they think they can get the milk for free,” she says, cryptically.
Through her work with Domestic Workers United, she has met a number of poorly treated, mostly immigrant nannies.
Many receive a pitiful salary to care for multiple kids and clean the employer’s home at the same time. Their hours are at the whim of their bosses.
“Some have to work holidays because the employer will say ‘Thanksgiving is not your holiday,'” she says. “It’s a disgrace.”
One word Lewis uses constantly is “respect.”
“A woman’s work is real work,” she concludes. “When my employer says to me ‘Thank you,’ it means I am not taken for granted.