Guest Post: The Nanny Complex

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Is that your baby? Has to be one of the rudest, most unsettling things you can be asked as a mother. You already know about my dealings with folks coming at me with that mess. So here’s another mother’s take on how to deal. 

Blogger Alicia Willett, a new mom and good friend of my little sister’s, was not all the way prepared for the you-can’t-be-the-baby-mama drama. She decided to gather up a few tools for the next possible confrontation. The best part is, she still keeps it cute. 


I always knew that our baby was going to be light-skinned — very  light-skinned.  My husband (whom I affectionately refer to as “Dudeguy”) nicknamed him “the Beigelet” well before we knew that he was a “he.”  What I didn’t know was that complete strangers, possibly well meaning or ill versed in social graces, would often question me about whether or not my son was actually mine.

“That’s a handsome boy you have there.”

“Thank you!”

“Is he yours?”

At first I thought that she asked because I was traveling with a group that included other women.  Then I looked around and realized that we were the only two adults in this particular section of the store.

“Yes.  Yes he is mine.”

I wanted to add that I picked him up from the Babies R Us, but there wasn’t one nearby.  I hate lost opportunities for making a snide remark.

When someone sees me, there is no mistaking that I am black.  I’m American.  I have brown skin.  I wear my hair in its natural, tightly coiled state.  Some people pick up on the subtle facial features that bespeak the Chinese portion of my ancestry, but few openly ask me if I’m mixed.  Maybe they figure it’s rude (yes), or prying (uh-huh), or none of their business (PRETTY MUCH), so they leave their questions parked in their heads.  Unfortunately, this nicety  doesn’t seem to apply when I’m carrying my son around.

“He’s so cute!  Is he yours?”

“This is YOUR baby?”

“Oh! I thought that would have been nice of you to babysit so early!”

That last gem was courtesy of a woman who “met” my son while he was sitting on my mother-in-law’s lap.  Mom told the woman that I was his mother.  She turned to me with an incredulous look and said, “No!”  I confirmed that I was indeed his mother.  And that line about babysitting so early was indeed her reply.

The awkwardness in the room afterward was palpable.  I’m glad we left a minute later.

My husband is white; Anglo-Germanic to be precise.  With genetics being what they are, the darkest the kid could have possibly been is “Beyoncé in wintertime.”  But that wasn’t meant to be.  Visible melanin was completely lost on him.  He doesn’t tan, he turns red.  His hair is straight and light brown.  I jokingly refer to him as “my white child.”  Even still, he has my face; the deep brown eyes, the broad nose bridge, the full lips, and the eyebrows that refuse to be tamed are all there.  In my eyes and those of the people who know me, he is very clearly of me.  And it is precisely this that makes me wonder why people can’t see past his complexion when we are together.

“Surely you can’t be that boy’s mother.  You’re black and he’s white!  You must be the nanny!”

They don’t always say it that way, but that’s how I always hear it, and it always stings.  It stings because I expect more of people in 2012 where mixed couples and their little mixed babies are no longer considered anomalies.  It also stings because I have to swallow my impulse to retort with something crass.  This impulse is strong — very, very strong.

In my growing frustration, I took to Twitter to vent.  I lucked out when a friend of mine sent a link to the New York Times article that featured my lovely hostess here and her thoughts on the “you’re the nanny, right?” complex that people seem to have.  After reading it, I found the perfect weapon to arm myself with the next time my son and I are around people we don’t know: two shirts from Swirl Syndicate.  One says “I’m swirled” with a cute little chocolate & vanilla ice cream cone.  The other simply reads, “she’s my mommy, not my nanny.”

When we go out into the world, my boy will be wearing one of those shirts.  When someone asks me if he is my son, I’m going to point them to the shirt.  I’m counting any resulting awkwardness as a win for the mothers of mixed kids everywhere.

We are not nannies. We are mommies, and there should be no question about that.


You can (try to!) keep up with creative, cool mama Alicia on her blogs Inny Vinny and


  • 1
    Sarah W. says:

    Oh my! I totally get this. I’m not a mother (yet)…but my husband is black and I have three step-kids that look nothing like me (they are mixed black/hispanic). It definitely helped to see my and my husband together with the kids to make sense of the situation…

    And I can only imagine when I’m a mother that my child will look like me but definitely not have the same skin tone as me (which is totally fine).

    Totally love the shirt!!! It’ll be a must-buy when the time comes. ;)

    • 1.1
      Alicia says:

      YAY! You totally should. Swirl Syndicate is a good company. Local and mom-run. All good!

      I hope you don’t run into too many issues with your current and future family. Luckily for us, a comment here and there has been the worst we’ve experienced. I know a woman who had to live the interracial marriage and family life in the 60’s. I’m so grateful that I didn’t have to go through her trials. YIKES.

      • 1.1.1
        Ms. Mary Mack says:

        Ditto on that, Alicia. So glad we’re not living in anti-miscegenation times. (Can you believe interracial marriage was only “legalized” in 1967? 19. 67!)

        I also co-sign on the advice to Sarah to get on the Swirl Syndicate Speed Train.

        Thanks for the comment, Sarah!

  • 2
    Nia says:

    Alicia, I think I told you this already but that’s one of my biggest fears! That someone will think I’m the nanny when I have a child with my “Dudeguy”. I always joke that I’m going to put him/her in the backyard until they turn a nice shade of brown but if they turn out anything like Dudeguy, they’ll turn red like your little cutie! Either way, I’m excited for motherhood and I’ll definitely be investing in those shirts. Great post!

    • 2.1
      Alicia says:

      Don’t let that baby bake!

      Nia, your babies are going to be beautiful. Now hurry up and pop them out for me and your mom. =P

  • 3
    Sally says:

    I totally understand what you’ve had to deal with. I’m “brown” from Trinidad and my husband is Dutch [dirty blond hair/blue eyes]. Our son has blond hair and blue eyes.
    At first I thought it was a bit funny that people could be so ignorant and blatantly ask if he was my son. One even said “but he’s WHITE!”. I think I was too shocked and just laughed it off, while my little sister standing next to me waited for the explosion. But I remained calm.
    After a year of the looks and questions, I snapped at someone and asked rudely, WHY would you say that…..she was shocked and said “he has blue eyes?”
    It’s very annoying and offensive at the comments. I enjoyed reading your article and can totally relate.

    • 3.1
      Alicia says:

      I know the feeling. I haven’t yet passed the “too shocked to respond” phase.

      How did the rest of that conversation with the woman you mentioned pan out? I’m interested…

      • 3.1.1
        Ms. Mary Mack says:

        Yes, sigh. People can be…people. I’m happy to say that I haven’t had a “chance” to use my “Why do you ask?” line in over a year. And, frankly, I’m good with that. But I don’t full myself: I’m sure some other crass Q will pop up in the years to come. I’m hoping I’ll have the presence of mind to handle whatever that question is with grace.

      • 3.1.2
        Sally says:

        She turned beet red and slowly walked away. I did say that I was sick and tired of people asking me that question and that it was very ignorant of her. She apologized and after I felt that maybe I was too harsh on her?
        Some of my friends said that I was, but until you’re in those shoes, it’s easy to comment.
        Comments like that are hurtful. Our daughter gets looks when our two kids are together – she’s “Brown” like me.

  • 4
    Jon says:

    I guess I can see how that could and would be offensive. However, I get it too, and race doesn’t come into play at all. I’m white, and a redhead. My wife is white, and has dark brown hair. Our daughter is just between on all counts. My wife is fairly pale, I’m very pale, and my daughter is nestled somewhere between us on the pale scale. Her hair is a mousey brown with red highlights.

    Maybe it’s just that we are ugly and our daughter is so beautiful, but I know we’ve been asked that question a few times. I never thought much of it personally.

    I think most people are parrots, and they probably heard that question asked once and now they repeat it. Of course being that I am white I never thought of how it may sound to a person of a different race. I can absolutely understand that.

    I guess the point of my comment is that even though it probably is more often than not a race related question, I bet you’d be surprised by how many parrots didn’t realize it could be offensive to say that. Of course when I think about it, I guess it is always offensive.

    Regardless, that is one beautiful child Alicia.

    • 4.1
      Alicia says:

      Hey Jon! Thank you for your comment and the compliment!

      I know that it probably isn’t always a racial thing; some folks are just naturally curious about people holding babies. I’m sure no one means any harm when they are asking, but being that most of our information about others is first gathered visually, I can’t help but think it a factor in some situations (in others it might be that no one believes I had a baby 5 months ago – LOL). My husband has never been asked the same question and he’s out with our son more than I am. Where are the people who asked you? He’s dying to be asked!

      To be fair, if I were in your particular situation, I’d still be peeved. Strangers asking about my kid, especially when they haven’t introduced themselves to me or said anything resembling a greeting as happens in most cases, is a bit crass. I won’t say offensive, but it definitely is crass.

      And I’m sure you are all beautiful! Don’t let these people have you think otherwise, what with their questions of parentage! (I’ve been dying to use the word ‘parentage’…and I was shaking my fist as I said that).

      • 4.1.1
        Ms. Mary Mack says:

        Oh, yes. Crass. Perfect word.

        Thanks, Jon (and you too, Alicia) for adding the other sides (hello, dads!) to this conversation.

      • 4.1.2
        Jon says:

        Maybe not as obvious as I’d hoped, but the “ugly” thing was just an attempt at humor. As for where, I’d be hard pressed to remember specific instances. Generally speaking, I live in Kentucky. We live in a fairly rural area, so we spend a lot of time out and about in other states as well – mostly Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Maybe it’s an Appalachia thing?

        When our daughter was still as little as yours is, in the picture above, it was not uncommon at all for people to come up asking, (read in a southern accent) “Is that your baby? it is so beautiful.”

        To which we would politely say, “Thanks”, and walk away.

        I can recall one time in a J.C. Penny, I think, when a lady came up and said – to her shopping counterpart, “Oh look at that baby!”. Then immediately turned to me and said in a look of disbelief / astonishment, “Is she YOURS?”

        That was just awkward, and I think more germane to the thread. My response was still pretty much the same as above, “Yes she is, and thanks!”

          Jon says:

          I’m sorry. When our daughter was still as little as yours is… should have read “When our daughter was still as little as your son is”.

          I had already moved on to the next thought and didn’t give my fingers time to catch up.

  • 5
    indigo says:

    What about genetics made you think your child couldn’t be darker than Beyonce? That part of your post stuck out to me. This is a serious question with no harm intended.

  • 6
    Tonia says:

    ♥ her, I following both of her blogs I can’t get enough of the baby though…I would like to see more of him

    • 6.1
      Alicia says:

      I’m working on it, Tonia!

    • 6.2
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      Agreed. That Alicia really is something. Talent overflowing. And le bebe is beyond cute. I already said that she’ll need to come up with a brand new word for cute because of that wee one.

      Thanks for the comment, Tonia. (I need to have Alicia guest post more often!)

  • 7

    Well said.

    It all boils down to genotypes and the genetic sequence. Depending on the sequence, a black mother and white father can (will) produce a “white” child. I say “white” because of the appearance, when really the child is genetically the combination of both parents (with some genetic information more dominant that others). That same racial combination of parents can (and will) produce a “black” child.

    Education and exposure are key here; it wouldn’t hurt to entertain a course in genetics or take walk outside of your homogenous neighborhood and see “science in action.”

  • 8
    Kapri_H says:

    I’ve dealt with a familiar situation, except my husband and I are both black. My husband has deep dark skin, and I’m brown skinned. However, our 1st daughter was born with super light skin and eyes. Her eyes were blue at birth, then green, but eventually settled on light brown once she turned two. She looks exactly like my husband, but people could not see past her skin tone. I will never forget when we went to my husbands church for the first time. People came up to us and would ask “Who does she look like?” or “How did this happen?”. It took two years for my mother in law to admit that she questioned if my husband was the father!! I used to be very paranoid about it. My family and the people that knew me could easily look at my daughter and say “Oh, she looks JUST like Kam!” (my husband) I didn’t understand why other people couldn’t see the resemblance! There is a recessive gene on my side of the family which is where our daughter got her light eye/skin gene from.
    Whooooo, thanks for allowing me to vent. It’s just a very frustrating situation that hits too close to home.

    • 8.1
      Alicia says:

      Thank you for sharing, Kapri. I can’t imagine walking into church or a family gathering knowing people are questioning your integrity & marriage. I admire you for not saying, “F Y’all!” and storming out of every place it happened.

    • 8.2
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      Glad you were able to get that off your chest, Kapri. The comments and questions are definitely frustrating and hurtful, but my suggestion to folks in our situation is this: Keep it high-road. Sometimes it is a case of raw curiosity and no harm is meant. Other times it’s people sorting through their own issues. It’s rarely every about you. (And thank goodness your MIL has moved on from this!)

  • 9
    Thomas says:

    My wife got that same question a lot. After a while she got tired of it as well. Not offended just tired. She has some patience. The worst one was “Are you baby sitting this child? “

    • 9.1
      Alicia says:

      I threatened to tell the next person that I was the wet nurse.

      • 9.1.1
        Ms. Mary Mack says:

        Ha! I’ve considered the wet nurse retort, too. Oh, and also just getting real gully and telling them two bad words. But then I settled down. At the end of the day, nothing these folks say (or ask!) should make me feel like anything other than this child’s mother. The issue — if there is one, because sometimes it is just poorly-handled curiosity — is not mine. It’s theirs. That’s why I vowed to turn things back around and say (calmly): Why do you ask?

  • 10
    Hazel B. says:

    Hey Alicia! Congrats on your lil’ man! He’s a cutie! I will share one of several similar instances as you. I too get the perplexed stares when at the mall or pretty much any public place my little ladies and I go to. Especially when Bahati’s not with us. I have been right there, standing next to them and people will stop and begin to look around to find these children’s parents. It’s the funniest scene! Not to mention when I dont have make-up on I look 20 years old. I must be the nanny!! It doesn’t bother me, however it just goes to show how ignorant people continue to be in this day in age.

    • 10.1
      Alicia says:

      I can’t believe that! Ugh. It’s like you aren’t even standing there. Wow. Just wow.

      And I miss you guys! I hope the family is doing well. =)

  • 11
    Jobu says:

    i experienced this at length… my response to “Where did you get him???” (wait… what? where did i what? do you really want to see???) was ALWAYS that he’d been on sale in Kmart.

    Fast forward 13 years, his green eyes have darkened to hazel and the stick straight hair has curled a bit… I still get the “Is that your son?” comments, but they are usually immediately followed by “He MUST be… he looks just like you, if you get over the… you know… the color.” *shrug*

    Then I show them where I got him. ;-)

  • 12

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