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Mommy Shift Begins as Nanny Shift Ends

This Latina immigrant is one of thousands in L.A. County whose time spent with their employers' children is time spent away from their own.

November 03, 2005|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Margoth Enriquez looks at the clock. It's 6:03 p.m. -- past time to go home.

She sighs.

The nanny feeds 13-month-old Elise a bottle while Elise's twin sister rests nearby. Their 3-year-old brother sits at the table, finishing his broccoli and chicken. Samantha, 2, holds her mom's hand as they walk toward the kitchen.

"Let's see if your bottle is ready and then we're going to say goodbye to Margoth," Stacey Arnold says to her daughter.

"Why?" asks Samantha.

"Every night, 'Why is she going home?' " Stacey says, referring to her daughter's inability -- or unwillingness -- to accept Margoth's departure. "I ask myself that very question."

The answer lies across town, in a neatly decorated one-bedroom apartment near downtown Los Angeles, where Margoth's own young daughter and teenage sons anxiously await her return.

After a full day of taking care of Stacey's four children on the Westside, Margoth arrives home just after 7 p.m.

"¡Hola, ninos!" she says as she opens the door.

And so her second shift begins.

Jasmine, 3, who was still curled up in her Dora the Explorer blanket when her mom left that morning, jumps and squeals. She grabs her mother's hand and pulls her to the kitchen table to show her the crayon drawing she made in preschool.

"You did this for me?" Margoth says in Spanish as she kisses Jasmine's head and puts the poster on the refrigerator with alphabet magnets. "Gracias, muneca."

Margoth takes off her shoes and immediately begins cooking dinner. When she has the energy, she prepares traditional dishes from her native El Salvador. But many nights, she cooks what's easy and quick: fish sticks, chicken nuggets or spaghetti.

Tonight, she decides on steak, rice and a bag of vegetables from the freezer, which she puts on the table at nearly 8 p.m. -- two hours after she helped feed Stacey's children. As she cooks, washes dishes and sets the table, she asks her sons, ages 13 and 15, about their days.

"Raul, did you do your homework?" she asks. "Mario, what did you do in school?"

Similar scenes play out throughout Los Angeles County every day. Immigrant women leave their children at home -- with siblings, relatives or bargain baby-sitters -- so they can earn a living caring for other people's children.

"It's everywhere," said Lisa Loomer, who wrote a play, "Living Out," about the trend in Los Angeles. "It's this city. It's the great divide in this city."

There are roughly 62,000 Latina nannies in Los Angeles County, said University of North Carolina professor Philip N. Cohen. He based his estimate on census data and noted that the actual number may be higher.

Inevitably, immigrants feel the pull between their employer's children and their own families. Every day, they take their employer's children to play dates and the park, often unable to do the same with their own. They pick up their employer's children from school while theirs take buses.

"They are forced to be away from their families and yet reminded at every instance what their families are being denied," said Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, USC professor and author of "Domestica: Immigrant Women Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence."

Often, the only baby-sitters they can afford are untrained or unreliable.

"The immigrants are paying each other," said Arizona State University professor Mary Romero, author of "Maid in the U.S.A." "Somebody has to take care of the children. It's the nanny or the maid's child who gets the short end of the stick."

Stacey says she never takes Margoth for granted.

She gives her nanny paid time off to attend school meetings or stay home with a sick child. She tells Margoth she can bring her daughter along to work.

"She's a mom," she says. "Those are her kids. She feels about her kids the same way I feel about mine."

But Stacey, whose husband works long hours in commercial real estate, also depends on Margoth -- so much so that at the end of the day, it's hard to let her go home.

When the twins were younger, Stacey says, it was even worse. Some nights, Margoth wouldn't leave until after 7.

"At 6 p.m., things were falling apart," Stacey says. "It was like a madhouse."

Margoth depends on Stacey, too -- particularly for the $550 paycheck she receives each week.

If she had the choice, Margoth says, she wouldn't work. She feels as though she spends more time with Stacey's family than her own. Sometimes, she accidentally calls Jasmine by the name of one of Stacey's daughters.

"I also have my family," she says. "They also need me.... I don't want my family to eat cereal for dinner."

*

The oldest of eight girls, Margoth grew up in the village of San Rafael Chalatenango. When Margoth was young, her father left the family. She began cleaning houses to help support her mother and sisters.

The money was never enough.

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