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Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims, is under way, which
means my nanny will fast from dawn to sunset every day. And that fasting means no food or water
during the hours she will be watching my children. This is our third Ramadan as her employers
and just like the previous two years, I feel a pit of fear in my stomach,
worrying about her health and that of my children as she cares for them while
the temperatures soar.
I know how this will go. For the remainder of the holy month, I will keep my phone closer than
normal when I am at work. I will worry that she will pass out from dehydration
while leading my 2- and 3-year-old children across the street. I will think about how light-headed and
unable to focus I become when I go hours without eating or drinking water in
the sunshine. Then I start picturing
specific scenarios where she doesn’t watch them closely enough at the
pool. Or maybe she’ll space out while my
daughter rides her bike with her wobbly legs and her inexpert command of the
It will be torture because my mind will have a new scenario every day about the
things that could go wrong while she observes a central tenet of her faith. Because my only reference is how my own body
and mind react to deprivation.
During this time I will do a lot of praying, myself. I will pray that we have an unseasonably cool
July and August, so that breezes and clouds will quench her thirst. I will pray that the rains fall so she will
have to stay home with the kids to do art projects instead of hitting the
scorching black pavement on the way to the pool or the park.
She tells me that her body adjusts to the fasting by day
four and that she wakes up early, around 4 a.m., to eat something and then go
back to bed for a few hours. When she
inevitably sleeps in on some of the mornings during Ramadan, I am not angry; I
am grateful she’s taking care of herself, even though I end up being late for
work and have to scramble to make up the time.
It’s wrong for me to want her to drink lots of water during these languid summer days or to sneak a cracker or two when she feels a hunger pang.
Every year there are a few mornings when she comes over,
already drenched in sweat thanks to the humid Midwestern climate, and I wonder
how she could physically manage my children when she looks so depleted by 8 a.m. I ask her if she is feeling OK, and
she assures me she is fine. I stand there awkwardly thinking of something to
say, and then head off to work, hoping that she looks better than she
feels. In the afternoons, sometimes I
see her and the kids at the park on my walk home from the train. When my kids spot me, they attack me with
hugs that leave my clothes soaking wet from perspiration. They greedily sip from their water bottles on
the walk home and, while I am thirsty, too, I can’t bring myself to drink when I
know that she can’t.
I want to honor her religious and spiritual traditions, but
I also want to keep my kids safe. We
picked her from a pool of qualified nanny candidates not only because of her
loving way with my children, but also because of the rich cultural traditions
she brings to the table. My daughter
knows how to turn a scarf into a hijab, and my son loves the fresh dates she
brings back from Algeria every year. We
love that both of the kids are learning Arabic words and understand that their
nanny is from the Berber ethnic group in North Africa. Those are immeasurable gifts that she’s given
my family—expanding our understanding of the world in ways we never could on
our own. We have especially loved that
she’s teaching us about her Muslim faith, which supplements the Judaism from my
husband’s background and the Catholic traditions from mine.
Of course I know it’s selfish and ethnocentric of me to want
to pick and choose which parts of her culture she brings to her work with my
family. It’s wrong for me to want her to
drink lots of water during these languid summer days or to sneak a cracker or
two when she feels a hunger pang.
I don’t actually want to stand in the way of her religious
expression; in fact, I want to support it and learn from it. But still, every year, I get this tremor of
fear in my core during these holy days, and I can’t help wishing that it goes
quickly, so I can stop picturing tragic things befalling her and my children
because she’s depleted from the fasting.