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My Nanny's Ramadan Fast

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 brakes.

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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.

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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.

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