Standing on that street corner, I had a million questions for Maria, but all I could ask her was to give me her key to our apartment. Then I walked away, and halfway up the block started sobbing. My husband met me at the door of our apartment, anticipating the news. His reaction was pure bewilderment. From that moment on, we retreated to our habitual emotional corners: He was composed and practical, while I lurched from incredulity to rage to heartache.
The day Maria left, my kids, 4 and 6, were at school, so we never got the chance to tell them she was leaving. We agonized over how to break it to them (I even called a social-worker friend for advice). Finally, we decided to relate a modified version of the truth: Maria took money from us that didn’t belong to her. We didn’t want them to think her sudden departure had something to do with them, or that she didn’t care enough to say good-bye.
They both cried at the news, and my 6-year-old son immediately came to Maria’s defense: “She’ll give it back! I’m sure she will!” My daughter asked when she would see Maria again. But as the days and weeks passed, the kids stopped bringing up her name. My husband and I were surprised at how easily Maria drifted out of their lives; despite their intimacy, her disappearance wasn’t a major upheaval. We could only conclude that as long as our presence remained constant, their ship felt steady.
The strange thing, though, was that I missed her. I sentimentalized places we’d gone together, little rituals I’d grown accustomed to, the rhythm of our days. I also realized how dependent I’d become on her effectiveness: Things just went more smoothly when she was around.
The story reverberated immediately around the parent circuit, and the reactions were all over the map: Most people who knew Maria were stunned; other people couldn’t fathom that we hadn’t checked our bank balance for three months. Some couldn’t believe that I would give the babysitter my pin number, while others told me they did the same thing all the time.
My mother kept repeating that it wasn’t my fault, assuming correctly that I was beating myself up for blithely giving Maria the keys to the candy store. My sister was on a moral jihad: She said Maria probably viewed us as liberal suckers and if we didn’t press charges, we’d confirm that. My husband’s best friend, a former public defender, was emphatic that we not go to the police, because if we opened the door onto the criminal-justice system, we couldn’t close it and Maria might end up in jail.
A number of close friends imparted stories of being robbed or duped by babysitters, housekeepers, or workmen, stories they’d never shared before. It was a strange torrent, these tales of trickery, and they actually made me feel worse. Implicit in them was that awful cliché: “You can’t trust the help,” a line that made me shudder. I didn’t want to be part of such a cynical chorus. I hated the lessons that this situation seemed to teach: that you have to be suspect of anyone you pay, that just because a nanny is loving toward your kids doesn’t mean she loves you, that if you’re going to hire a stranger to help raise your kids, you get what you deserve.
One would think I would have become nanny-savvy by now. We caught our first sitter lying about where she took our infant son during the day: She said she took him to the playground, but we learned he’d become a regular at McDonald’s, where she arranged to meet friends. The second quit after a month to get married; the third had an emotional breakdown after a fight with her husband. Maria arrived like a savior: buoyant, bright, affectionate. Some voice inside me always said it was too good to be true, but finally (after going so far as to spy on her when she took my kids to the playground), I let go. I allowed myself to feel confident that she was the one.
Maria’s phone messages in the days immediately after her confession jerked me between feelings of pity and a thirst for revenge. I was moved when she wept that she couldn’t face her children, that she desperately missed mine, that “some evil” had overtaken her. But I also found myself tape-recording the messages in case I might need them as proof. Half of me wanted to implore her, “How could you do this?,” but the other half wanted to threaten her: “I’m not the fool you take me for.”
The reporter in me wanted to figure out why, after four years, she’d started filching. It didn’t take much digging: Neighborhood babysitters came out of the woodwork to inform me that Maria had made expensive purchases in the past few months—bragged about lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, fancy face creams from Sephora. They told me that she’d recently separated from her husband—with whom I thought she had a strong marriage—and was dating some guy in Minnesota. She’d even shown off a diamond engagement ring. (I probably paid for it.) Our doorman told me Maria had tried to get her new boyfriend a job; he still had a copy of his résumé that our nursery-school administrator had typed up for Maria as a favor. I wanted to shout, “Why didn’t any of you tell me this was going on?,” but I realized that this was the unspoken fraternity. There must have been rabid whispering among all of them, but it wasn’t their place to warn me.