Special to South Florida Times

For most people, a nanny can be a symbol of wealth, a caregiver or even a substitute for the lady of the house.  Most times, nannies are called upon to help the working woman — or man — rear the children.  But there is a dark side to nannydom that can sometimes be seen splashed across the front page of tabloids and entertainment magazines: The husband runs off with the nanny or the nanny mistreats her charges.

In Lori Tharps’ Substitute Me, she explores what an Essence magazine writer calls a “modern-day horror story… that will haunt you for days.” 

Tharps will be one of the featured authors at Miami Book Fair International scheduled for the Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami Nov. 14-21.

In Tharps' novel, Zora is a 30-year-old African-American woman looking for a job to pay the rent while she decides what her next life move will be.  The former au pair in Paris and college dropout answers an ad titled “Substitute Me.” It was placed by Kate, a PR executive at a top firm in New York City, who is looking for the right person to care for her son, Oliver.

Kate and her husband Brad are white and live in an up-and-coming Brooklyn suburb called Park Slope. Zora gets the job and eventually becomes Kate’s substitute.

“The story started when my first son was born and I needed to find a nanny,” said Tharps, who holds a bachelor’s in Comparative Education and Spanish from Smith College and a master’s in Journalism from Columbia University.

“The process of looking for a nanny in New York City just threw me for such a loop,” Tharps said in a phone interview. “It seemed so crazy to invite a stranger into your home and ask her to care for your most precious possession.”

She was so bothered at the prospect of picking a nanny that she quit her PR job and became a stay-at-home mom. But even though staying home with her child seemed a logical decision, Tharps, who lived in Brooklyn for 12 years after college, was still bothered. She began creating scenarios in her head of what could have happened had she hired a nanny. Substitute Me was born. 

Today, Tharps, 38, the former PR executive, is an assistant professor of Journalism at Temple University, a freelance writer for magazines such as Essence, Vibe, Ms. and Entertainment Weekly, author and mother of two boys with her husband, Manuel Malia, 39. She lives in a Philadelphia suburb.
Her other novels are HAIR STORY: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and KINKY GAZPACHO: Life, Love & Spain. She is no stranger to writing about race relations and that subject is featured prominently in Substitute Me, along with class and upbringing. It is definitely not just about nannydom. 

“I don’t think any black person can walk through life in America and not be aware that they’re black and that most of the people around them are not.” Tharps said. “Substitute Me mirrors my own life in that racial tensions are not marches and sit-ins and being spit on.  It is much more intimate and you may not recognize it until it’s right on top of you.”

Indeed, it is what characters such as Kate think and say that puts the spotlight on race relations in America – such as Kate not knowing who author Zora Neale Hurston is and her mother’s tirade about “colored girls” being easy seem to sneak up on the reader.

Kate’s mother Chloe is referring to one of the nightmares that can ensue with having a nanny.  Even Kate and Brad’s tenant, Mrs. Rodriguez, seems to think that hiring a nanny isn’t the best idea because – yes —  it could lead to Kate’s substitution.

“I do believe that, no matter what, men appreciate that sense of being taken care of,” Tharps advises working women with or without a nanny.  “Now, that doesn’t mean care for his every need. But you do have to recognize that there’s this primal need to be taken care of.  Sometimes it’s just having you and me time to chill.”

Wearing multiple hats is nothing new to any modern mother and Tharps doesn’t disagree with women who admit to needing help with their families.  She just hopes that they will consider all aspects of what it means to have it all: career, children, and husband.

“I wrote the story because I like telling stories,” she said.  “If there’s a message that people take from the story, it’s wonderful.  But, really, I just want people to enjoy a story that’s well-told.” 

Kimberly Grant may be reached at KAliciaG@aol.com.

WHAT: Lori Tharps speaks about her book Substitute Me
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 21 at 11 a.m.
WHERE: Miami Book Fair International, Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus, Room 7106/7107, Building 7, 1st Floor, 300 NE Second Ave., downtown Miami
COST: Various fees, check website for specific dates; free parking at Miami Dade  College Parking Garage, Building 7
CONTACT:  305-237-3258 or www.miamibookfair.com