Who's Your Nanny?

By Heather Hewett
Sunday, August 26, 2007

I loved "The Nanny Diaries," the 2002 bestseller by a pair of former nannies who served up a merciless satire of the overly moneyed in Manhattan, their neglected children and their exploitive ways with the domestic help. Part comedy, part class commentary, the novel was a good laugh, and I expect I'll enjoy the movie version that opened on Friday every bit as much.

But as a working mother, I can't help noting how little the story has to do with reality -- either with the situation of parents like me, who depend on nannies and babysitters to care for our children, or with the lives of most women who work as caregivers.

To begin with, "The Nanny Diaries," by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, is narrated by a white, U.S.-born, college-educated nanny, not a woman from the Caribbean, South America or the Philippines -- where most real caregivers come from. Susan Tokayer, director of Family Helpers, a placement agency in Westchester County, New York, estimates that 60 percent of the nannies she works with are immigrants. (And, she adds, while nannies placed by agencies must be legal, "most . . . are not.") Anyone who spends time at a Manhattan playground -- or a playground in any large U.S. city -- can attest to the preponderance of black- and brown-skinned women who are there with their (usually fairer-skinned) charges.

The presence of these women in the United States results from a complex concatenation of global forces and national policies, and researchers have dubbed the worldwide increase in the numbers of female migrants (many of whom leave their own children at home to seek out better work and better pay in the United States) the "feminization of migration."

Many of these women end up working for employers who share their ambition and capacity for hard work, one of the topics explored by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild in "Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy." In the United States, nannies are the linchpins that enable many two-career households to function. In fact, single-breadwinner families such as that of Mr. and Mrs. X in "The Nanny Diaries" appear to be the exception, not the rule: Joan Friedman, owner of the Manhattan agency A Choice Nanny, says that the majority of her clients are "two working New York City parents, frequently professionals."

Maybe you can't expect such complexities to burden a lighthearted bestseller, but they don't appear in popular "reality" television shows such as "Supernanny" or "Nanny 911," either. The stars of these shows -- British Mary Poppins-esque women with firm do's and don'ts that they dole out to frazzled parents -- look nothing like the nannies who were gathered one recent August morning in Manhattan's Bleecker Street playground.

Most of the women I spoke with there were unimpressed by these shows, if they'd even seem them. For one, said Nola, a mother of two from Grenada who was watching her small charges play in the sand, real nannies are expected to follow their employers' rules, not impose their own. Others called the programs unrealistic. "Do those nannies have kids?" scoffed Annetta, a mother from Trinidad with three grown children who was caring for a toddler. "These shows aren't real. It doesn't take [only] a week for a child to get good."

The shows, of course, are based on the premise that a family's problems will be solved by the end of the hour. Like Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee, or Maria von Trapp in "The Sound of Music," the nanny leaves (or marries her employer) once order is restored. In other words, nannies are not long-term childcare providers but rather stopgap personnel brought in to banish family chaos. This feeds another fantasy: that "the mom won't need the nanny over the long haul," says Lucy Kaylin, executive editor of Marie Claire magazine and author of "The Perfect Stranger: The Truth About Mothers and Nannies.""When the nanny pulls out of the driveway, all is perfect." (In my house, it's quite the opposite: When the sitter goes home, the kids break down.)

What remains unexplored are the challenges for both employer and nanny in developing an intimate working relationship over time. In their introduction to "Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies," editors Susan Davis and Gina Hyams describe this issue as an "emotional minefield." Several of the writers in this collection detail their struggles with paying someone to love their children, a basic aspect of the job that everyone -- nannies, parents and children -- has to negotiate. It's hard not to feel unsettled and guilty about this arrangement, particularly if you're a working mother in a culture that idealizes stay-at-home motherhood. After all, most of us (myself included) prefer to think of ourselves as caring mothers who are trying our best to be professionals and to raise our kids -- that is, not Mrs. X.

Yet this is where "The Nanny Diaries" hits close to home. On the surface, its characters lead vastly different lives from most of us. So part of the story's appeal lies in the self-congratulatory relief that accompanies our glimpse into the dirty underside of Manhattan's Park Avenue elite: I may not have all that money, you think, but at least I'm not like them. Mrs. X, after all, is the quintessential Bad Mother -- a self-involved woman who abuses her nanny and neglects her attention-starved son. But after all the laughs, many readers and moviegoers may be left with a vague anxiety that perhaps, maybe unknowingly, they too have transgressed the boundaries of acceptable parenting. Maybe they've been too focused on themselves and not enough on their kids.

Worries like that are common, Kaylin says, because working mothers often "live in fear of falling down on either of those jobs -- work or motherhood -- and of letting them fall into abusive relationships." For me, these moments of self-doubt occur when I get distracted by work or ask my sitter -- a native-born Latina with a 9-year-old daughter of her own -- to stay late several nights in a row. When have I crossed the line and started neglecting my kids or taking advantage of the woman who cares for them? As Jessika Auerbach, author of "And Nanny Makes Three: Mothers and Nannies Tell the Truth About Work, Love, Money, and Each Other," writes: "In the absence of the checks and balances built into most other working relationships, the 'taking advantage' territory is an easy place to slip into without awareness or even intention." Like it or not, inequities of power can set up the potential for abuse -- precisely the situation portrayed in "The Nanny Diaries."

But unlike former nannies McLaughlin and Kraus, most childcare workers don't have the resources or the opportunity to speak out. And sometimes they suffer egregious wrongs -- nannies have been exploited, abused, held captive and even assaulted, suggesting the need for regulation and a better system for redressing injustices. This is something that domestic workers' associations have been pushing hard for: In New York and Washington, they've introduced a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, and this past June several organizations formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Most of us know better than to confuse Hollywood with reality, but it's odd to have so many fantastical nannies parading across stage and screen at a time when increasing numbers of families can't afford any form of quality childcare. So after we've spent the afternoon laughing at the movies, maybe we could take some time to think more seriously and honestly about the ways our country can become more truly family-friendly. We owe it to ourselves and to our children. Not to mention the nannies.

hewetth@ newpaltz.edu

Heather Hewett is assistant professor of English and coordinator

of the women's studies program at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company