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Minding the Children, Watching the Parents

By Liza Mundy
Sunday, July 26, 2009

BABYSITTER: AN AMERICAN HISTORY

By Miriam Forman-Brunell

New York Univ. 313 pp. $29.95

JUST LIKE FAMILY

Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for, and the Children They Love

By Tasha Blaine

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 322 pp. $25

The good thing about babysitting, for a girl growing up in the 1970s, was that the household you were hired into almost certainly had a copy of "Fear of Flying" or "Valley of the Dolls" tucked away in its bookshelves, available for pleasantly shocked perusal after the kids went to bed.

In that and other ways, babysitting for many of us proved a useful and pretty harmless bridge out of adolescence. It provided glimpses of adult life, real and imagined, and an introduction to the strangeness of other households. The layout of unfamiliar kitchens and the disorder of other family rooms offered insight into the world beyond our own, as did the sometimes hair-raising behavior of the moms and dads who employed us. A friend of mine will never forget the mother who liked to issue instructions while advancing down the staircase, naked. I still recall the dad so drunk after a party that he nearly fell into the boxwoods while escorting me up my family's front walk. Somehow we survived, and the experiences helped us mature -- at least some of them did.

And then one day we grew up to find ourselves not the babysitters but the employers of babysitters, struggling with the complexities of child care in an era when the need has expanded beyond a couple of hours on Saturday nights. It's now one's own house -- and marriage and medicine cabinet -- that are under scrutiny.

With vivid experiences from both sides of the child-care divide, I was intrigued to encounter Miriam Forman-Brunell's "Babysitter: An American History." Forman-Brunell, a former babysitter who is now a history professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the author of a book on the role of dolls in American girlhood, sets out to examine the relationship between teenage sitters and their employers over the past century. She begins in earnest with the post-World War II baby boom, a time when middle-class families were having children early and often, and in many cases migrating from cities into suburbs, away from traditional sources of help such as lower-income women and extended-family members.

Enter the teenage girl down the street, who -- sometimes forbidden by law to perform jobs such as delivering newspapers (that was considered a "street trade" from which she had to be protected) -- could get few other kinds of work.

It sounds like a happy meeting of demand and supply. But Forman-Brunell argues that, just when teenage girls were becoming crucial to the running of American households and the sanity of American parents, the girls were developing their own unsettling culture. It was a culture that consisted of impenetrable slang, unfamiliar music, telephone nattering and, most alarming, boyfriends who wanted to come over. Even as parents desired the girls' presence, they felt unnerved by them and sought ways to control and contain their behavior.

It's an interesting premise, but one that would be best supported by substantial anecdotes of real conflict. Instead, Forman-Brunell draws much of her material from archived popular culture found in magazines, movies and TV shows. Peppered with snippets of quotations, the book is academic and a little slow for the average reader.

Taking her narrative into the present, Forman-Brunell argues that contemporary girls' lives, enriched by soccer games and music practice, include less time for babysitting, heralding the end of an era. This seems plausible, though as the mother of a 13-year-old who would be glad to babysit even more than she does, I suspect the other cause is that many of today's overworked parents either don't go out or hire professional help when they do.

And that's what it has come to in many households: full-time assistance. Tasha Blaine's new book, "Just Like Family," provides a moving and readable glimpse into the lives of nannies who serve in affluent and middle-class homes today. In an early effort to support her writing habit, Blaine worked as a nanny to a well-heeled Manhattan family -- until the day they left the country without giving a forwarding address. She was then hired by parents who were hard-pressed and overworked, and she struggled to bond with their "rail thin," remote, anemic daughter. Fascinated by the challenges, Blaine spent time with other nannies and chose three stories to follow.

Her sympathetic account of their travails is a useful corrective to news stories that tend to focus on nanny disasters. Blaine has skewed her narrative a little, however, by featuring nannies who are consistently on the side of the angels. If anything, their foibles derive from over-attachment to the children in their care; one nanny, for example, asks a toddler, "Who's your mommy?" and explains to Blaine that she's his daytime mommy, while his mother is his nighttime mommy.

Her book's three nannies are identified by pseudonyms: Claudia, an immigrant from Dominica who left behind an infant of her own to travel to the States for employment; Vivian, a super-nanny with a weight problem and a tenacious commitment to the two boys she cares for; and Kim, fresh out of a shattered marriage, who against her better judgment takes a live-in position in a toxic household dominated by a micromanaging husband and a lawyer wife whose firm starts making demands soon after she gives birth. One day, Kim has to accompany the mother to work, where the mom gets pulled into so many meetings that she can't take a break to breast-feed, and Kim has to crack open the formula and then defend her decision to do so. It's hard to know whom to feel sorrier for.

One of the striking patterns in this book is the way in which the nannies form mutually reinforcing bonds with the women who employ them. Sure, there are spasms of competition and jealousy, but overall the nannies respect the working mothers, and the mothers are grateful for their services, willing to pay them as well as they can and eager to help with both life struggles and career goals.

For all three nannies, the husbands are the household annoyances and/or enigmas. For Claudia, the stress ratchets up when James, the father of the children she cares for, starts working at home in their Manhattan apartment. He can't abide the noise of the children -- "I can't even hear myself think!" -- drives away play dates and chastises Claudia when the laundry basket leaves tiny scratches in the hallway floor. Far worse is the plight of Kim, who has already had to rescue children from one household where the father suffered from mental illness and owned guns, and now is trapped in a household with an uber-controlling dad, who demands that she use hand sanitizer every 15 minutes and assigns her a bedroom with a door that doesn't lock. When she finally flees that situation, her main concern is for the baby and the life to which he is destined.

Blaine's book reminds us that, often, child-care situations are perfect for nobody: not for the parents working too many hours, not for the nanny struggling to cope, not for the children, though frankly these children seem to come out pretty well, oblivious to adult emotional dynamics. I did have one lingering question about her reporting, though. Some highly charged scenes are recounted as if Blaine were there -- "His face was bright red, and sweat shone across his forehead" -- yet the frisson derives from the fact that the nanny, in this case Kim, is described as being alone with her employer. It's not always clear whether she shadowed the women while they worked or debriefed them afterward.

Ultimately, her story, told from the point of view of nannies, shows that through no real fault of its own, the American household is a fickle place of employment, and it reminds us that we're still cobbling together our child-care arrangements without much direction or support. As a parent, it's unsettling but useful to see how exquisitely attuned nannies and babysitters are to the mood of one's household: the stresses, the housekeeping lapses, the job difficulties, the bedside reading material. The mother who comes out well in the opinion of her child-care provider is a successful mother indeed.

Liza Mundy is a staff writer for The Washington Post and author of "Michelle," a biography of Michelle Obama.

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