Minding the Children, Watching the Parents
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.