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Happy Mother’s Day, Nanny!

The paid professional child-care provider and you.

If there’s one thing most mothers would like for Mother’s Day, it would be an end to their child-care worries. Who-cares-for-my-children-and-how has become the great horror story for today’s moms—a crisis unique to recent generations. To add to the usual, well-documented concerns about expense and quality of child care, mothers now have an extra nanny worry, namely, “Is she writing a book about me?” The recently published The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus—perhaps the first child-care novel ever—paints nannies as smarter than their employers and mothers as unfeeling monsters. The ex-nanny authors are certainly smart: Although the book is mostly Bridget Jones’s Day-Care Diary, it’s become an instant best seller. Perhaps one reason The Nanny Diaries sells so well is that it suggests hard questions: What do mothers want from nannies, and what do nannies want in return? Why is this seemingly simple relationship so complicated? The book is just a story and not a sociological treatise; still, it says a lot about the relationship between parents and nannies—and thus provides a nice fraught subject for motherhood’s sacred day.

Talking to nannies and their employers leads to one conclusion: Employers in general and American employers in specific just do not know how to treat a nanny—is she a member of the family or a servant? Surely she’s not a servant (not in democratic America …), but family? Maybe she’s just a good friend?

The modern nanny’s role is similar to that of the governess in a 19th-century novel: a difficult figure who didn’t quite fit in anywhere (Jane Eyre posed etiquette problems, too). But unlike today’s au pair girls, nannies in history and literature (mostly in England) were trusted retainers. Large extended families meant years of employment: It wasn’t a part-time gig for someone working her way through college. Nannies took on their employers’ names—as the servants did in Gosford Park—which most modern employers would be horrified by, seeing it as a prelude to some kind of kidnapping or stalking maneuver. There remains from that period stories of great snobbishness, wherein nannies to titled families had their own bench in the park, never to be approached by lesser nurserymaids. Nowadays nannies are both more widespread in England and more democratically allocated. There is a tradition of nonacademic local girls providing child care in the child’s own home, and nannies can be found in far less affluent families than in the United States.

But in England it’s also considered an appropriate job for a girl from even the titled classes; remember that Lady Diana Spencer, the future Princess of Wales, worked as a nanny. It’s difficult to imagine the Bush twins taking on such a job. Perhaps the lack of nanny history and tradition in the United States only exacerbates the nanny wars. They are somehow both rarer and less revered than they would be in England. Employers in America try to get around the class issue by attempting to have nice, family-type relationships with their nannies. But that feeling tends to go one way—they can ask for favors, but the nanny can’t ask back. It’s hard to imagine employers picking up the nanny’s dry cleaning, yet when it suits, they claim her as one of the family. Mothers say, “It’s like having another daughter.” (Though they may not always mean this in a good way—invoking the teen-ager who talks back and storms off to her room. And you can’t even ground her.) In the end, it’s hard to find nannies who think they are part of the family.

If not quite “family,” is the nanny a family “friend”? Some mothers like to make this claim because, especially with young nannies, they think it says, “I’m hipper and less conservative than other mothers;I get on with young people.” But the normal rules of friendship don’t apply here, either. As one ex-nanny summed it up, “You get invited to your employer’s parties, but then you’re expected to take coats and freshen people’s drinks.” Another sticking point is that mother and nanny must never forget that they’re part of bigger groups, and loyalty is expected. I was told off by another mother for buying my nanny too expensive a Christmas present: “You’re letting us all down.” Of course mother and nanny can have a good relationship, but any true friendship is surely based on equality; so it doesn’t seem a real possibility between boss and employee.

Well, is that all it is then—boss and employee—or is there something more? These awkward problems don’t seem to arise with housecleaning staff. Maybe the trouble comes from taking an old role and trying to fit it to a modern situation. “Nanny” has such a nice comforting ring to it, so much better than “baby sitter” or “child-care provider,” and plenty of mothers enjoy saying “my nanny” to their friends. But traditional nannies had “sole charge”; the mother really had little to do with the upbringing of the child, and both sides liked it that way. Also, everyone involved knew how this servant-mistress relationship worked. Today’s world is very different. A mother is often ambivalent about having domestic servants at all; she doesn’t know how to treat them, then has special added guilt about not looking after her own children as society expects of her.

Add to Mommy’s ambivalence about how to treat the nanny her uneasiness about how smart the nanny ought to be. The nanny is bringing up her child, after all, and while historically that was a role to entrust to someone of lesser education and a lower social class, today’s parents want something more. Mothers want the impossible: someone who will stand in for them, have initiative, be trustworthy, be smart, and surround the child with educational activities and culture. In effect, Mom wants someone just like herself, only more reliable and obedient. And without the power to decide to forgo Mackenzie’s swimming this week and sit her in front of a video instead—because that, after all, is Mommy’s prerogative.

Synthesize the guilt and the idealized smart-stupid nanny, and you come up with this scary conclusion: If the nanny does do a good job of standing in for her, does that make Mommy replaceable? Mothers simultaneously want nannies to succeed (for the children’s sake) but are frightened of what that would reveal about them. Even worse guilt is available to working mothers: the thought that the nanny really is much better at it than Mommy would be. More terrifying? The nanny might enjoy their children more, and—as sociology professor Arlie Russell Hochschild found in a study featured in her recent book—even if Mommy could cut her working hours to spend more time with her children, she wouldn’t. None of this doubt about one’s innate mothering abilities or instincts features much in Mother’s Day cards. Moms are supposed to want to spend every second with their kids. Maybe claiming the nanny is a friend or part of the family makes these murky situations more acceptable, although working on our own defensiveness and guilt as mothers might work better in the long run.

In the end, mothers need not be threatened by their nannies. Mothers have to look after their children even if they’re ill; they have ultimate responsibility for the child. Nannies don’t: It’s just a job. Nannies can call in sick, they can quit, they can always hand the child back. Mothers can’t do any of those things. In return, mothers get lifelong active love (we hope) from their children, and nannies, outside novels, don’t. It is much reported that mothers worry about nannies getting too fond of their charges, and vice versa, but it’s hard to find real evidence of this. In truth most parents find their own offspring so adorable that they positively expect worship from outsiders, and children just don’t value others more than their parents.

The ambiguity in these relationships ultimately reflects an ambiguity in our whole attitude toward our children. Is looking after children pleasure and paradise—in which case, why is this young woman getting all the joy?—or is it tough, important work, hard to do and hard to get right—in which case, is this young woman up to it? Well, it’s both: Looking after children is full of moments of sheer joy and love and wonderment, and also moments of pain and boredom and incredible irritation. Mothers panic that the nannies won’t be good enough at the bad bits, then begrudge nannies the good times.

In the past mothers and nannies had separate lives and roles, and some mutual respect for both. Most people wouldn’t want any other parts of the old traditions, but the mutual respect might be a start at improving the relationship: viewing each other as being on separate but equally valuable tracks. Mothers should stop wallowing in guilt and stop being defensive about their needs. Wanting help with the children is a perfectly reasonable expectation in every age and culture: Paying for it does not make that wrong. More honesty and self-knowledge and less defensiveness could work wonders for the relationship with the nanny.