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It was an American, Walt Disney, who designed the sugar-coated icon of ideal nannyhood in the mid-1960s. Granted film rights to Mary Poppins after years of begging for them, he gave us a spunky interloper who rallies the fractious Banks family—and, not least, helps brittle Mr. Banks get in touch with his inner child. But revisit the British original, and you’re in for a surprise. Vain and imperious, the nanny created by P.L. Travers in the mid-1930s refused to supply her employers with references and “never wasted time being nice” to her charges. Michael, Jane, and the baby twins got dragged around on her peculiar errands—drugged, as you may recall, into obedience. And then she abandoned them all with a change in the wind.
The American tradition of romanticizing nannies goes way back, and surprisingly enough, it still thrives—but with a curious twist. The chief responsibility now assigned to the in-home child-care provider, you’ll discover if you sample the recent boomlet in nanny fiction (and TV fare, too), is to help hapless parents grow up. It is a thankless task, of course: Nannies get their share of hard knocks as they cope with bossy, touchy, fickle employers who exploit them—and then drop them. In the end, though, the nanny is still the savior. But her edifying authority no longer derives mostly from her genius at winning children’s confidence. It lies in exposing adult incompetence, which leaves parents guilty yet finally grateful for the maturational experience. What the kids get out of it is anyone’s guess.
The theme has lurked in nanny-related literature all along, dying to get out. You can find the Mammy who knows better than mama in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and in Gone With the Wind, but it goes without saying that she hides her light under a bushel. She’s there, rounded out, in Harper Lee’s wise Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird, a mother substitute happily spared any direct competition with Atticus Finch’s dead wife. Eloise’s nanny, though she goes “absolutely wild” on fight night and drinks “three Pilsner Beers,” puts Eloise’s jet-setting mother to shame; that woman “knows Coco Chanel, goes to Europe and to Paris,” but never lays eyes on her daughter—or, for that matter, her nanny. And Harriet the Spy is blunt: As she writes in her journal, “my mother isn’t as smart as Ole Golly,” her nanny. But like her predecessors, Ole Golly skirts entanglement with her employers, by moving out when Harriet’s parents get in her way.
It was with Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’ The Nanny Diaries in 2002 that parents conspicuously moved into the spotlight and nanny fiction ceased to be mainly children’s fare. The former-nannies-turned-co-authors, by demonizing Mrs. X of Park Avenue, produced a surprise hit in the form of a witty fable for frazzled mothers (hen, rather than chick, lit). The authors who have lately turned to the topic—Gish Jen in The Love Wife, Benjamin Cheever in The Good Nanny, Mona Simpson in the story “Dependents”—are readier to empathize and eager to downsize from the super-rich to dual-career dynamos. Subtler social satirists, they’ve converged on a basic domestic revenge comedy in which nanny gives the grown-ups a piece of her mind. And fathers, not mothers, turn out to be the ones who take it most to heart.
Where nannies used to induct children into the harsh realities of family instability and money (without undermining their sense of security), now it’s parents whose dreams, and nightmares, about having it all need to be shaken up. On television, where several stateside imitators of the successful British Supernanny series are soon to be broadcast, a tough-love nanny sets mom and dad straight by imposing traditional order on chaos. But in Gish’s, Cheever’s, and Simpson’s work, nannies—small and quiet, every one of them—enlighten their employers less confrontationally, by example rather than exhortation. Is this a new home-grown nanny paradigm in the making? A household interloper who comes with her own baggage, proceeds to disrupt precarious balances, and helps naive Americans face up to the fact that domestic life isn’t about fairness and happy sharing. In the inner workings of families, as the father in The Love Wife comes to see, “nothing is natural.”
Cheever’s and Gish’s nannies aren’t magical, like Mary Poppins, but they are outlandish—caretakers from another culture, balancing competing allegiances with remarkable success. In fact, they’re too good to be true, is the suspicion of the anxious professional mothers involved—a suspicion heightened when the kids and dads become fierce partisans of “the paragon,” as the father in The Good Nanny calls theirs. Cheever gives this classic dynamic one surreal multicultural turn, and Gish another. Miss Washington, the black woman hired by Stuart and Andie Cross in The Good Nanny, not only outshines her New York hot-shot employers on the home front. She also turns out to be a successful artist on the side—or is she, both Crosses begin to wonder, really a con artist? The Love Wife is propelled by a similar mystery: Is the woman who arrives from China to help out the hybrid Wong family—which consists of a second-generation Chinese dad named Carnegie, a WASP mom called Blondie, two adopted Asian daughters, and one blond biological baby son—really a nanny? Or is Lan, as Blondie suspects and Carnegie begins to fantasize, going to turn out to be the wife that Carnegie Wong’s fierce mama always thought he should have?
In both books, the confusion that ensues is tragicomic—in fact, melodramatic. Yet what the nannies teach the parents (and, in The Love Wife, at least one child, too) is meant to be realistic: that no tidy nuclear family model can guide their lives. As Stuart Cross and Carnegie Wong show more signs of learning than their wives do, the ties that bind are based not just on love, or on bonds of blood, but also on money and divided loyalties—and if that fuels insecurity and envy and crimps autonomy, it can also create a family blessed with wider sympathies and rich in stories. Reversing the usual downstairs-imitates-upstairs drama, Jen and Cheever suggest that it’s Miss Washington and Lan, strivers with grim histories of negotiating work-family pressures, who are in a sense the forerunners of scrambling upper-middle-class families.
Mona Simpson explicitly enshrines her Filipino nanny narrator, Lola, as the parental model in her story, which centers on a marital crisis between two new Hollywood-area parents. “Lola is my mother and Dr. Schneider’s my father,” Lola once overheard the wife say, pairing nanny and shrink. But what Lola prides herself on providing is pragmatic, rather than therapeutic, advice, drawn from her own split experience: She’s juggling long-distance concerns about her own family back home—a husband she never sees, daughters she’s determined to see get ahead—with the daily demands of handling her American babies, big and small. She sighs, though, that her old-world wisdom about being more hard-headed about family trade-offs (including marriage) is likely to be wasted—on the mothers she works for, that is. The movie-director husband in her current job joins other fathers in seeming to get the message. “The women … want it all to be pretty. They want it to be all about love,” Lola observes. “The men are the ones who know I am working a job, with many tasks, and for that I am paid a salary. The women, they want to believe it is because I love their children. I do love their children. But I am working too for money.”
Making fathers the eager allies of nannies—as Walt Disney did, too—is, when you think about it, more plausible than evoking a gauzy mother-nanny sisterhood. After all, domestic help at home has meant that men get to continue shirking their fair share of grunt work, so they should be nanny boosters. Still, wishful American idealism lives on in Simpson’s movie director, who promises a hit film about Lola, and in Cheever’s Stuart Cross, who hopes to salvage his career with a biography of Miss Washington—and in these writers themselves, who’ve presumed to offer readers the nanny’s-eye-view. P.L. Travers certainly didn’t dare speak for her unusual nanny about life with the Bankses. “Nobody ever knew what Mary Poppins felt about it, for Mary Poppins never told anybody anything …”