Our nannies, ourselves

The other day, a friend and I were debating which show was the better guilty pleasure, “Real Housewives of Orange County” or this year’s knock-off, “Real Housewives of New York City.” I argued passionately for the Left-Coast ladies, whose boob jobs, dye jobs, and jobless, petulant offspring make me feel vastly superior and not at all like the kind of person who stays up late watching contrived cable reality shows. My pal, by contrast, finds the O.C. team one-dimensional and dull, preferring the more nuanced, layered backbiting practiced by the New York housewives.

She has a point. Both sets of women are riveting in their detestability, but while the California clique’s members beat each other up with their bra cup sizes, the New Yorkers are all about class standing. The producers have cleverly balanced the cast between socialites with unquestionable bona fides and climbers — the most entertaining of whom is a bony blonde by the name of Alex McCord. In all of history, no one has worked harder than Alex and her husband Simon van Kempen to prove they’ve arrived.

It’s my own fault for watching, but it’ll be years before I recover from the episode in which the whole family cavorts in the Caribbean in thongs. The couple’s voiceovers attempt to sell the pleasures of the off-season, but no one’s listening. What we really want to know is: What was Simon thinking, and has he checked his dimpled self in the mirror?

I bring them up here because their most irritating affectations involve the frenetic overparenting of their brat toddlers, Francois and Johann, and their self-satisfied choice of a nanny, a native speaker of French. Simon and Alex are the kind of people who would get all bent out of shape about what I’ve just said, not because I’m picking on Simon’s, um, sartorial blind spot, but because I called the girl a nanny and not an au pair. Au pair sounds so much more enriching than babysitter, doesn’t it? After all, she coos at the babies in French as she trowels jelly off their faces. Mummy and daddy must think they’re doing something positively educational when they steal away from their homemade language immersion camp to torture the staff at several boutiques.

As if class didn’t already permeate all things nanny, you know?

Another of the housewives employs a long-suffering Latina who runs the house with a velvet glove while the mistress, the bosomy Countess LuAnn de Lessep, spends her evenings clubbing. Among other reasons we know the countess is the real McCoy because the whole servant thing gives her no pause whatsoever. The housekeeper arches her eyebrows and appeals to the heavens when the countess ticks off the packing and schlepping yet to be done before her clan can shove off for the Hamptons — and the countess doesn’t so much as blink. In another era, she’d have a fleet of uniformed butlers and nurses in starched aprons and it would never, ever occur to her to apologize for — or to — them.

So much has been written about mothers and nannies in recent years, and so much of it has been so freighted. There’s the scholarly, including Domestica, Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, and Arlie Russell Hochchild’s Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy. There’s the imagined and the snarky, ala The Nanny Diaries, and confessional You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again: The True Adventures of a Hollywood Nanny by Suzanne Hansen.

And most infamously, for my generation of mothers anyhow, there’s Caitlin Flanagan’s To Hell With All That in which she writes of her conflicted relationship with her Honduran nanny, Paloma. The rewrite of an inflammatory essay first published in The Atlantic, Flanagan’s piece attempted to make the case that feminism created an indentured caste — the modern nanny. The argument was more witty than solid, but it still managed to make every working mother of my acquaintance who read its snappy detours feel they’d been stuffed forcibly into a Diaper Genie. I, for one, rejoiced out loud when I read in the New York Times not long ago that the book sold poorly, in part because it made women feel bad.

Still, working outside the home or not, we all know the uniquely bittersweet relationship parents — particularly mothers — have with paid caretakers. Paid vacation days, Social Security, help getting a green card — toss in all of the altruistic gestures you want, one woman is still paying another to do what we, in this climate of intensive mothering, simultaneously regard as both our highest calling and the worst drudgery.

I assumed I would find this circular debate laid out yet again when I picked up Searching for Mary Poppins, an anthology of essays edited by Susan Davis and Gina Hyams. But the first-person tales within are spun by tremendously gifted writers — Joyce Maynard, Daphne Merkin, Anne Burt — who bring fresh perspectives. In “Wildfires,” Ann Hood tells of attending the wedding of the woman who cared for her 5-year-old daughter when the girl died unexpectedly. Andrea Nakayama writes of the uncannily empathic “manny” who helped her and her toddler son say goodbye to her dying husband. In “Mammy Poppins,” Kymberly Pinder talks about wanting a mammy for her biracial child.

These aren’t the ramblings of the privileged, at least not those privileged in the way of Alex McCord and her ilk. Rather they are the wrenchingly honest stories of women who have become painfully aware just how many gradations of privilege there are when it comes to the business of caregiving. At some point, each of the essays touches on the fact that no matter what, nannies and mothers are called on to navigate the near-impossible.

“She washed my lingerie, and she heard me fight with my husband,” writes Susan Cheever, “Yet I had barely met her children or her family and I had never been to her home. The story of our breakup, if I had been in a position to understand it, might have shown me the inherent difficulties in the situation between mothers and babysitters in our society in the 20th and 21st centuries. At the time, I couldn’t acknowledge that I wanted the impossible: a babysitter who would love my daughter as if she were her own, admire me, work for minimum wage, and make sure that my daughter didn’t love her more than she loved me.”

There’s a silver lining to all this, I daresay. With the price of domestic help strapping the middle class, perhaps we’re on the cusp of an era where the once-invisible details of running a household will finally get a dollar value. Don’t you think that would be terrific? Add up the cost of the cooking and the pediatrician runs and remembering to deliver orange juice for the teacher appreciation breakfast and make it part of the balance sheet, both on a policy level and within each overextended family? It’s way past time.  

And while we’re on the topic of policy mandates, here’s one for the labor movement: How about a special strike fund just for people whose nouveau riche bosses drag them on vacation and then bare their cheeks? We could apportion it handsomely just by slapping an excise tax on Cristal.

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.

Missed the baby-mama-drama?
You can torture yourself at Slate, The Atlantic and Ms. Magazine.

 * * *

Searching for Mary Poppins
By Susan Davis and Gina Hyams; Plume 2007

To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife

By Caitlin Flanagan; Little, Brown, and Company, 2006

Domestica, Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence

By Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo;

University of California Press, 2007

Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy

By Barbara Ehrenreich;
Holt Paperbacks, 2004

The Nanny Diaries

By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus;
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2007

You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again

By Suzanne Hansen,
Three Rivers Press, 2006

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