INTERVIEW

'One woman landed a Swedish nanny. She’d crow about it. It was akin to telling cute anecdotes about your weekend place.’

June 4 2007
INTERVIEW

'One woman landed a Swedish nanny. She’d crow about it. It was akin to telling cute anecdotes about your weekend place.’

June 4 2007

'One woman landed a Swedish nanny. She’d crow about it. It was akin to telling cute anecdotes about your weekend place.’

INTERVIEW

LUCY KAYLIN TALKS WITH ANNE KINGSTON ABOUT NANNIES AND RACE, MOTHERS’ DELUSIONS AND BOUNDARIES

Q There’s a cultural fascination with the nanny right now—Nanny 911, The Nanny Diaries, and books like your new The Perfect Stranger: The Truth about Mothers and Nannies, which plumb the complicated, often fraught relationship between a woman and her nanny. What’s going on?

A: A wider stratum of women are turning to the nanny option. Daycare is no longer sufficient for many working mothers: if they work late hours and have business dinners and what not, it isn’t going to be enough. It’s also a hot topic because the mommy wars are raging—there’s more open dialogue now than ever before about the rights and wrongs of going back to work or staying home. So, in that sense, the nanny option is polarizing: hiring a nanny is as much about getting coverage for your kids as it is about planting your flag in one camp versus another. Would that it weren’t the case—I wish mommies would lay down their arms and support each other.

Q: You write about how hiring a nanny forces working women to confront thorny issues of race and class, noting nationalities are “tossed about as casually as paint colours and ice cream flavours.”

A: Yes. So many of us, especially in New York City, consider ourselves good liberals. But it’s shocking how biases are revealed when selecting a nanny. People do ascribe

all sorts of traits to various ethnicities. My nanny, Hy, has talked to me about how Jamaicans do things one way versus the Trinidadians who do things another way, and women from Bermuda doing things another way. We all come from cultures that have mores and attitudes about child-rearing, so it stands to reason, but it still can make you uncomfortable when mothers talk about preferring one race over another.

Q: You describe a status hierarchy where white nannies earn more and salaries drop as women become progressively darker.

A: Yes. White nannies just ask for and get a much higher wage. I write about how one woman who landed a blond, Swedish nanny would just crow about it. It was akin to telling cute anecdotes about your weekend place.

Q: You also explore how many middle-class and upper-middle-class women aren’t comfortable with the notion of servants. They so want to come across as decent and post-colonial they often avoid asking important, tough questions.

A: On one hand, there’s this sense that a nanny has ridden in on a white charger when you were completely overwhelmed, a new working mom who might not know a lot about child care. But there’s an equal level of self-delusion and denial on the part of the mother that shows up in women not knowing the last name of the nanny or not checking their references. There’s such a leap of faith involved that women who are crackerjack in so many other areas of their lives can

be surprisingly guileless and out to lunch. It’s hard for a lot of women to accept the fact that they are bringing someone in to help raise their kids. Not only are you feeling insecure about giving over so much of that important job to someone else, but there’s a lot of fear associated with that-not knowing if this woman is going to be able to keep them out of harm’s way, or is as good and true as you think she is based on very little evidence. Plus there’s discomfort about being a boss and having this woman, who might be from a Third World country, in your home taking care of your kids. It’s really loaded.

Q: A way a lot of women seem to cope is to think of their nannies as friends or even sisters. It’s understandable given the fact you’re bringing in someone to work in an intimate setting who becomes part of the rhythm of your family. But it’s also delusional given that some of these people also bring in nanny cams to spy.

A: I’m absolutely in that camp of mothers who did not want to go the nanny cam route, partly because I felt like I had to accept the decisions that I’d made, and if I felt I had to spy on her from afar then maybe I wasn’t as comfortable as I thought I was with bringing someone in to help me with this big job. You have to make peace within yourself about the choice that you’ve made, and I think part of that is accepting that you’re not best friends and you’re not going to learn everything there is to know about her. I don’t think the centre would hold if there weren’t a certain amount of respectful boundaries

maintained. It’s a grave mistake a mother makes to think that the nanny is there for the fun of it or that she can take anything that you throw at her. Part of the job of these women is to take it smilingly, and I think you have to be checking yourself constantly and saying, “Is this fair?”

Q: You write about “the overscheduled middle and upper classes seeming more at home writing a cheque than taking a crack at the increasingly ancient art of parenting.” One example you give is a nanny who acts as a seat saver at the school concert, waiting for the parents to show up, then disappearing.

A: There are all sorts of examples you hear, like the nanny having to come out to the big house in the Hamptons on the weekend, and the mother who wants to go have lunch with her friends who has her friends bring their kids over and dump them at the house in the guise of a play date—but actually it’s free babysitting for everybody. And if it’s a weekend house situation the nanny is kind of imprisoned there. Where else is she going to go? How is she going to draw the line when she is sometimes having to sleep in a room with the baby?

Q: A paradox that runs through the book is that everyone says there’s nothing more important than raising children, yet we have a system Barbara Ehrenreich has called “the global heart transplant,” where you have women tending much wealthier women’s children while their own children are being cared for by others in another country. So child-care workers in North America become underpaid enablers of the need of American women to achieve equality.

A Absolutely. There are all sorts of geopolitical issues concerning the haves and the have-nots in the First World versus the Third World that if you allow yourself to think about can be deeply troubling, and then you find those kinds of things actually playing out in grassroots ways in your own home. You’re at your office with colleagues and there might be some value in putting in an extra 45 minutes of throwing around ideas or maybe going out for a drink, and in the back of your mind you realize you’ve got this woman at home who can pick up the slack and do the cuddling and do the bathing and do the reading and do the feeding. And you can decide that you’re more an executive today and less a mom. And that’s a slippery slope. There’s the potential for exploiting her, for neglecting your children, for shortchanging yourself as a mother. There’s no end of temptation to let that happen.

And we do have this incredible luxury— which is one way to look at it—of just kind of

giving over all that stuff to this woman who needs to make this wage badly and who is all there for your kids in a way that, truly, maybe you are not.

Q: There’s a definite irony in the fact the working mother’s job always trumps the nanny’s.

A: [Laughs] Yeah, there is.

Q: You write about Hy being offended when you want to pay her overtime, which indicates how mixed up we are about placing a monetary value on caring labour.

A: With Hy we’ve had issues that sometimes make you uncomfortable about having to acknowledge that really, at heart, this is about money. She certainly wouldn’t be with us if we couldn’t pay her. The way I often assuage my anxiety about that is looking at my own work and the fact that I wouldn’t be at Marie Claire if they didn’t pay me, but I have a huge emotional investment in it. So it strikes me as being not necessarily delusional on my part to think that there is a significant emotional component for Hy, even though the primary reason she’s with us is because we pay her a living wage.

Q: What makes the nanny market so much more complicated than other marketplaces— and thus immune to economic theory—is the fact that it’s the children who bear the brunt if it breaks down. It isn’t simply an exchange of labour and money.

A: Yeah, that’s the thing. And my heart really goes out to women who are trying to do both and to have both, who feel so grateful for having been born at a time when it is possible for women to do work they love, but the rubber really meets the road when it’s baby-making time. And no matter what anybody says about men and how much more involved they want to be in the child care, it still falls to the mother to make sure the whole thing is hanging together and that everybody’s functioning well and happy and taken care of.

I think a lot of it has to do with the biological imperative. You are pregnant with that kid and you give birth to that kid and you may well breastfeed that kid and you’re tethered to that kid for at least a few months, and I think that that sets the stage for what’s going to be the primary nature of your relationship with the child. And we’re all aware of that, and we’re all anxious about it. I’ve had it happen countless times when I was the semi-absentee mother or the one that wasn’t quite there for the going on the field trips, or I didn’t quite get all the other mothers’ names straight, and you feel the judgment, you feel the pressure, you feel like you’re letting somebody down.

Q: You call the book “a plea for absolution from the guilt, the fear, the gnawing ambiva-

lence that comes with enlisting the help of a nanny.” Do you think that’s possible?

A: It’s essential that you have basic, inviolable guidelines. A mistake I have seen so many mothers make is they get to that phase where they feel like the nanny might be there for the fun of it, or because she’s so loving and sweet and tender to the children she feels like she’s not going to mind that much if you just sort of show up an hour late or fail to call or you start pushing the limits of what is really appropriate.

You have to ask: is this woman on call for you round-the-clock to do anything that the household needs, or is she taking care of your children?

Q: You end the book on an optimistic note, saying that you feel that your nanny—Hy—will

always be a part of your family. Yet you’re not going to be able to pay her forever, correct?

A: Right. I worked hard on that last line make it as honest as I possibly could. I didn’t want to be Pollyanna or delusional and suggest, “Of course we’re a family forever,” that’s why I said “for now.” I know it all could evaporate when the children don’t need her the way they do now. I’d love it if it could be forever, but God knows I could really use the money that we’re paying her. I also understand that there are a lot of variables and we’ll just sort of have to see what happens. pains me to think about it. M

ON THE WEB: For exclusive audio, video and interview podcasts, visit:

www.macleans.ca/mediaroom