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The Nanny 411: A Review of Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies

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Edited by Susan Davis and Gina Hyams (Hudson Street Press, 2006; $24.95)

I've employed five nannies in seven years.


Often I feel I am in uncharted waters: I was raised in the Midwest with a stay-at-home mother, and the only babysitter I encountered as a child was a neighborhood teenager on a Saturday night a few times a year. We are the first generation of middle-class American women to employ nannies as caregivers while we work outside the home. As editors Susan Davis and Gina Hyams write in the introduction to their anthology, Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies, "When we were growing up in the 1960s and '70s, the only nannies we knew of were English: the storybook characters from worlds so far removed from our own as to be the stuff of fairy tales." The changed reality of raising children in the early 21st century is reflected over and over again in the pages of the book as well as in my own life.

My experiences with nannies began with Ana's arrival in our home shortly after our son was born. With her heart-shaped face, she stewarded me through my early foibles as a mother (I didn't know how to cut my son's fingernails) and as an employer (I didn't know that ten minutes late would soon turn to twenty and then thirty if not handled properly). Alice Elliott Dark perfectly captures being new to the role of mother and employer in "The Long Good Lullaby." Our education and work tend to prepare us to manage those with less experience than us, and it feels odd to give direction to someone with considerably more expertise in the field; Dark describes the hiring process and how she "spent most of the interview selling [the nanny] on us and our son."

After Ana came Vilma. Sturdy and sure of herself, she quickly grew to resent my presence working in our home and then after only three months dumped me. If Pamela Kruger had substituted my name for hers and "Guatemala" for "Jamaica" in her essay, "Dumped," she could have been writing about me and Vilma. I too "discovered first hand that 'going back to the home country' was an infamous exit line among nannies, the equivalent of 'Let's just be friends.'"

Fortunately for us, Vilma's departure ushered in the era of Frances. Frances's tenure represented a kind of Pax Romana in our household. Quiet, efficient and maternal, Frances became my daughter's second mother and mine too. When in "The Other Mother" Anne Burt describes her nanny as "my mother, my therapist, my guru, my heart," I thought of Frances. Two years ago, we moved away from Los Angeles and Frances couldn't join us. A worn photograph of her still hangs taped to the wall next to my daughter's bed.

In New York, our new nanny was the anti-Frances. A young artist from a privileged background, Alyssa delighted the children with her sibling-like energy, games and whimsy. And I, like Kymberly Pinder in her essay, "Mammy Poppins," realized how many racial preconceptions apply to the nanny-mother relationship, as time and again strangers would mistake Alyssa for my children's mother because she was white.

After a year with us, Alyssa returned to college, and we found our current nanny Angelina. Hailing from Venezuela, Angelina bustles around our apartment armed with a cheery smile and broken, but improving, English. Now my daughter twirls about the living room singing "El Elephante" in Spanish.

Each of our nannies has brought her unique personality into our home, and, as a family, we have grown and adapted with each transition. I am thankful to no longer be the mother who drove laps around the block, expecting at every turn to see that Ana was packing her minivan in preparation to abandon or kidnap my infant son. Now, as my youngest child nears school-age and my need for a nanny is almost over, I am probably much like Susan Cheever, who in "The Nanny Conundrum" writes, "Just as I no longer needed help with my children I began to be qualified to employ help."

While I feel heartened by the many commonalities between my life and the lives reflected in the essays, there are also many colorful, vibrant stories included in Searching for Mary Poppins that are unlike anything in my personal experience. Andrea Nakayama beautifully blends the story of her husband's death from a brain tumor with her son's early babyhood when they hired a male nanny. She writes, "It's my feeling that Gilbert's memories of his father are tangled up with Matthew. They are now only sensory memories -- an inner knowing that he was loved, and cherished by the arms of a man in his early life." Daphne Merkin describes a mix of emotions as she recounts both the terror a nanny inflicted upon her as a child and then later having to find a nanny for her own children.

After reading all of the essays, I wished there was a companion book in which the nannies' perspectives were offered to balance the position of privilege from which the mothers in Searching for Mary Poppins write of their experiences. In spite of the editors' protest in the introduction that nannies are no longer the exclusive province of the rich, there remains a whiff of elitism running through these pages in which the mothers' perspectives are painstakingly examined while the nannies' are a matter of conjecture. Despite its one-way examination of the relationship, Searching for Mary Poppins remains palatable primarily because the mothers often address their fortunate position thoughtfully and explicitly. For instance, in her story about discovering that her nanny lied to her about a complicated family situation for months, Elizabeth Graver acknowledges, "Would I lie and withhold to protect my children and create a better life for them? If I needed to badly enough, yes: I think I would lie and withhold. I might have been her; she might have been me."

As with most anthologies, not every selection resonates. There were a few essays that seemed to lack the depth and wisdom that I found in the bulk of the book. Most notably, in "Inflammitis of the Affluentitis," Rebecca Walker writes in a preachy tone of her decision not to hire a nanny for her infant son: "He was going to go from inside my body into the arms of someone I had met only a couple of times? Over my dead body." Her son was only 10 months old at the time she wrote this essay, and I wavered between thinking, "Well, how nice for you" and "Never say never -- 18 years is a long time." Jacquelyn Mitchard, a far more seasoned mother, also writes about deciding not to hire another nanny, but she discusses the decision without resorting to a superior tone: "We aren't as efficient at running the ship. Both of us have lost sleep, and even weight. But we do what we do with abiding commitment. It isn't our job; it is our life."

As a whole, Searching for Mary Poppins manages to give light to the complexity of the nanny-mother relationship, with most of the writers offering beautifully nuanced perspectives. In spite of her mention in the title, none of these essays is a trite, syrupy tribute to a Mary Poppins ideal, nor are the essays littered with caricatures of the psychotic, obsessive nannies of a The Hand That Rocks the Cradle ilk. Instead, writers such as Lauren Slater offer refreshing balance and honesty. Slater writes of having the "great good luck and simultaneous misfortune" of finding a wonderful nanny, whose expertise, a comfort in the beginning, fails to allow Slater to develop into a mother. "I gave my mothering away, and for too long a time. I did it one-eighth out of busyness and seven-eighths out of fear."

Thousands of working mothers will find their feelings, their conflicts, their joys and their worries reflected in the pages of Searching for Mary Poppins. Indeed, just as the editors write in their introduction, "The nanny conundrum raises questions for women that must be addressed -- questions that go beyond money, race, gender, immigration, legality and exploitation into the darkest areas of love and fear that a mother can feel." Any mother who has to, as Melissa Block writes, "outsource some of [her] parenting" will find Searching for Mary Poppins well worth reading.

Rachel Iverson, former poetry editor of Literary Mama, teaches Humanities at a private school in Manhattan. In 2009, she will complete an M.F.A. in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught writing workshops in New York and Los Angeles, and she has studied writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in anthologies, print journals and online magazines, including Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Onthebus, dotmoms, and The Philosophical Mother, among others. She and her husband have a son and a daughter and are looking forward to adding a third child to their family through adoption in the fall of 2009.

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