By Blaire Briody

“Perfect Stranger”: The Truth About Mothers and Nannies


   Lucy Kaylin, executive editor of Marie Claire, and author of For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun, has just published a new book, The Perfect Stranger: The Truth About Mothers and Nannies (Bloomsbury USA). Here Kaylin tells Big Apple Parent about the delicate relationship between a mom and her nanny, why some moms just aren't cut out to stay home all day, and why the magic of Mary Poppins does exist. 


Why did you want to write this book? Haven't nannies been written about before? What makes your book different?

   I wanted to write the book partially for personal reasons because our relationship with our nanny is so essential to our lives. When it's going well, everything in your life is possible, and when it's not, your life threatens to drop out. It's such a delicate relationship and there are so many personal issues involved on both sides.


You have a 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Did you ever see yourself having a nanny before you decided to have kids?

   I hadn't really thought about it much. Daycare seemed to be an option, but if you have a really busy job like I do, and you're going to have a lot of late nights, then daycare really isn't an option. You need some flexible coverage, and I liked the idea of someone coming into the home when my children were babies. I didn't want anyone else being the mother, but I wanted my kids to have as close to that experience as possible.


Many women you interviewed said they were scared of their children loving the nanny too much and identifying them as the parent. How can moms avoid this trap?

   The most important thing is that if you're a mother who's going to make this decision, you have to own it. You have to walk the walk. You can't be hemming and hawing, or worrying about how much they're going to love the nanny. You've asked this woman to come onboard to do a really big job that has a deeply emotional component to it. If you're going to be insecure about that, then you have no business hiring a nanny. The reality is that if your children love the nanny, and maybe even call her "mom" when they're young, as hard as that seems, that means that things are going according to plan. It's important they are able to bond with her to that degree.


Do you ever regret not staying home? Do you wonder what it would have been like if you had?

   From time to time, I certainly think about what it would've been like. When my friends who don't work talk about picking their children up at school and having a lazy afternoon with them, of course I feel a pang. But I'm well aware that I'm not necessarily cut out to be a stay-at-home mom. I don't think my skill set as a person lends itself beautifully to spending every hour with my kids. I don't feel I have that kind of creativity and energy. It doesn't mean that I don't love them incredibly and have wonderful times with them, but I don't think I would bring as much to it as some stay-at-home moms do.


Why do you think nannying has never had the professional status in this country the way it does in the UK?  Why is nannying a profession there, and a low-paid, low-echelon job here?

   It is partly because we just don't have that sense of class system that is so entrenched in the UK. It's nothing that's balked at or questioned; it's just always been a very stratified society. Here, I and some of the moms I know, are racked with liberal guilt. This doesn't come naturally to us. To be essentially ordering someone around in our own homes — it's nothing we ever pictured for ourselves, and we try to do it with as much respect and care as we can. But at the end of the day that's what it is — we're the boss and they're the employee.


You wrote at one point that parenting has become a taboo topic among moms. Was it hard for you to break down barriers and write about such a personal topic?

   It was more cathartic than difficult to write about. It was really nice to have a forum to talk about these things. The harder part was difference of opinion in chatting with friends before I wrote the book. When it becomes clear to friends that you're on either side of an issue, it can be extremely divisive and volatile, because we're all aware that women parent differently.  And when there is a sense of judgment or disapproval, that's hard.


Let's talk about another taboo topic: race. The majority of nannies are immigrants or of a different race. Do you think it helps mothers create a distance between them and the nanny, a sense of "otherness"?

   The ethnic differences between moms and nannies is a very difficult part of the relationship. A lot of women, particularly on the Upper West Side where I live, are very concerned about being exploitive or appearing exploitive, so I feel like that is the elephant in the room. We're well aware that the women caring for our kids probably come from far more compromised circumstances. We come together in this relationship from extremely different places and have been dealt very different cards. As nice as everyone can be with each other, that fact is stark.


How can moms help the situation if they're supporting it?

   That's such a tricky one, because on one level there's that sense of, "Well, we need the help and she needs the job," so it's a marriage of mutual need. But it's a really fine line between that and exploitive circumstances. A situation where a nanny is fighting to get by on a low-paying job so you can go out and be a six-figure world leader somewhere— that's a hard thing to feel OK about. What can help is obviously treating the nanny as fairly as possible — paying her a decent wage, giving her a bonus at the end of the year, giving her time off. When we're talking about the care of our children and managing our own chaotic lives, it's very easy to get selfish and assume that this woman is here to make your life happen. We have to try and care about their lives as much as they care about ours.


There seem to be so many nannies in fiction, and of course they're all white. Did this give any preconceived ideas of who your nanny would be before you hired her?

   I think you have a lot of fantasies of what it's going to be like. There definitely was that Mary Poppins sense at the beginning — that she's magical and sprinkling fairy dust around the apartment every time she comes and goes. Some of that is because there are some amazingly great nannies out there, but it's also because we're so desperate to believe it's true. Early on, we're so desperate for the help, and clueless about what we've gotten ourselves into.  When this efficient, smiling, capable, experienced person who doesn't have any of the mixed emotions that we do swoops in, it is miraculous.


One really interesting point you raise in the book is the idea of extracting nannies from third-world countries like agriculture and industrial labor, whom you are basically paying to love and nurture your children, thus extracting love as a commodity. How do you feel about this? It seems pretty disturbing when put in these terms.

   I think that might be a Barbara Ehrenreich quote. There are some feminist writers, beacons of wisdom and sanity out there, who remind us in their writing that there is something tricky, if not unsavory, about this. You're sort of in fear of that next Barbara Ehrenreich track, which makes you realize that this isn't just about you taking care of your own little family, but that you're caught up in a system. You're contributing to and participating in a dynamic of vast sociocultural proportions that may be exploitive. That's a terrible thing to realize, but good that we're reminded of it.


There's a small backlash going on: increasingly, women are opting to be stay-at-home moms. Why do you think this is happening?

   I feel like the pendulum swings back and forth on this, decade by decade. There was obviously a time when women were so disgusted by the narrowness of their lot in life that it became all about rejecting becoming mothers at all. Then of course it swings back to being a stay-at-home mom who has to breastfeed, which becomes the be-all and end-all of mothering. It does go back and forth, and I think every generation is reacting to the one before it.


Do you think women are better or worse off today in regards to motherhood, compared to say, the 1950s?

   In some sense, women are better off because they have more options and more power. It's so obvious in every industry just how much women are in the forefront. As long as that's the case, women are going to have more say in how things go. That said, I'm astonished at how ambivalent women still are. When I was writing this book, there seemed to be a sense in which not a lot has been solved. It's not as though working mothers are any more peaceful about the choices they've made, compared to working mothers a few decades ago. There's still second-guessing, self-loathing and worry. It's not as if society has risen up and said, "Look, don't worry about it, you're doing fine. You have as much right as your husband to pursue your own interests and have your fortune out in the world." It still falls to the mother to make sure things are OK at home.


What about the nanny horror stories? There was the New York Times Magazine story in January about the perfect nanny who became a convicted criminal. You also talked about women spying on their nannies with nanny cams. How paranoid were you about something like that happening?

   I wasn't that paranoid. I really trusted my gut when I met our nanny. If I felt I had to spy on her using a nanny cam, then I really had no business hiring her. You kind of have to walk the walk eventually. You have to have some faith in the person that you hire, and in yourself. What I say to the horror stories is that there are dishonest and bad people in every field, and I am astonished at the level of perfection mothers try to hold their nannies to. I understand why they do that — we're talking about their children, the most precious things in their lives — but who among us is a 100 percent perfect employee? Who does their job impeccably every day?


In your opinion, how much should a mother sacrifice for her children?

   Well, certainly I think you should give everything you've got to your children, that goes without saying. But I don't know if a child benefits from you being insanely self-sacrificing. Children certainly know if their parents are unhappy or unfulfilled. I also don't know if it's so great for a kid to feel their mother's life revolves around them. We all know they are eventually not going to need her so much, and some day, they're going to leave home. It's been my feeling that my children get a kick out of me being a plugged-in, happy, engaged, energetic mother, and I don't think it would be a better situation if I were there waiting for them to come home.


How has having a nanny changed you? Has it made you a better parent? Would you recommend it to other mothers?

   I think it's a great option if you care about the working side of your life. If you have a busy career, you need solid coverage for your kids. If you hire well, take good care of that relationship, are respectful and don't take advantage, it's a wonderful thing. I couldn't do my life any other way.


Did you have a nanny look after your kids while you worked on this book?

   Well, I worked on this book mostly at home, usually when my kids were asleep. But the irony of it all wasn't lost on me. There were certainly times when I was pouring my heart out on the computer about how hard it is to keep it all together, when the thing keeping me from my kids from that moment was…pouring my heart out about keeping it together. But, this was something I really needed to do.