Moms and Nannies: A Complicated Relationship

Ever since mothers were admitted to the professional classes, as a long line of books tell us, their lot has not been an easy one: they're overworked, stressed and exhausted. What many find to be most difficult is leaving their children—and, unavoidably, asking strangers to care for them. This dilemma has spawned a new crop of books that examine the emotionally fraught relationship working mothers have with nannies, including "The Perfect Stranger: The Truth About Mothers And Nannies" (Bloomsbury, $23.95) by Lucy Kaylin, a mother of two (and yes, executive editor of Marie Claire). In revealing her most intimate feelings about performing the daily tango of child rearing with someone she has to pay, Kaylin describes the absurdities of judging candidates through an interview (and feeling it necessary to reject someone because she habitually touches her face while speaking), her guilt about being a white woman who employs a racial minority (and how pleased she was that her husband shared her disgust that a neighbor advised them to "avoid women from the Islands"—meaning Trinidadians, Grenadians and Jamaicans—because they're "bossy"), and how, if your kid makes a morning entreaty for you to read a book while his hands are still covered in butter from breakfast, you really have no choice but to turn him away in order to protect an expensive skirt for work. NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo spoke with Kaylin to find out about the source of her anxiety. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So what made you write the book?
Lucy Kaylin:
As a journalist and as a writer, I'm always looking for interesting stories to tell and it occurred to me that some of the greatest potential drama is right in my own home, and in the homes of women just like me all over the country. When you've made the decision to hire someone you barely know to come and help you raise your kids, the highs are high and lows are low. I've been blessed to have a really great relationship with the woman who cares for my kids, but it is just an exceedingly tricky thing to navigate.

How so?
It's a fascinating relationship but I feel it also hits at [the] heart of the dilemmas women face today about whether it's a good idea to go back to work, and if you do make that choice, how are you going to do that well and guiltlessly, and in such a way that you feel your kids aren't going to suffer? So it seems that the woman who comes into your home to do that comes to symbolize everything that's great and worrisome and distressing and wonderful about the opportunities we have to live these sort of big, rich lives as career women and mothers.

That's a lot of stuff to load on to one person, don't you think?
It is a lot. It's kind of insane what we ask of nannies. It's everything. It's asking them to keep our children out of harm's way, clean and well-fed, happy, supported, comforted. It's also asking them to do all that without making us feel shunted aside and undermined. That's one of the more delicate parts of the job that only the very best nannies master. So much of their job, frankly, is the care and feeding of the mother.

According to the U.S. Census, 75 percent of women with school-aged children are employed or looking for work. Why do you think there's so much hand-wringing about being a working mom when in fact, most women work?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that women still bear the brunt of the child-rearing responsibilities. It's really the mother who is looking to supplement herself and almost replace herself when she hires a nanny and heads out to work. There's no sense in which this woman is coming in to, you know, kind of [fill in for] the father. And that's really tricky [and] difficult. And I seriously feel that if a child does well or poorly in life, people are going to first look to the mother and the choices she made.

So isn't this problem more about your feelings about being judged as opposed to a universal discomfort with nannies?
No, I think society really holds women up to a very high standard when it comes to mothering. This really isn't just about me and my feelings. It's really about what society has decided is right. Maybe you're right saying that all that's at stake here is you're feeling judged by society. But we live in society, and that's part of what creates terrible pressure for women when they're trying to do this juggle. When you're in a school situation, particularly preschool and there are nonworking mothers and working mothers, there can be a fair amount of conflict about who's doing their part, who's pitching in with the school.

That's the whole "mommy wars" thing, and I have to be honest, I totally can't stand the mommy wars. I have a 2 year old and yes, sometimes it's hard to leave your kid. Yes, sometimes the demands of work and home can be maddening. And definitely, it can be awkward to employ someone in the same place where you pile your dirty clothes. But at the same time, I'm really not sure it's healthy to obsess about what's hard about my life as compared to all the single working moms who are only making minimum wage.
Well of course. And I agree with you. I just wish so much women would lay down their arms in these so-called mommy wars and support each other. The fact of the matter is there's all sorts of great ways to be a mother, be a working mother, to do whatever it is you want to do. I've been just so gratified by the help I've gotten from stay-at-home moms who know more than I do about what's going on at the school. They've got my back and they help me out. And then there are things I can do for them in terms of inviting their kids to a premiere I got invited to because of my job.

You wrote that the book is "at its most elemental, a plea for absolution from the guilt, the fear, the gnawing ambivalence that comes with enlisting the help of a nanny." You really sound torn up. What makes you think your experience is applicable to other women?
It's on the minds of women. It's not a nonissue. This is not something that's done casually or without looking back. It's a difficult situation. I feel blessed that I'm able to work it out, but it's not easy. And it's not without its low moments and concerns on my part about whether or not I've made the best choices.

I just think it must be so hard to live with that kind of gnawing ambivalence.
That's so much what my book is about. What I want to do in the book was work through a lot of stuff I think creates the problems, the sense of ambivalence, and be with moms on it and help them get past it. I think a lot of women bear this burden alone. If there's a glass of wine present and someone brings up the topic, women just go for it. They're pent up about it. You're not supposed to complain about your children or the fact that you're lucky enough to live in America in 2007 and have some options. You're not supposed to wring your hands about it. There are these great moments between women when these seemingly taboo subjects come up and the relief we feel that other people are having trouble too and we can sort of relate to each other. Because again it's not an easy thing we're trying to pull off. It's the rare mother who has completely adjusted herself to what her life is. …You're trying to live a double life. And it's difficult.

I'm well aware that on a regular basis, someone is wondering where I am, wondering why I'm late, wondering why I left early, hoping that I'm focused on their needs, whether that person is my boss or one of my kids.

You write that we're living in a "curious era in which women are demonstrably freer and better equipped than ever to design their lives to their exact specifications," yet they find themselves "stymied" and "self-doubting." Why do you think that is?
For all these things we're talking about. The things that we come up with as solutions don't necessarily solve everything. I could completely wipe clean any concerns that I might have about putting my kids in the care of someone else if I just stayed at home. Well that isn't a solution because I would feel thwarted and I would feel angry that I couldn't do some fun, creative work in an office somewhere. Or conversely, I could have avoided this whole issue by not having kids and just be a career woman for the next 30 years. But that wouldn't be a solution either because I want to have kids, I want to have a family. I think attempting the juggle and attempting to have these two very demanding roles requires a lot of deftly executed, constant adjustments and compromises. And again, accepting that none of it is going to be perfect.

Come on, you didn't really think it could be perfect, did you?
My kids are 9 and 6, and I'm actually getting to [the] point now where I'm surprised by how good it is, how close to perfect you can make it. That said, my life is full of nutty imperfections. But to quote the great Wallace Stegner title, "Crossing to Safety," the really hard time for me was the early years when I was a wobbly new mom and all the issues reared up in completely unanticipated ways. The preschool years are very hard because that's a time when if you're a nonworking mom, a stay-at-home mom, you're very welcome in most preschools to pitch in and bring cookies and read to the kids and do projects. And that's where it's pretty stark—who is 100 percent there for kids and who isn't.

When my kids got into full-time school, when they got into third grade and kindergarten respectively, it was a lot easier for me because parents aren't supposed to be hanging around the school. Suddenly my kids have a life and they've got a day and they have playdates and activities. It all makes sense to me now. When they're tiny, you're the center of their universe, or they'd like you to be if you'd allow it, if you'd be home. And that's hard. It's hard to not be there for them.