The Nanny-Mother Relationship (Forbes 18/2/2011)
Who’s Your Mommy? The Secret Struggle Between Mothers And Nannies
Cameron Macdonald spent five years interviewing 34 professional mothers and 50 caregivers of their young children to examine the intricacies of the relationships that take place between two women who share the responsibilities of raising a child.
She calls them—the nannies and au pairs—shadow mothers. The role that working mothers expect from the shadow mothers is paradoxical: form a strong emotional bond with the children while at the same time never, ever threatening the mother’s place. “To be simultaneously present and absent in the children’s lives.”
I spoke with Macdonald this week about her new book, Shadow Mothers, and the women who trusted her with the complex emotional territory of mothering and care-giving. Her take on the plight of the working mother? It’s not her problem alone, it’s the nation’s.
The overwhelming idea of the “perfect mom” and the fraught relationship between mothers and nannies seem a recent phenomenon. Did previous generations have such contentious relationships, or did everyone simply “know their place?”
There have rarely been times in history when middle-class and upper-class American families didn’t have someone helping them with childcare. When we look back at earlier periods of domestic work, either immigrants or slaves in the south, there was very much a separation of roles.
For example, certain aspects of mothering were attached to certain tasks. Historically it was completely acceptable to have wet nurses because that was considered a ‘menial’ part of mothering. The ‘moral’ part of mothering—where the mother felt it was her place to step in–had to do with introducing kids to society and passing on culture and heritage.
One of the crises that we see today is that the day-to-day acts of breastfeeding, diapering and creating activities for toddlers—which used to be things a mother would delegate to someone else– psychologists and developmental experts now tell us are critical to the mother-child connection. If you’re not home with your child doing these things, then you’re depriving your child of something. Namely, you.
Today so much emphasis is placed on the mother-infant bond in forming secure attachments in later life and in later achievement. When you combine that with the fact that the majority of mothers of young children work outside the home– then you have a real tension. Ed note: (66% of mothers with young children work outside the home as of 2009).
A lot of the relationships between mothers and caregivers in the book focus on jealousy over-attachment between the caregiver and the child. When an upset child reaches for a shadow mother over her real mother, what is the mother going through?
The moms went through a range of emotions. There’s a sense for most women that it hurts, that their first impulse was to always want to be the one their baby sought for comfort. That’s understandable.
What they did with that feeling was where mothers differed. Maybe the feeling was ‘I’m a bad mom.’ Or maybe, ‘this is natural for a child with multiple caregivers.’ There was the it hurts but I’m glad that my child has a nanny that she loves response.
On the other hand there was the mom who strategically hired au pairs only on one year contracts which, by default, makes the mother the central attachment in the child’s life. And there was also the one who fired the nanny when the child would reach for her first.
What is the caregiver thinking?
The nannies tended to think that the “who does the child reach for test” was a ridiculous measure of whether that child was attached to the parent. But they also felt that it was part of their job description to make sure that didn’t happen.
And so both mother and caregiver create necessary fictions, both in the way that the job is managed and also managing the appearance of their relationship. They create boundaries around certain “mother-only tasks,” symbolic things like who gives the bath or the use of the word mommy. These were ways of enhancing the image of the mother-child relationship while at the same time lowering the perceived intensity of the image of the nanny child relationships.
On the one hand, you want a caregiver that is going to make your children happy, that they’re going to love. Many mothers say “Yes, my kids love the nanny, they’re so happy to see her when she comes,” and in the same breath say, “but when she leaves it’s no big deal” with no sense of the paradox there.
But I don’t think it’s selfish. Working moms are in a very untenable position. The women I interviewed were not Nanny Diaries mothers. They worked hard at work, they worked hard at parenting and they worked hard at being a good employer. They wanted their children to have a good relationship with their caregiver.
What’s most poignant about the data that I found is that these are not the horror stories. These people have the best intentions, and so the problems stem from outside of their relationships: structural problems of unyielding workplaces, impossible mothering standards that are then expressed in these relationships between mother and caregiver.
Part of the perfect mother ideal of so many upper middle class women, working or not, includes the idea of preparing the perfect child—taking him to French, Tae Kwon Do and robotics classes from an extremely young age. Do you think it’s mother’s guilt that results in over-structuring and outlandishly high expectations of their child?
I do think that the moms, particularly the ones who worked long hours, had a fictionalized image of stay-at-home moms and also an image of what they would do “if they were home.” This went along with class-based assessments of their nanny’s strengths and shortcomings, and her ability to help raise a child who would grow up to be successful.
Part of the mother’s job is the transmission of social class, and mothers often worried that a nanny from a different background couldn’t give their children the strategic benefits that they might if they were home.
The structuring of activities also this idea of maximizing the child’s potential in every way. If the nanny isn’t as social as mom would like her to be, she’s going to have them at art classes or dance classes. And if the nanny’s not as educated, mom’s going to send them to the library or the science museum.
Mothers who had more flexible work arrangements felt less of this need for control, and had more of an understanding and realistic of the expectations of their children. As their nannies said, “The kid’s two. He wants to go to the same park, eat the same food, see the same kids because that’s what toddlers do.”
It seems that the only person in control of such a fraught relationship is the mother. So what is the solution? How can a mother change her behavior and her own sense of self-worth in order to have a healthier relationship with her children’s caregiver?
I think that actually these are public problems and it would be unfair for us to argue for a private, self-help solution. I think that the structure of work needs to be more flexible to allow moms and dads to have the time they need to feel secure in their own parenting. Those parents who felt secure had a much easier time delegating to someone else.
I think we need to lighten up culturally about competitive mothering and the idea of a perfectible child. There’s a lot of debate on how much our brain changes and grows throughout the life course, and how much we grow and change socially and emotionally throughout our lives. And we seem to be at a moment when we target early childhood and infancy. It’s a little unreasonable and it’s creating a tremendous amount of pressure.
With women now making up more than 50% of the workforce, you’d think that both men and women taking time and responsibility for their children would be equally accepted. Yet it seems the opposite is true: when a man takes time out from his workday for parenting, he’s a “good dad” while a woman doing the same is considered a “bad worker.” What do you make of this?
My research looked at college-educated, managerial and professional women. That’s where the double standard is particularly acute. The message to women is that if you want to play with the big boys, you play by our rules.
At the same time feminism has achieved a certain victory in creating a sense that it’s appropriate for men to take some role in their children’s’ lives. This is not to say that dads don’t face a work-family strain. But research on working dads shows that the kinds of care that they do are very different from the kinds of things mom does. If someone has to stay home sick with a kid all day it’s the mom. Sports events, it’s dad.
Mother’s tasks are often unexpected, more time intensive and more frequent—requiring more time away from the office.
There’s so much attention paid to stay-at-home moms as we bolster the idea that mothering is a legitimate full time “job.” But her self-empowerment seems to come at the expense of the working mother, making her feel that she will never be “as good” at home. Or, in many cases, “as good” at work. What psychological state does this leave the mother in?
I think it’s important to emphasize that it’s the idea of the at-home mom that’s so detrimental. Not the at-home moms themselves. It’s class specific too. If you’re a single mom or your partner works in a blue collar job and you need to work, there’s an understanding that it’s tough but acceptable.
For professional women who have invested a lot in education, training and their careers, the comparison to the at-home mom is difficult. They don’t want their child to be deprived because they work. Plus, there is a heightened tension because they’re educated; there’s a feeling that no one else can meet their children’s needs the way they could, and so there’s the desire to stay home.
But we also know from studies on the topic that you can’t just take time off and from a demanding career expect to come back on the same rung of the ladder. It’s unrealistic, and yet that’s what [mothers] worry about all the time.