MEGAN NICOL REED
Inside out: Nannies are never family and never more so than in the movie The Help.
The bittersweetness of bringing up someone else’s child.
One of those blonde goddesses from one of those Nordic countries, says my husband. A strong cross-country skier. Rollmops for breakfast. Or someone from somewhere exotic. Vietnam or Thailand maybe. Great noodles. You know, good with the kids.
Over my dead body, I think. Undoubtedly they have their attractions. But jealousy would keep me from ever employing the services of an au pair. Not of her sleek, golden Scandinavian limbs, nor her shiny, straight Asian hair. Not even for fear of my husband losing his way in the dark en-route from master bedroom to bathroom. No, because I would have to share my children’s affections with another woman, a younger, fun-ner woman than me.
I have been that younger, fun-ner woman. As a nanny to a family of three children under five in France, I would bake loaves of banana bread while dancing on repeat play to Sebastian: Party Gras! (a collection of reggae classics sung by the crab from Disney’s The Little Mermaid).We constructed obstacle courses in the backyard and went hunting for fairies in the forest behind the house. We packed sugar lump and monkey apple picnics for the ponies at the end of the street and made collages from leaves we’d foraged for.
The sleepy smell of the roly-poly toddler when he woke from his afternoon nap; the tiny, determined fingers of the middle child as she endlessly styled my hair; the unbridled curiosity of the oldest, his hand still seeking out mine around strangers.
I was a better nanny to those children than I am a mother to my own. Entertaining them was what I was there for. I was not distracted by lists to be made, bills to be paid, or emails to be sent. And at day’s end I got to go home.
I would have done anything for them. I thought myself part of the family.
Until one terrible weekend. Left in sole charge, I sent the girl to time-out when she wouldn’t help tidy up. She retaliated, getting into the medicine cabinet and feeding pills to her little brother. When bad things happen to a child whom you love and are responsible for, yet who is not your own, it is quite possibly the worst feeling in the world. Worry for them entangled with a rapacious guilt, underlaid by a self-preservatory need to protect your own back.
I held him while they forced a tube down his throat, tried to answer the medical staff’s endless questions and filled in countless forms. When the parents got there, the mother would not look at me, nor talk to me. Except to ask me to please leave. I was, I suddenly understood with a brutal clarity, no more a part of that family than the cleaner.
It all came flooding back last week when I went to see The Help, a film based on a book, set in the southern states of America in the early 60s, where a segregated society is strangulating in its own stink. The message, undoubtedly, is racism’s bad. For everyone. Naturally so for the “coloureds” living on Struggle Street. But for the whites too, reaping the benefits on the surface, poisoning themselves with their petty prejudices below.
I was particularly caught, though, by the relationship between nanny, charge and mother. What is it like, asks the young reporter writing a book about the lot of a black maid, bringing up a white child while someone else looks after yours? Aibileen, a middle-aged black woman raising her 17th white child, doesn’t answer. Had she, her answer would surely have been, “Pretty crap, actually”.
“You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” Aibileen makes the little blonde girl, unloved by her own mother, repeat these words after her at least once a day. Her employer may make her defecate in an outside toilet and talk about her as if she is not in the room, but boy, does Aibileen love that child.
In other parts of the developed world, nannies are a given. It’s not so much the case here or in Australia, where a recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald concluded that nannies are vital if women are to ever fully climb the corporate ladder. It’s true. If both parents work fulltime in full-on jobs without prescribed start and finish times, sanity lies only in a nanny. Someone to pick up the slack, to run the household. My few friends with nannies would be lost without them – as long as they don’t dwell too long on the days they are at their desk while another woman plays with their child in the thin September sun.
Knowing you are leaving your child with another who loves them is a blessing to a working mother. But love and trust mixed up with money and power will always make for an uneasy contract.