MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.
Once upon a time, nannies belonged only to the world of the rich. To the rest of us they may have appeared as characters in children's books like Mary Poppins, but that's changed in recent years as more and more women have begun to work outside the home.
It is the irreducible dilemma. When mom works, who takes cares of the kids? Increasingly that person is the nanny. With the rise of television shows like Fox's Nanny 911 and ABC's Supernanny the idea of a nanny may be more common, but the reality of having another person, generally a woman, in your home everyday to take care of the most precious being in your life, well, that reality may not be so well understood. As many women find out, it can be one of the most complicated emotional relationships there is.
A new book, Searching for Mary Poppins, explores this relationship through the narratives of 25 mothers. Their stories capture many of the sensitive aspects of the mother-nanny relationship - the emotion of handing a child over to a stranger, the guilt, the economics.
We'll talk with one of the editors and two of the mothers who wrote about their experiences with nannies, and we want to hear from you. Are you a nanny, or have you ever been one? Have you ever hired a nanny, or were you raised by a nanny? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later in the program, a media report says U.S. intelligence agencies share a consensus that the Iraq war actually increased the terrorist threat. We'll turn to an intelligence expert for his view.
But first, searching for Mary Poppins. Joining us now is Anne Burt, senior public affairs officer for arts and culture at Columbia University. She joins us from NPR's New York bureau. Welcome, Anne.
Ms. ANNE BURT (Senior Public Affairs Officer for Arts and Culture, Columbia University): Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: Your entry in the book is called The Other Mother, fittingly enough, and your story begins when your nanny quit. But your reaction, I think it's fair to say, was not the one people would have when, say, their plumber quits. So why don't you pick up the story from there. Tell us what happened.
Ms. BURT: Well, when I started out hiring a nanny, it was very part-time. My daughter was six months old. I was returning to work part-time. And I didn't even think of her as a nanny. I thought nannies were for much fancier people than me. I thought here's a babysitter. This is going to work out. It's going to be great, just like so many other people.
Then, when my daughter was three, as happens with so many people, my life circumstances drastically changed. My marriage fell apart. I went from having to work part-time, taking care of my daughter, to selling my house, moving into an apartment, leaving that apartment, moving to another apartment, having to go back to work full-time, and not having another parent locally to help with the burden of childcare.
So I turned from having a very, very part-time childcare person to relying on my nanny all the time. And I relied on her for much more than just childcare, although that was the piece of the puzzle that had to happen for me to leave the house everyday. I needed her to be something constant in my daughter's life. So much had changed - my daughter was three years old - and I needed her so desperately to be another parent because I couldn't be all of the parents that I wanted to be. I couldn't be the at-home parent. I couldn't be the provider parent. So when my nanny willingly stepped up her hours, I was relieved and happy because I knew my daughter would be okay.
Then several months later, one day when I was waiting for my nanny to arrive, I got a phone call. It was my nanny's daughter and she said to me, my mother is not coming back to work.
MARTIN: Just like that.
Ms. BURT: Just like that. And she had good reasons. I mean if I was an employee, okay, I wouldn't quit that way, but what it showed me was this wasn't just an employee. And her reasons were she was a grandmother and a mother, and she had never intended to work full-time. That wasn't our agreement originally. She wanted to take care of her grandchildren. She had other things that she needed to do.
What shocked me was my reaction. It wasn't just about scrambling to find other childcare, which I did and which I could, and it wasn't just about my daughter's needs because she's remarkably flexible as many little children are, and she had a lot of love in her life and lot of security, and she was okay.
I was a mess. I was crying for days. There were weeks when I couldn't even think about her without bursting into tears. And I started doing really inappropriate things an employer shouldn't do. I started calling her, leaving messages that were not returned on her phone. I mean I wouldn't go so far as to say as I stalked her...
MARTIN: No, I think you were.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Oh, I think you may have been stalking her.
Ms. BURT: Okay, fair enough, fair enough.
MARTIN: Let's see. Well, did you circle by her house?
Ms. BURT: No, that I did not do.
MARTIN: Okay, well, I see. Okay.
Ms. BURT: That I didn't do. It was just on the phone. But I was really amazed at how emotional my relationship with her had become.
MARTIN: Was that the moment that you realized how emotional your relationship had become...
Ms. BURT: Yes.
MARTIN: ...when it ended?
Ms. BURT: Yes, exactly. Because when she was there, I could count on her as - like I said, she felt like part of a puzzle. And with so many people, when you have children and you're working, it's like a puzzle to solve, other than the love and emotion part. You know, when you've been working for so many years, you know how to solve puzzles. You know how to make things work, but this is more than that. This was somebody who was in my home and loving my child, and what I realized was this was not an employer-employee relationship. This was more for me. But for her it didn't have to be and it shouldn't be. It was all for me. It was my problem, really.
Now I had another side of the story, which was several months later. After the occasional inappropriate phone call from me...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BURT: ...my doorbell rang, and I happened to be home. And my former nanny was there after several months. And she came back in and she said, please don't ask me any questions. I want to come back. I want to help you. How can I help you?
Now if I was an employer in a business, I would have said, thank you very much. You were a wonderful employee at the time. Good luck, and let's all move forward. But I'm not. This was my kid. This was my home. And there was nothing rational about it. I said, I'm so glad you're here. And she didn't come back as much full-time - and by then I'd made other arrangements - but she was at least back partially in my daughter's life, and I thanked her for it, and I still thank her for it. I see her very, very occasionally now.
But what it taught me too was when I was very involved with her it wasn't just that she was another mother, as I said in my title, to my daughter. I think she was playing a role of another mother to me, and she helped me get through what I needed to get through with my divorce and with going back to work full-time and trying to take care of my daughter. In a way, when she left I had to really become the grownup in my own family.
MARTIN: That's a - but doesn't that - I don't know. I'm not a psychologist. I'm certainly not qualified, but I just wonder whether her leaving replicated the earlier leave-taking that you had already experienced. Maybe that was just - it was like another person with whom you had a shared bond that involved your daughter walking out the door.
Ms. BURT: Absolutely. And it was in a way easier I think for me to fall apart when the nanny left than it was when my marriage broke up. Because when my marriage broke up, I had to be on the ball. I had to be on the ball because I had a three-year-old daughter and she came first. So I had to take care of her, not just physically but I had to take care of her emotionally, and I had to make everything work.
With the nanny, I think because it caught me off guard and there weren't all kinds of psychology books out there like there are for divorce about how you deal with a child who's nanny leaves, I was taken aback and it really threw me for a loop.
MARTIN: I want to bring the editor into the conversation. But before I do, you are very tough on yourself in this piece and pretty - to the degree that anyone can judge from the outside - pretty raw in what you described. Was it - did you hesitate to be so open about your experience? I mean because you put it all out there, you know, the fact that you just kind of collapsed in this puddle on the floor, the fact that you were calling the lady up. I wondered if you hesitated to be so open about your reaction in this piece.
Ms. BURT: I felt like it - I felt that it was important to be so open and that the format of this book, which is personal essays, was an opportunity to be open. And the reason I thought it was important is because nobody talks about the emotional relationship between a nanny and a mother. And if I couldn't talk about it, then other women who are having these feelings maybe wouldn't have the opportunity to say, okay, I'm not crazy. This is really real. This is a real emotional experience. And being a writer, I had an opportunity to do that.
MARTIN: Let's bring Susan Davis into the conversation. She's the co-editor of the new book, Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies, as we've just heard. She is also senior producer of the show The State of Things at North Carolina Public Radio. She joins us from member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. Welcome, Susan.
Ms. SUSAN DAVIS (Co-editor, Searching for Mary Poppins): Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for the book. It's a very provocative piece. How did it come about?
Ms. DAVIS: It came about in a couple of ways. One is that I was working in Washington, D.C., and I had a colleague who had three children and a nanny. My daughter was in daycare at the time. I was grateful she - I had had a nanny in my employ for two years.
And my colleague, everyday I would listen to her. We shared an office. And the machinations she went through in terms of relating to her nanny - keeping her nanny happy, keeping her nanny employed, keeping herself happy in terms of her nanny - were so complicated and so fraught. And frankly, she talked about her nanny about eight times more than she talked about her husband. And I thought, wow, that's a very important and complicated relationship and there isn't a public dialogue about it. That's one way that it came about.
And the other way that it came about is that working motherhood - I'm 41 years old. I'm a working mother. A lot of my friends are close to my age and are working mothers. There's not a conversation about how emotionally complicated it is, how the choices you make matter and how many relationships you engage in with people other than your husband and your children to make your working motherhood work, like nannies.
And Gina and I both had had nanny experiences, were both working mothers. We work in offices with other people. We, you know, have schedules and clocks and things like that to meet. Our nannies mattered to us getting our jobs done. And we wanted to put together a kind of collection that gave both an inside look into this relationship and, frankly, a broad view on motherhood and further the conversation about working motherhood.
Working motherhood to me is one of the unfinished or unsolved problems of feminism. It's part of the unfinished work of feminism, that Betty Friedan has lived and died, and my working motherhood isn't actually any easier for me than my own mother's working motherhood.
MARTIN: Susan, I'm sorry. We need to take a break...
Ms. DAVIS: Yes.
MARTIN: ...because we need to say goodbye to Anne in a minute.
Ms. DAVIS: Okay.
MARTIN: So, Anne, just very briefly I wanted to ask you, given what your experience was with Tessa(ph), who was your nanny, what did you do differently the next time you were hiring. Very briefly, if you would.
Ms. BURT: I put a lot less emotional weight into the relationship, and I honestly didn't need to have as much because my daughter then was older and she started school. And then things became easier. And then we needed to pick up little bits and pieces, but I didn't need somebody in my home being essentially a substitute me anymore, so that did help. Kids do grow up and that does help.
MARTIN: So you all kind of grew up it sounds. Thanks, Anne.
Ms. BURT: Thank you.
MARTIN: Anne Burt is the senior public affairs officer at Columbia University and editor of My Father Married Your Mother. She joined us from our bureau in New York. We'll talk more about the mother-nanny relationship when we come back. Give us a call, or you can send us e-mail.
I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin, in Washington.
We're talking with Susan Davis. She co-edited the new book, Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies. There's an excerpt from the book on our Web site where a young woman writes about the difficult choices surrounding race and choosing a nanny. And you can find links to childcare resources. That's at npr.org.
You're invited to join the discussion. Are you a nanny? Have you ever hired a nanny? Tell us your story. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Susan, do you mind if I say that there's no voice of the nanny in the book. Did you consider...
Ms. DAVIS: No, no, that's the truth.
Ms. DAVIS: We did. Actually Gina and I talked a lot about that, and we did some research. And there are actually some very good books, some very good studies. There's a book by Barbara Ehrenreich about women, particularly in the global economy, women working in domestic capacities I think is what she calls it. There are quite a few books, good books, about nannies and the voice of nannies.
Gina and I wanted to put something together in the voice of the mothers. That's who we were. That's what interested us. That's what we felt we could do. We wanted to reach out to writers who were working mothers who could express this well and in a way that could matter to other people. We were conscious that we weren't including nannies, but we didn't attempt to cover that ground at all.
MARTIN: Let's go to a caller. Let's go to Doug in Alaska. And, Susan, thank you for being honest about that, about why, because I was curious.
Ms. DAVIS: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Doug, in Alaska.
DOUG (Caller): Yeah, hi.
DOUG: How you doing?
MARTIN: What's your experience with this issue?
DOUG: Well, I just wanted to say that both my brother and I were raised by a woman that we referred to as Aunt Bertie(ph) for most of my young life, on and off. And, you know, were it not for her and someone my mom could count on day in and day out, you know, she wouldn't have been able to have continued with her career as successfully as she did. And we certainly put her through the paces as, you know, two young boys growing up, but we had a lot of respect for her and she's still a part of our family. And, you know, all of her kids that she had my brother and I were, you know, friends with and spent time with her family too. So it was, yeah, a very positive, you know, experience.
MARTIN: And when you say that you were raised by Aunt Bertie...
MARTIN: ...if your mother were to hear you say that...
DOUG: Yeah, well...
MARTIN: ...how would she feel?
DOUG: Well, I think she would think that's kind of an accurate, you know, assessment. Like I said, she was there day in and day out until, you know, 5:30, whatever, when my folks would come home. And she certainly - she didn't necessarily - wasn't disciplinarian, but, you know, she had established pretty firm, you know, guidelines on how we were to behave. And we forced her into early retirement a couple of times. But, yeah, I mean more or less - obviously my mother and father, you know, raised us as their children, but, you know, she was a big influence in our upbringing for sure.
MARTIN: What's your situation now, if you don't mind my asking you? Do you have children?
DOUG: Nope. Dogs; got a couple of dogs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Okay, and if you plan to have children in the future, have you thought about what your arrangements will be?
DOUG: No, not necessarily. I know I can speak sort of for my brother's experiences. They live in the D.C. area and have two young kids. And his wife had chosen to stay at home and to leave her career and raise the kids at home. And I don't know what their decision process was in that matter, but it doesn't seemed to have, you know, negatively affected them as far as her leaving her career. (Unintelligible)
Ms. DAVIS: Michel?
MARTIN: So it was a good experience for you. Okay, Doug, thank you so much for calling. I appreciate it.
DOUG: No problem, thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you. Susan?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, yes, what I wanted to say is that their - Doug's call gets to two things that I'm hoping the book does. One is - and I know it's a terrible cliché - but re-raise this idea of it taking a village to raise children. And two, try to open up the idea of what is not just a mother but what's a good mother?
The book opens with an essay by a novelist named Marisa De Los Santos. And one of the things she talks about is how - her essay's called The Natural - and she talks about the fact that her kids, like all kids, are really good at spotting a fake and that there are these games, pretend games, she'll try to play with them, and they're always saying, oh, it's okay, mommy. You don't have to keep trying.
And Marisa's nanny is genius at this. She's a genius at playing these sort of pretend games and that part of Marisa's good mothering is knowing to put her children in the room with that woman who's loving and Marisa trusts, but also who's good at some things that Marisa's not good at.
MARTIN: Doesn't do.
Ms. DAVIS: Right.
MARTIN: But then there's the issue that Anne talked about, which I'd like to spend a little bit more time on...
Ms. DAVIS: Sure.
MARTIN: ...is the idea of the nanny as the co-parent...
Ms. DAVIS: Right.
MARTIN: ...and she was comfortable with it, until she wasn't.
Ms. DAVIS: Right.
MARTIN: And then she was traumatized, I think is not a too strong of a word to say, to find out how dependent she had become on this woman who sounded like she was a very generous and caring person, but...
Ms. DAVIS: That actually...
MARTIN: In your book, though, did you find - was that kind of the third rail of the issue. You know, what's the line between welcoming this person into your life and how much emotional connection are you willing to tolerate your child having with another person?
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, that's the deep issue. The deep, deep issue is for mothers, what are they good at? What do they enjoy? What do they have to do anyway? What should they feel bad about enjoying? You know, there are times - and personally now, my daughter's in the first grade, my son's in preschool. The mornings are this chaotic, like lunches getting made and shoes getting putting on, and my son everyday wants to take a different CD to school to share with his friends. And when I drop them off and I get in my car to drive to this radio station, I sometimes think, oh, thank God I get to go to work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Because that's hard.
Ms. DAVIS: It's, you know, it's a little easier than the mornings some days.
MARTIN: Why do you think Americans are having such a hard time with this issue?
Ms. DAVIS: Because I think we have a narrow view of what good mothering is, and a good mothers likes all of it. She likes finger-painting and she likes bathing and she likes cooking and she likes not having possibly an adult conversation for 14 hours straight, something like that. I think it's because in America there's one or two ways to be a good mother and every other way is a wrong way.
There's that. There's also the problem that we don't have the extended family that we used to have around us. When Anne's marriage came apart, I know from talking to Anne and working with her on the book that she has great, loving parents, but I know they're in Connecticut. I know she lives in New Jersey. I know they couldn't come to help her. I think part of what happens is that we have to pay people to be that extended family, and that's unseemly. Nobody wants to talk about that.
MARTIN: And the other emotion that you talk about in this - well, there are several tripwires that you address in the book. One of the tripwires is the emotion, you know, how can I leave my child with this person? The other tripwire is race. And to talk about that let's bring in our next guest.
Kymberly Pinder is an associate professor of art history at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the editor of Race-ing Art History: Critical Essays in Race and Art History. She joins us from member station WFMT in Chicago. Welcome, Kymberly.
Professor KYMBERLY PINDER (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago): Hi, how are you?
MARTIN: Good. Now here's what's interesting about your story is that obviously - and I think anyone who's lived in a large urban area would know this - many nannies traditionally have been women of color and often their charges are white, and you flipped the script. In your essay, Mammy Poppins, you described - well, why don't you just tell us what happened.
Prof. PINDER: Well, that essay - when I was approached to write about a nanny, I immediately thought, well, I did have this very strange experience that wasn't very typical, so I kind of rose to the occasion. And why mine isn't very typical is because I'm an African-American woman and I wanted to hire a nanny of color, but it ended up that I hired a Georgian woman. She's Eastern European. And so I had an immigrant nanny who was from an Eastern block country, and so therefore she was white.
And so my essay kind of explores what that was like in terms of in public having a white nanny and being a black woman, as well as how I began to over-think it and be very sort of introspective about why I was a little disappointed that I had to have a white nanny when I was trying to find one and what that meant to me and my family...
MARTIN: Why were you disappointed?
Prof. PINDER: ...and ideas of race.
MARTIN: Why were you?
Prof. PINDER: You know, as I say in the book, obviously I ended up having a great relationship with her and my son loved her so much, but it was all about my own preconceptions and ideas of what I thought I wanted to get out of having a person come into my house - another woman - to take care of my child.
A lot of it, as I mention in the essay, had to do with the fact that I live in a predominantly white area of Chicago. Chicago's very segregated, as most people know, and I have a white husband, so my child is bi-racial. And I live very far from my family - again, as Susan pointed out, one of the main reasons why so many of us have to resort of having nannies.
And being away from my black family, I felt that there weren't enough people of color in my son's life. So that was one reason why I was - really wanted to have another person, another brown person in my home for him. So that was the beginning of my sort of foray into getting a nanny and my preconceptions of why I wanted to have one that maybe looked more like me.
MARTIN: Let's go to another caller. Let's go to Krista in Soldotna, Arkansas. Did I pronounce that properly?
KRISTA (Caller): Yes.
MARTIN: Krista, what was your experience? What is your experience with this issue?
KRISTA: I was a nanny and I've had a nanny. And you know, it's not until I was - became a mother that I was able to kind of put into context the experience I had as a nanny and what it must have been like for the parents and the children. It wasn't a good experience. My best friend had been a nanny in New York City and they treated her like one of the family and I heard great stories and saw wonderful pictures.
So at age 18 I went to New York City from Montana and I was just overwhelmed. I wasn't homesick, I loved being there. But the parents seemed so cold to me, and the children - I felt like I was, you know, trying to - I don't know, somehow break through a barrier to get them to even just look at me and talk to me. They didn't want to play outside.
The folks were quite affluent. We lived on Park Avenue. They had a Long Island summer home. The kids didn't want to play outside. They just wanted to stay inside and watch TV. And I remember, you know, just trying to think, you know, I've been a camp counselor, I've been a babysitter, what can I do? I took them to the park and they just seemed apathetic.
MARTIN: This is great because, you're flipping the script too. Because Kymberly has this fantasy of a - of a - kind of a, you know, warm, you know, chocolate grandmother person who'd kind of come in and envelope everybody in her warm embrace. And she wound up with kind of an Eastern European one. And you - if I may - maybe you had a fantasy too, and your reality didn't match that fantasy. What do you attribute the difference between - the difference between the way you related to that family and why it is that you didn't get on? What do you make of it?
KRISTA: Oh, I'm sure - well, because I'm sure my expectations were - I expected them to be of a certain, you know, emotional type and welcome me with open arms and maybe that's just not the way they were. And I was very young. I was 18 years old. And - I don't know, I think my expectations were that, you know, I would have the same experience as my girlfriend. Her family was so jovial and I was just young and hadn't had, you know, a lot of worldly experiences yet. But then...
MARTIN: Krista, I just need to take a short break for just a second, just to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Krista, thanks. You were telling us about your experience, and when you became a mother yourself - and do you have help now? Do you have a nanny now?
KRISTA: I did. I had help after I was done with maternity leave and she was wonderful. We interviewed folks and...
MARTIN: But I wanted to ask you - how did your experience as a nanny inform how you behaved as an employer? Because presumably - you haven't mentioned a lovely summer home and a place on Park Avenue, so I'm assuming you didn't have that to offer, so...
KRISTA: Oh, no. No. You said we lived in Arkansas, but we live in Alaska. And we just - we - I tried to let them know that they would be a part of our family. When they came into our home they could make themselves at home. And I would, you know, let them have, I don't know, access to doing things with us or going places with us. And if, you know, if I had to travel for work and maybe my child was allowed to come along, then the nanny was welcome to come along.
We ended up hiring a woman who was just so patient, and she was 27, but just had a - sort of a wisdom and real comforting feeling that was beyond her years. And she was terrific with my son and ended up getting pregnant herself and had to leave our employ. So we were sad about that.
MARTIN: Well, that's good. I'm glad you great experience. Krista, thank you so much for calling from Soldotna, Alaska.
KRISTA: Great program, thanks.
MARTIN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Susan, Krista makes an important point about just the misunderstandings that can ensue when people have these very different expectations. Did you find that to be a common thread among your writers?
Ms. DAVIS: I did. I did, because we - nearly everybody in the book is a woman who's working because she needs to either support or help support her family. So her work is not a luxury and she needs her nanny to help make that part of her life easier. So it's tremendously cooperative, that relationship.
MARTIN: Did any of the essays push your buttons? I mean did anything just say to yourself, I really hate what you're saying?
Ms. DAVIS: No, honestly. There were some essays that didn't make it into the book that definitely pushed my buttons, but that's the beauty of being the editor. I will say that we put some things together hoping for an effect. There's an essay by Roxana Robinson about having to fire a nanny 30 years ago and how hard that was as a woman to fire another woman.
And it's followed by an essay by Alice Elliott Dark and it's really - it's the same situation, where she has to, 30 years later, fire her nanny, and how hard that is for one woman who's a mother to do, particularly to another woman who's also often a mother.
MARTIN: Okay, Susan, thanks. I just want to - we're just down to our last couple of seconds and this is such a rich topic. I'm sure you can imagine we can spend a lot of time on all of them. But Kymberly, I wanted to ask you, just for our last couple of seconds - very briefly if you would - given your experience and given that race is so important to your work, did your experience affect your thinking about race?
Prof. PINDER: Well, I would have to say that it didn't really affect my thinking about race. I mean, I teach race in the classroom. I talk about it at the dinner table in my kitchen, and it's something that is not really this delicate topic in my household or in my life. But definitely getting the opportunity to write this all down in this essay was great. And I actually gave my essay to a couple of my students in my race-ing art history class and it was just kind of another way for me to delve into these topics that I had sort of addressed but in a completely different way in my way.
MARTIN: Ok. All right. Thank you so much.
Prof. PINDER: Thank you.
MARTIN: Kymberly Pinder, she's editor of Race-ing Art History: Critical Essays in Race and Art History and is a contributor to Searching for Mary Poppins. Susan Davis is co-editor of the book, Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies. Thank you both for joining us.
Ms. DAVIS: Thank you.
Prof. PINDER: Thank you.
MARTIN: And when we come back from a short break: has the war in Iraq increased the threat of global terrorism? We'll talk with a terrorism expert.
I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.