The Thinking 

The Parisian Nanny

February 8, 2010


Sebastien writes in response to Nanny Power:

It’s a with great deal of interest that I follow your blog from where we are in Paris. 

We have two boys, one of 18 months and the other of three years. In our building there are four households, including our own, that have young children. My wife is a full-time mum and has no desire to change this. The other three families have nannies. Because nannies are not cheap, they are often shared with another family. This means that the attention that should be directed to an individual child is vastly reduced. For example, one boy is the same age as our youngest but he never walked until he was 18 months old. From the nanny’s point of view, a walking baby is an extra problem to manage and it’s far easier to let the child sit in a pram all day.

When we go to the park, we see all the babies up to three years old strapped in a pram while the nannies all gossip among themselves and discuss their holiday pay and worker rights. I haven’t mentioned yet that all the nannies are most often first generation African immigrants and are the last people I would want raising my children. They talk very loudly with their mouths full of food and make very little effort to parent the children they should be looking out for. If a child takes one of our toys, a parent would come over and use the opportunity to teach the child some manners. Not so the African nanny. She will ignore the behavior if the other child’s parent is not present.

Anyone who ever thinks about hiring a nanny should take an afternoon off work, sit in a park and see them go about their business. 

Thank you for your excellent blog.

Laura writes:

Thank you for writing.

I’m not sure why the title “nanny,” at least in English, still adheres to low-paid workers who often couldn’t give a flying fig for children. A “nanny”  is Jane Eyre, a woman of sensibility and training, instilled with a sense of vocation. [See correction in comments below. Jane Eyre was a governess, not a nanny.] These are babysitters getting though the day.

I can’t think of any reason other than dire necessity for handing one’s child over to a woman who is only a temporary presence in the family’s life and who may have a vastly different cultural background. That said, there are exceptions. The best nannies are those who are well paid and who stay on for many years, becoming a part of the family.  In these cases, she is more than an employee. The problem with even a loving nanny is that she rarely cares about discipline and she inevitably leaves. This can be very traumatic.

A female reader writes:

I am sorry to see the badmouthing of nannies on your site. I was a nanny before I had children. After graduating from university, I alternated time spent doing fulltime childcare in private households with postgraduate education. Which prepared me better for my life now? What else should young women be doing before marriage?

Bad nannies are easy to spot, but it is very unusual for a stranger to be able to see the difference between a caring nanny and a mother. I was usually assumed to be the mother of the children I cared for, and my housekeeper is usually assumed to be my children’s mother when they are out.

Laura writes:

Yes, there are good nannies, as I mentioned above. As I said in the previous post, “there are wonderful women who truly love the children they watch. I have known a few.”  But there are not enough of them to keep up with feminism’s demands. Also, a nanny or housekeeper who is under the supervision of a mother is different. She is not left alone with the children day after day. The latter situation will always be necessary for some women, but the relationship can be fraught with difficulties, as mentioned in the Times article.

Sheila C. writes:

One of my early memories is going to a neighbor’s house, when I was perhaps three or four, to admire and play with her baby (and get lots of personal attention myself, of course). I began babysitting extensively when I was twelve, and spent time as a nanny while overseas. Many of the children I cared for learned my name right after they learned to say “mama” and “dada,” and I would challenge anyone who claimed I didn’t love the child of divorced parents I cared for overseas. I’ve also helped a friend adopt. Before I married at the age of 31, I wrestled with my deep desire to be a mother and my then single status. I thank God that I never fell into the sin of deliberate single motherhood, but I can and do understand the desperate desire to have children. I lavished love and care on the children I watched for pay, and spent hours reading to them and talking with them and playing with them – probably more time than I spent on my own sons, when I lacked the luxury of getting paid for certain hours or days to do nothing but care for the children without the attendant responsibilities of cooking and cleaning and shopping and being a full-time wife and mother (and that’s an entirely different subject – mothers whose excess attention to their children shuts out their husbands and destroys their marriages). I actually did the cooking and cleaning and birthday party planning and attending school meetings in certain cases – my experiences ran the gamut. I had mothers who both thanked me profusely and resented me intensely, when their children preferred my care and cuddles to theirs. I also watched and learned – all sorts of parenting and discipline styles, what worked and what didn’t, and decided which sort of parent I would aspire to be.

I loved those children I cared for. I still wonder what happened to that little girl I mothered for a year, who was being used as a football between her selfish, overgrown adolescent mother and father and well-meaning but clueless grandmother. But none of those children were truly ever mine, and it was this understanding that led me to put a finite end to my years of caring for others’ children. Before I returned to the U.S. to work and continue my post graduate studies, I had the opportunity to be a nanny to a very well-off British gentleman whose wife had recently died of cancer. I only met his youngest, a two year old boy; the older two were away at school. I visited for a weekend, and we intrigued each other, but he ultimately decided not to offer me the position and I am grateful for his prescience and good parenting. I would not commit to more than a year (already beginning to realize that caring for others’ children would do nothing to further my desire to someday have a family of my own) and he was a caring enough father to know that his children needed continuity which I would not commit to provide.

Markus writes:

Quick question, weren’t the nannies in the “olden days”, such as Jane Eyre, called governesses? I’m reminded of Maria von Trapp in the Sound of Music.

 Laura writes:

Of course. As a matter of fact, I woke up in the middle of the night last night thinking the same thing. A governess is an entirely different thing. As far as I know, there is nothing comparable today. Governesses like Maria and Jane were in-home teachers and surrogate mothers.



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