The myth of the magic nanny


Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
by lorraine duffy merkl

Upper East Side mothers contend with a lot of good, bad, wacky, exhausting and often aggravating stuff in the course of the parenting day. I will be eternally grateful for being spared having had to bring a stranger into my home to help me care for my children. With Emily Blunt’s emergence as the uber-nanny in “Mary Poppins Returns” (in theaters everywhere December 19th), I am reminded how lucky I was to have my now 96-year-old mother taking care of my kids Luke and Meg, who are now 23 and 20 respectively.

I admit though, I did not always appreciate the guidance and assistance she offered.

In 1995 I was new to the mother game, but very much wanted to be large and in charge. It was hard to do so when the mother of all mothers was around. I can admit now that she was always right. Back then though, I often found myself sticking to my (wrong) way of doing something and arguing with her the way I had as a teenager, while thinking, “I should hire help; someone to lend a hand with a shut mouth. Those people with nannies have it made.”

And some did. I knew a few families who employed lovely people who stayed in the job for years without incident. That situation never makes the news; only the ones where the babysitter drowns her charges or shakes the life out of a child. Then come the exposés. From the ones I recall, there was invariably a snide remark about how “everyone wants Mary Poppins.” So much so, that a modern-day likeness of the icon was chosen for the cover of the 2002 cause célèbre, “The Nanny Diaries,” which had many UES mothers defensively putting the word out that they were not Mrs. X types.

But who could blame people for wanting this mythical creature to care for their kids in their stead? Mary Poppins is fairly strict, yet sympathetic, cheerful and nurturing. She knows what it takes to make the medicine go down, and can handle any situation just by reaching into her carpetbag of tricks. (Plus, there’s the whole magic thing.)

Hey, if she’d existed, I even would have hired her.

But she didn’t. And my guess is that she still doesn’t.

Although I never knew anyone on the other end of the spectrum, where tragedy struck, most the time what I observed was that caregivers worked out for a bit, then would baffle the family by doing something too disappointing to understand or forgive.

“She left my son in the park by Balto,” offered the mom sharing her tale with a group of us, all our mouths agape. “Then she went home to her house in Brooklyn and called me so I could call the police.” Another story went like this: The nanny left on a Thursday night, gave the key to the doorman, and never came back. The mother had to take a week off from work. They used her absence as a way to fire her. Oh yes, and I always ran into someone who knew someone with child care woes: The nanny locked a friend’s daughter in the closet; didn’t give the child his medication when she was supposed to; and then there was the au pair who ran off with her employer’s husband. There were parents who seemed to be forever interviewing for a new mother’s helper.

This often led to being asked, “So where’d you find yours?”

My answer elicited mixed reactions. Some women admitted they envied me because their own mothers lived too far away, still worked full time jobs or were no longer living. For others, it appeared to be a trigger, reminding them they had no relationship with their mothers, and it made them caustic. One woman once sniffed that mine must have time on her hands and how hers “had a life.”

So did mine by the way; one she selflessly put second, first for me, who she had raised as a single mother, then for her grandchildren.

I’m ashamed to say that it was only after a bout of cringe-worthy “what the caregiver did” stories that I’d feel humbled and appreciative that because Luke and Meg had their granny for their nanny, I was the one who has it made.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Fat Chick” and “Back to Work She Goes.”