Me and My Shadow

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A UW sociologist explores the complicated roles of mothers and nannies.

baby buggy

Photo: Istock

The most popular portrayals of the relationship between mothers and nannies are often extremes — think The Nanny Diaries or The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.

But the reality is much more complex. And what makes these relationships difficult is how tough American cultural norms are on working mothers, says Cameron Macdonald, a UW assistant professor of sociology and author of Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering.

“It is literally impossible for mothers to work outside of the home and meet contemporary ideals of good mothering,” she says.

At the core of expectations is the idea that kids’ outcomes are entirely contingent upon their mothers’ parenting, “especially during that critical birth-to-three period, after which — if you believe the advice books — screw up and your child’s an ax murderer,” she says.

And it’s those beliefs about the role of mothers, along with the serious economic pressures facing most families, that result in controversies such as that ignited by Amy Chua’s recent memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

“You can’t say ‘motherhood’ these days in this country without starting a riot,” Macdonald says.

Economic uncertainty — present when Macdonald conducted her interviews in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and an even more pressing concern today — amplified those impossible-to-meet expectations about childrearing. Mothers worried that their children might fall behind, not get into the right schools, and be doomed to downward mobility.

These strains, along with cultural variations, led to differences of opinion between mothers and nannies about how a child’s day should be structured. Mothers wanted a highly structured day with socially and intellectually stimulating activities, even for infants and toddlers. Nannies, on the other hand, were more likely to want to play it by ear, and “let kids be kids.”

Macdonald’s interviews with nannies and au pairs yielded both humorous and poignant accounts of what it feels like to be the cornerstone of a family, yet often be denied autonomy and authority. Some nannies reported being fired when children in their care accidentally called them “Mommy.”

“Mothers expect the nanny to be simultaneously present and absent, to form a healthy bond with the children, but not get too attached,” Macdonald says. “It’s an unrealistic set of expectations that make even the most thoughtful employer begin to seem irrational and unreasonable.”

That places nannies in a paradox in which they must form a bond with the children that is secure enough to fulfill emotional needs, yet at the same time, not threaten the primary caregiver role of the mother.

“I want people to understand that the problems that are present in these relationships stem from these outside forces, and that it’s possible to move past them,” Macdonald says. “I don’t think that having more loving adults in a child’s life is a bad thing. But if we believe it’s a bad thing — and moms feel guilty about it, and nannies or child-care providers feel undervalued — then that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Published in the Summer 2011 issue

Tags: Children, Faculty, International, Research, Social sciences

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