We should give thanks for the state of nannies

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The Independent Culture
A PLEA to my good female friends: I love you dearly, but I do not want to hear another word about your nannies. I don't wish to know about your struggles over this dragging holiday period, trying to keep your little dears contented or how you did not expect Paulette, Agnes, Ulrika or Eva (whom you pay and treat so well) to want such a heartlessly long Christmas break and how many migraines you have had as a result.

We middle-class, professional mothers have never before had it so good, and yet how we whinge. Most of us never appreciate the fact that a whole army of working-class women, from Britain and abroad, service our every need, and that it is their work which has freed us to soar upwards with our ambitions and have the kind of lifestyles our own mothers could never even dream of.

I don't have a nanny as both my partner and I work at home. But I could not do the things I want to do without the help of the babysitters, cleaners, decorators and John, the infrequent but lovely gardener, who turns up when he is not having a good time in the cafes of Amsterdam.

As my unkind son points out, this is rather a lot of menial staff for someone who still clings to the idea of socialism. It is said that British middle-class families now employ nearly as many domestic and other service providers as their Victorian forbears once did.

But, unlike the Victorians, I think it is harder today for the nannies and au pairs employed to look after the children of the well-off. Then, there was an assumption that if children were going to spend so much intimate time with a nanny, a deep relationship would necessarily develop and in many ways the nanny would be the surrogate mother.

The children would be emotionally nourished and their carers obviously found the kind of satisfaction which would horrify many modern mums who seem to think that they pay the nannies good wages to do a job and not to get too close to the children they themselves barely see. Perhaps it is one way of coping with their soaking guilt.

Actually, it is even more complicated and unfair than that. Those who pay the highest wages seem to feel that this gives them total remote control over the upbringing of the child. They want the best-qualified nannies but want them to operate as indestructible robots.

When Nicola Horlick was taken to an industrial tribunal by her long-term nanny, what emerged was that only the mother had the right to determine all that would and could happen between the carer and the children. Nannies are accused of not caring enough, or making children too dependent on them. Usually both at once.

My friend Julie also frets that every nanny she ever employs is a potential bed-mate for her husband, who is all too susceptible to temptation now that he is balding. Another acquaintance uses two hours of her precious time every Sunday to fill up 10 pages with instructions on what the children should have to eat, drink, wear, read, watch and do over the following week while she jets around Europe as a sales rep.

On that memorable television series on nannies, mothers were shown measuring out J-Cloths and assuming that those who cared for their children were screwing the newspaper boy, or ringing Australia all day long. Children also pick up these attitudes, leaving nannies and au pairs with no emotional rewards for the work they are doing. We are constantly subjected to scare stories about wicked child carers, and not nearly enough about the wicked way we treat the rest of the profession.

So, sisters! (Especially those feeling so bereft of them at present.) Resolve in 2000 to give nannies more space and respect. And dollops of gratitude too.