The thrill of nanny love (National Post, February 15, 2006)

MONTREAL - 'I'm in love," my daughter Joanne, whose maternity leave is almost over, sighed down the telephone yesterday.

"Ah!" I twigged immediately, knowing this was not some Valentine's Day reverie. "You found the perfect nanny!"

The word nanny once summoned images of Mary Poppins. It implied a no-nonsense woman, invariably British, in a blue serge caped uniform, wheeling her infant charge to the park in a pram as big as a Smart car, there to knit and converse with other tiny aristocrats' nannies. Back at the manse, other staff did the housework, the cooking and the laundry. Mummy was there to occasionally -- well, mother -- when not otherwise engaged in more congenial activities.

In the '70s, the first critical mass of full-time working mothers could only fantasize about nannies like these, as domestic help was in very short supply. Now, thanks to globalization, there is a glut of female immigrant domestic labour. These women have been given the Victorian name -- nannies -- but not the Victorian game.

Today's busy nannies don't sit around knitting, because mothers are absent all day, and there is no other staff. Modern nannies care-give, organize play groups and friend visits, attend Gymboree and Rainbow Music sessions, clean, launder, shop and cook.

All the nannies here in Montreal seem to be Filipina. Every Filipina nanny has a huge network of friends and relatives. Joanne's nanny was referred by a friend's nanny, a common story. Pardon the reverse racism, but virtually to a woman Filipinas are refined, educated, sunny, hard-working, dependable, patient, self-motivated, resourceful and loving. Their attachment to their charges is genuine and fiercely partisan.

They are also religious Catholics, which may help to explain the acceptance with which they handle the long separations from their families. Many of them have left husbands and children in the Philippines, whom they may not see literally for years, but if they feel resentment about being surrogate mothers for other children, and never seeing their own -- I certainly would -- they don't show it. Forget Super Nanny on TV, these are the real deal.

Families are more child-centred than ever before, and the nanny is the most important member of young professionals' households. Their employers consider themselves rich beyond measure in the peace of mind she brings to their lives. How could they not? The child loves the nanny, she loves the child, and so the grateful parents love her. Nanny Love: It's something new and psychologically complex.

For those aristocratic Victorian children may have loved Nanny, but Mummy didn't, and they soon realized she was an expendable servant. Similarly, my mother employed maids, who occasionally babysat, but we didn't love them or expect them to love us. Like my at-home peer mums, I had a "mother's helper" on weekends and summers, a teenager I loved like a niece, who was adored by my kids as an older sister. But modern Nanny love is very close to mother love. That's good, isn't it? Of course, but ...

As mother, writer and nanny-employeeing Caitlin Flanagan observed in an oft-cited 2004 Atlantic Monthly article: "For many professional women like me, the relationship they have with their children's nanny is a source of the deepest and most painful kind of self-examination. The relationship is in many ways more intense ... than a marriage. The precise intersection of many women's most passionate impulses -- their profound, almost physical love for their children and their ardent wish to make something of themselves beyond their own doorstep -- is the exact spot where nannies show up for work each day. There isn't a nanny in the world who has not received a measure of love that a child would rather have bestowed on his mother." Heavy stuff.

It's an odd situation when you think about it. These nannies are themselves mothers who value mothering highly, and if they could, would be fulltime mothers to their own children. Out of economic necessity, they leave their children and proxy-mother other children. The mother of the children they care for is working because feminists have trained her to believe working is more important than mothering, so the mother goes to work to make enough money -- and not much more -- to pay her motherhood-valuing working nanny to proxy-mother her children, which she's so perfect at that ...

Oh, never mind. Beam me up, Scottie.

© National Post 2006