In January 1965, ninety-year-old Winston Churchill lay dying at home in London. As life slipped away from the man who saved Western civilization, at his bedside was a picture of a simple, unknown woman who herself had died seventy years earlier. Elizabeth Anne Everest was the beloved nanny of Churchill's youth, and apparently remained that soul closest to his innocent heart. Later, biographers would write about the comfort and moral strength she gave a lonely, unhappy young boy, providing the critical nurturing force that had been denied from him by his inattentive parents. She was arguably the most consequential nanny in history, and with the death of her most famous charge Miss Everest's terrestrial story was complete. Not so, however, for another nanny who, just four months earlier, had entered mass culture consciousness with a bang -- even though she in fact didn't really exist.
"Mary Poppins": The Primordial Lie of Modern Childrearing
To the baby boom and Gen/X generations, Mary Poppins is more than just a memorable personality from the world of literature and cinema -- she is the patron saint of quality childcare. She is the answer to the painful question that millions of hyper-educated women entering the work force, after a bracing review of feminist contract's fine print, would pose a decade later: "What do we do with the kids?"
Free of the vinegar, class consciousness, and mock socio-pathology of P.L. Travers' book series, Walt Disney's movie musical Mary Poppins became in young Americans' minds the very definition of what a nanny should be: cheeky but respectful, quietly competent, bombastic but caring -- and a catalyst to bring the family closer together. By dulling the original characters' edges and bleaching the books' metaphysical questions of time and space, Mary Poppins became a "feel good" character long before we even knew the term could be an adjective. With typical Disney vision and charm, the movie musical was faithful to Travers' text in approximately the same way the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride compares to an actual cruise to Barbados.
Blame Miss Travers anyway. Her characters are so well drawn, and the magical situations are so engaging and "human," you might easily assume that this is a stylized roman à clef about her own upper-middle-class British youth. In fact, the author grew up in rural Australia, in a household seared by the death of her beloved father when she was seven. As a young woman coming of age in 1930s London, she quickly developed a love and expertise of both eastern mysticism and world mythology -- and would become recognized during her long life for her contributions in each area.
It was a conscious fusion of these esoteric passions -- combined with her family's Irish storytelling heritage -- that made Travers the medium through which the Mary Poppins series flowed. In the first book in 1934, Mary Poppins literally "flies in on the East wind" -- a deft homage to these themes as well as a clear overture of her own intent to mythologize. (Today, we see author J.K. Rawlings' knowledge of mythology preceding her own brilliant foray into mythologizing.)
Lie # 2: "That a 'Nanny' Is an Appropriate Surrogate Parent"
The word "nanny" is a curious Victorian linguistic fossil, connoting everything we are supposed to have evolved out of, including: classism, judgementalism, and authoritarianism. Its peculiar revival is a useful signal flare illuminating our deep-seated ambivalence regarding surrogate childrearing.
For virtually all other activities of modern life, the contemporary word fascists have succeeded in secularizing our speech, pointedly eliminating any hint of a moral hierarchy. Firemen become firefighters. Stewardesses are flight attendants, even though the former word draws on a nautical heritage that should carry tradition and respect. A growing national movement is now pressuring Los Angeles Animal Services (formerly Animal Control) (formerly "the dog catcher") to classify pets as "companions" and owners as "guardians." Next door, here in Santa Monica, the city guardians put aside qualms about crowd density, dangerous rides, and second-hand smoke to create a revenue magnet they called the "Fun Zone." Sound soul-less? It's supposed to. Remember, these are the same people who refer to those entrepreneurs on the Zone's perimeter as "sex workers."
If "firefighter" and "flight attendant" are rice-cake kinds of words, then "nanny" is a raisin scone. It's no accident that the word was dusted off in the late seventies, precisely when a new class was entering the work force -- a group of women who were working not for sustenance (women have always done that) but rather as a natural fulfillment of the burgeoning educational and career opportunities combined with better control of their fecundity. A new age required a new kind of childcare. Terms like "the maid," "the servant," "the help" were too referential to unpleasant aspects of America's own racial history -- so they found a word with no domestic political or emotional baggage. By defining their children's minders as nannies, these working women were saying a moral mouthful, and in the process defining themselves and their work.
For those who desperately, immediately, needed childrearing surrogates, Victorian formalism provided the perfect sort of legitimacy. Never mind that the American class-less tradition has consistently produced closer families and happier children. While "childcare" and "daycare" were okay for everyone else's kid, boomers proved resistant to discussing their own kids as being stored like inventory. "Justin and Elizabeth are home with the nanny" acknowledges no possible abrogation of parental authority. Compare to: "The kids are with an illiterate eighteen year old from a South American country I never heard of who I've known for five days. By hiding behind Victoria's robes of probity, the contemporary use of the word "nanny" facilitates a critical self-deception about who is raising our children.
Lie # 3: "That Today's 'Nanny' Is Actually a Nanny"
Displaying classic American positive thinking, today's parents assume that if they call their domestic worker a nanny, then she is one. It's not that simple: If an unmarried woman teaches at a Catholic elementary school, does that alone make her a "nun"? Of course not. Even though it is equally ludicrous to call a culturally clueless teenager a "nanny," we do. This is partly because of the scarcity of "real" nannies, but mostly due to contemporary American society's fetishistic avoidance of making moral distinctions.
The current economic environment makes nannyhood an unattractive prospect for precisely those best suited to the task. In our information economy, a reasonably educated woman can now command a good salary in the workplace -- or at home with a computer. Compounding the competitive edge, an office employer can pay this woman in "cheap" tax-deductible dollars, while a career woman employing a domestic to replace her on the home front pays dearly in pre-tax dollars plus assumes the employer tax obligation.
As the invisible hand snatches the fat part of the bell curve, it leaves only those job prospects that fall into the two extremes. On one side are the earnest but "deficient" women who cannot compete in the job market due to lack of skills or improper documentation. Often new to or unknowledgeable of American culture and ethics, they may well be devoted, caring baby sitters -- but they cannot be expected to be a partner in the character growth of the child. At the other extreme, you have overqualified American (and European) girls who are drawn to the task for non-economic reasons. Born and bred in an ostensibly egalitarian culture and heavily influenced by television, this kind of nanny has no reason to doubt that everyone -- including she -- is entitled to a house in Malibu and an SUV. She sees her current work environment not as a permanent class situation, but rather as a precursor to the luxe life that she herself will soon enjoy. For her, being a nanny is a gig leading to greater goals, such as (to cite two prominent recent examples) snatching the father or writing a best-selling exposé. Rather than being a calling, childrearing becomes for these women just one of a cluster of short-term chores.
Beyond economics, there's still that pesky issue of values. The very institution of nannyhood requires a society with an accepted moral code. In Victorian England, the nanny was not expected to have grown up at or near the same social class as her employers. (The governess was.) Despite her modest background, the nanny was expected to possess and project the ethics, morality, and culture of the upper class. It is this cultural congruency that allows the nanny to achieve quasi-family status and entrance into the intimacy of the employer's home. For the modern employer, this presents a sticky problem: In an age when there are no collective values, exactly what values do we expect our "nanny" to project?
A "real" nanny should strengthen the cultural continuity in the employer household. Gertrude Himmelfarb in The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values writes of how the poor had a strong incentive to conform to middle class morality even more than even the middle class. Savvy members of the working class understood innately that an expanding economy featuring growing literacy, social mobility, and the availability of consumer goods was facilitated precisely by the dominant values of the society. These values included dedication to family, hard work, thrift, cleanliness, self-reliance, self-respect, neighborliness, and patriotism. Two generations later, Mary Poppins still epitomizes this class paradox, demonstrating more attachment to English tradition and culture than do the Banks parents.
Today's boomers may pay sporadic lip service to "values" -- but "cultural continuity" is simply not an operative concept, much less a priority. While most parents want their children to grow up to be "good people," they are basically agnostic about what constitutes "good" and what path should be taken to get to that state. For them, the fact that today's nanny is generally an inappropriate partner in the moral and spiritual upbringing of junior is moot -- because secular society does not believe that goodness is learned.
This inability to identify and value a child's moral growth flies in the face of every other megatrend in child development. Sophisticated, informed parents passionately believe in the importance of pre-natal and early childhood stimulation to promote a host of skills such as music appreciation, reading, math, and foreign language acquisition. But when this concept of "early intervention" enters the non-material realm, parental discomfort sets in. The parent can evaluate breast milk vs. bottle, compare studies, and make a decision. But were some retro nanny to suggest that feeding can be a time for even a newborn to learn obedience, gratitude, and cleanliness, that would be considered at best preposterous and more probably a sinister attempt to prevent the young one from making his own decisions.
Why We Lie
In a profane age, children are the last holy component of our life. Just as we have drained the moral authority from our language terms, we have similarly converted historically spiritual pursuits into sterile, pseudo-meritocratic processes. One by one, the great religious-based colleges that built this country have re-invented themselves as value-free trade schools. Many professions, notably medicine and teaching, have evolved in just one generation from a moral calling into a unionized slot. Marriages are now primarily "partnerships" to continue only as long as the "needs" of both parties are met. Meanwhile, our mainstream churches and synagogues continuously retrofit and de-spiritualize their message so as to not become irrelevant. Somehow, the miracle of children remains, well, a miracle.
Children offer the last best pathway toward fulfilling the profoundly human desire to be like the Creator. By offering unconditional love to a helpless lump of protoplasm, the parent achieves, at least for a moment, a delivery of his soul to somewhere outside his body and outside this world. Few would knowingly give away this gift to a stranger, as apparently the Churchills did for Mrs. Everest.
Most parents, on some level, are surprised then inspired by the redemptive power they have acquired simply as the result of a prior act of presumably pleasurable passion. If only on quiet late nights, holding their children, they understand how foolish and reckless it is to tear up their personal ticket to the infinite simply because kids are often time-consuming and inconvenient. Yet, every day, in each of our lives, this irresistible force toward transcendent meaning meets the immovable object known as modern life. We compromise. We delegate. Sometimes, just to assure ourselves that we appreciate the sanctity of our task, we have to lie to ourselves and to others. We adapt and accept mythology as slavishly as any cargo cult. Our children are the most important aspect of our life, we say -- just right now, they happen to be with the "nanny."
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