VICTORIA WHITE: We live in a society that neglects children but are loathe to admit it

NANNIES must be proven innocent, not guilty. They transgress our ideals of motherhood and raise in us fears we cannot name, writes Victoria White.

You can’t win if you’re a nanny, not unless you have a flying umbrella and the “real” mother is nowhere in sight. You can’t even win if the children love you more than their “real” mother. In fact, that’s when you lose hardest.

Nannies embody all Western society’s ambiguity about motherhood. A mother is an idealised figure but if she is actively mothering the ideal is ruined. She has no time for her looks! She has no time for her career! Worst of all, she has no time for her husband!

No, the work of mothering must be farmed out to the “servant class”. Not that we call nannies “servants”. We go to great lengths to separate nannies from other members of the “servant class” because we are entrusting to them the rearing of our children. And we feel iffy about the fact that we insist on devolving child-rearing to women who are usually less advantaged, less well-educated and much poorer than the mothers who employ them. So we bump up the professionalism of the nanny, giving her Supernanny powers which mere parents could never have. If we’re rich, we hire a Norland nanny and dress her in a ridiculous uniform complete with a brown bowler hat and gloves.

We live in a society that neglects children but are loathe to admit it

Aisling Brady McCarthy in court

When saying you must be trained to be a nanny is like saying you must be trained to be a mother. It’s no harm. But most of all you must love the children in your care. If a nanny loves the kids in her charge and has wit and warmth and basic cop-on she is a ‘Supernanny’ and needs no certificate to prove it. The nanny who cares for your kids should be like your friend or your sister. She should be like you, in other words.

But while we don’t want our nannies associated with the “servant class” we don’t want them associated with us either, if we are parents. Because that would make it clear that the nanny is replacing us. And though many of us want and need to work outside the home, many mothers have wildly conflicting emotions about handing over the care of their children to another woman. The nanny becomes the lightning rod for all that emotion.

When I shared a wonderful nanny I used to tell her that bumps and bruises would happen on my watch as well as on hers and that she would not be unfairly accused. What would I have done if something awful had happened to one of my kids? Blamed her, I guess. OK, it’s understandable that the person minding a child when he or she gets hurt gets blamed. But mixed up in that blame are the guilty feelings of the parents who were at work when the accident occurred.

This is where the attraction of creches lies. In a crèche, we tell ourselves, there is management and oversight so one defective nanny can’t wreak havoc. Then came a Prime Time undercover investigation and its BBC equivalent some years earlier which showed very similar scenes of children in creches suffering abuse at the hands of childcare workers.

We now know the institutional structure does not protect the children. But for many there is still an attraction in anonymity. The British childcare guru Penelope Leach brilliantly identified this in her manifesto for children, Children First, when she said that the “relative impersonality” of creches “may be more important to some parents than they themselves realise” because it makes them less fearful that the child will have a minder whose bond with him challenges his bond with his parents.

The irony is that in any crèche where children thrive there is no anonymity because children need consistent care from people who know and love them. But the very regulations which would save children’s hearts and minds in creches — legal restrictions on the number of staff changes a child should suffer — are never put in place because they would destroy the very anonymity we often crave in the service which replaces us as parents.

Most of all, of course, it would cost lots of money to put in standards guaranteeing children’s welfare in creches. There would not be a revolving door in creches if trained childcare workers were properly paid. Current wages for childcare in this country range from less than €9 an hour to little more than €11. These are the slave wages which we are prepared to pay in this country to the people who do society’s most important job. The numbers don’t lie. They reflect the value we place on the care of children and the situation is more or less the same throughout the western world.

Princeton-educated financial analyst Nada Siddiqui and Harvard-educated Sameer Sabir employed Aisling Brady McCarthy, an untrained, illegal immigrant who had had a restraining order filed against her to care for their precious little girl Rehma. Nannies in the Boston area are typically paid between $10 to a high of $20 (€8.70 to €17.40) an hour.

At least Mc Brady McCarthy was a mature woman. Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old English au pair who had had three days’ training was hired by Boston doctors Sunil and Deborah Eappen to care for their eight-month-old baby, Matthew in 1997. Convicted, then cleared of Matthew’s murder, but left with a charge of involuntary manslaughter, Louise Woodward’s life will never be the same again.

When she had a child of her own last year Matthew’s aunt Mary Wong told a newspaper, “I hope no harm comes to that child.” The Eappens did not deserve to lose Matthew and the Sabirs did not deserve to lose Rehma. Neither Woodward nor Brady McCarthy deserved to be charged with her murder. But behind the headlines, the underlying story is our inability to value or resource parenthood, our inability to value or resource the care of children and our inability to admit to this neglect of our children.

So Aisling Brady McCarthy spent two and a half years of her young life in a Boston prison. God alone knows what trauma she suffered there. It would be impossible to count the losses she has incurred, including time she could have spent building her own family, if she wanted one. But nannies, from Mary Poppins to Sethe in Toni Morrison’s masterpiece about a slave-mother, Beloved, are not meant to want families of their own.

Aisling Brady McCarthy got it in the neck because we neglect children but won’t admit it. Please God she will recover. As a society we haven’t even begun.

More on this topic

Sister describes Aisling Brady McCarthy's ordeal in US on charge of murdering babySister describes Aisling Brady McCarthy's ordeal in US on charge of murdering baby

Ashling Brady McCarthy: 'What was done to me was scandalous'Ashling Brady McCarthy: 'What was done to me was scandalous'

Aisling Brady McCarthy arrives back in Ireland after ticket delayAisling Brady McCarthy arrives back in Ireland after ticket delay

Aisling Brady McCarthy arrested by US immigrationAisling Brady McCarthy arrested by US immigration


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