A powerful, internationally bestselling book, this is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s. Aibileen is an African American maid, mourning the death of her own grown-up son while looking after her seventeenth white child. She takes risks to raise awareness of the appalling inequalities in her community, while protecting the children in her care as well as she can. “All the babies I tend to, I count as my own,” she says. Her little charge tells her: “Aibee, you’re my real mama.”
A Gate at the Stairs
A working couple employ a student, Tassie, as an unofficial part-time nanny for the child they want to adopt, although neither parent checks Tassie’s references. She forms a strong bond with the child, and when that relationship is threatened, her reaction may be familiar to other nannies in a similar position: “Perhaps I was clinging to something that wasn’t mine to love. Perhaps I was treasuring love that wasn’t mine to treasure.”
The Perfect Mother
The nanny here is Alma, “all sunshine and laughter”, a midwife from Honduras and an illegal immigrant in Brooklyn. When she falls asleep on a one-off babysitting job, the baby in her care is abducted. Amidst the investigation into other characters, nasty rumors spring up about Alma— that her uncle killed someone, that she’s part of a baby-selling ring. Meanwhile, another new mother from the ‘mommy group’ browses isawyournanny.com to read witness accounts of nannies mistreating their charges.
The Perfect Nanny
This nanny is Louise: hard-working and multi-talented. She’s “simultaneously invisible and indispensable…discreet and powerful”, and the family rapidly comes to rely on her. But they’re oblivious to the pressures in her private life, and to her growing emotional dependence on them—she tells herself “she is theirs and they are hers”. We know from the first line that “the baby is dead”; the rest of the book shows us the lead-up to this horrific crime.
The Nanny Diaries
Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
This is a humorous but ultimately affecting tale of a student nicknamed Nanny who is drawn into the marital difficulties of her wealthy Manhattan employers while she tries to provide emotional stability for their four-year-old son. There’s a pervading sense that the closer a nanny becomes to their charge, the sooner they’re likely to be sacked—Nanny wonders towards the end how it was possible she could have “worked so hard and been hated so much.”
Woman No. 17
The live-in nanny here is Esther, a student and artist who calls herself ‘S’. She’s hired to care for a separated couple’s two-year-old son, and she pursues her own artistic project in her free time. The father eventually checks her references after the mother fails to, but these aren’t the sort of checks that will show up the unusual life decisions that S has made recently. The assumptions the family have made about her turn out to be wrong.
The Au Pair
The au pair in my own novel is Laura, a troubled eighteen-year-old who moves into an English country house to look after a wealthy couple’s three-year-old son. She plays a central role in the family for eleven months, and is privy to their darkest secrets, but ultimately, as a mere ‘mother’s help’, she can be dismissed and banished without notice. In fiction, as in real life, the position of a nanny or an au pair is both a privileged and a precarious one.
Childcare is a highly emotive subject. Employing a stranger to look after your child in your own home is an especially daunting prospect for any parent. There are a million nannies and around 17,500 au pairs working in the United States, and while they often have heart-warming and wonderful relationships with their employers, we all know this isn’t always the case.
Nannies make great characters in fiction precisely because they’re outsiders who’ve been invited into the heart of a family. Their experiences fascinate us, and the differences between employer and employee can also highlight issues of race, class, immigration, and economic imbalance.
Of course, fiction likes to look at what happens when relationships don’t run smoothly. I’ve gathered together seven books on the subject, ranging from a story of terrible misdeeds by a nanny, to tales of disinterested parents where the nanny is a vital provider of emotional support to their child. If childcare is something you’re particularly sensitive about, I’d advise reading some of these with caution!
Featured Image: @maria_foto via Twenty20