By Sonya Michel
From Roma to Mary Poppins Returns, fictional portraits of nannies are more popular than ever. Yet the reality of their lives — and the dysfunction of our public policy on care work — is too often obscured.
Nannies — those often anonymous, ever-patient figures rocking napping toddlers in their strollers or settling sandbox squabbles at the playground — have moved into the spotlight in American popular culture. The New York Times named Lila Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny one of the best books of 2018. Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma, the story of a young rural woman working as a nanny in Mexico City, has been nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture. And the most famous nanny of all, Mary Poppins, returns in Rob Marshall’s eponymous film, which is still raking in cash at the global box office. With all the hoopla over these awards (Netflix has reportedly spent close to $30 million promoting Roma), the reality of nannies’ lives is easily forgotten.
The Perfect Nanny, translated from the French Prix Goncourt winner Chanson Douce, is the harrowing tale of the skillful and devoted Louise, who brings joy and order to the troubled household of two overworked Parisian professionals — until she coldly murders their two young children. Insofar as the novel makes clear that this particular woman was insane, it is not suggesting that her behavior is typical of nannies. It does, however, remind us of the recent case of horrific nanny murders in New York City.
Roma, by contrast, idealizes Cleo, a domestic worker who, in effect, foregoes her own motherhood to devote herself to her employer’s children. Director Cuarón’s clear-eyed camerawork exposes the multiple small humiliations Cleo and her fellow servant Adela face daily in a comfortably middle-class household in 1970s Mexico City. Yet, when Cleo becomes pregnant and then is abandoned by her feckless boyfriend, her employer, Sofia, seems willing to help Cleo keep the baby — and her job. Sofia’s generosity is probably motivated by the fact that her own family is falling apart; her husband has just deserted her and her children, leaving them emotionally distraught and financially precarious. In a rather clumsy plot twist, Cleo suffers a miscarriage, freeing her to continue nurturing Sofia’s family, even managing a heart-stopping rescue of the children from a dangerous riptide during a seashore vacation.
Mary Poppins must also rescue her employer’s family from crisis: an unscrupulous lender is threatening to repossess the Bankses’ house. Unlike Cleo, Mary suffers no daily humiliations; in fact, she seems to hold the family in her thrall. But like her Mexican counterpart, she appears to have no personal attachments that would distract her from saving the Bankses. On the contrary, at a critical moment, Mary descends from the sky and uses her magical powers to take the children on marvelous adventures and, along the way, save their home from imminent foreclosure.
The leitmotif connecting all three of these stories is the selflessness of the nannies—or so they appear to their employers. Roma and Perfect Nanny do offer glimpses of the employees when they are not on duty, providing some sense of their inner lives and reactions to their situations, but these insights are presented as the result of omniscient narration, not as knowledge that the employers would have acquired through personal interactions with the nannies themselves. Indeed, when Teresa, the grandmother in Roma, takes Cleo to the hospital at the onset of her miscarriage, Teresa cannot answer an attendant’s basic questions about Cleo’s last name, her birthdate, hometown, or insurance status. It becomes clear that Teresa and the rest of the family view Cleo only through the calculus of their needs, not hers. The same is true of Louise’s employers; they know nothing about her private life and are oblivious to signs of her psychological instability, so they have no reason to doubt that they can trust her with their children, until it is too late.