Beware the nanny

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Feb 02, 2001 12:00 AM
What strikes cold fear into the heart of the most sophisticated and successful Manhattan matron? No, it's not the IRS or a sexual harasser. It's certainly not a husband's disapproval. As for Society, Mrs. Grundy has run off with the meter maid, and the heiresses of great fortunes compete with nice girls from Dubuque for the public position of leather-clad temptress du jour.

It is impossible, after Clinton, Giuliani, Jackson and now piece de resistance Mel Reynolds (whose exploits with under-age girls did not prevent a presidential pardon), to scandalize anybody. As a middle-aged married economic professor confessed to me recently, "Even if I wanted to transgress social norms, I wouldn't know where to begin."

No, today the figure whose potent disapproval frightens the pants off women is ... the nanny. The nanny? Yes, according to a New York Times expose. Otherwise strong, capable female executives live in secret terror of offending the woman who cares for their kids. Not unlike, come to think of it, husbands of yore.

Lyn Peterson of Scarsdale, N.Y., who offers her nanny all-expenses-paid ski trips to Vail, explains that when it comes to nannies, submissiveness is in this year. "You're so vulnerable," she says, using language of almost Victorian purpleness. "You just do whatever they want."

"All the mothers I know are intimidated by their nannies," said one Manhattan mother who shall remain anonymous. This mother, who by day is a powerful editor at a woman's magazine, fearlessly managing employees, is at home a figure who walks on eggshells. "You don't question where she's taking the child during the daytime because you don't want her to think you're infringing on her independence."

The threat, of course, is that the nanny will take it out on your kid or else leave and blacklist you with the new nanny network. "It's really intimidating," Francine Hermeline, a Tribeca mother, says. There's that word again.

"The nannies are often more exclusive than the mothers," chipped in one Upper West Side mother. Nannies today get showered with the sort of things that mistresses used to get -- money, stock options, trips, bottles of wine. One pouty hint from the nanny along the lines of, "Everyone else in the neighborhood has gone to see it!" and the New York couple fork over orchestra seats to "The Lion King."

Carol Fitzgerald is an Upper West Side mother of 4-year-old twins. She and her husband do not dare to ask the nanny to do more than pick up the kids' toys, but they give her round-trip tickets to England, paid vacations, annual bonuses. Carol loves her nanny. But nonetheless, the "I" word creeps into her conversation.

"I was intimidated. My husband kept having to remind me that SHE worked for US."

Are you not supposed to bring this strange new subordination up to nannies or the women who use them? I myself have employed a nanny, although I called her a baby sitter and we worked side-by-side in the home. But I do wish to point out something that should be obvious but is not. When women complain about how hard it is to balance work and career, we are not fundamentally talking about a problem that can be solved by universal day care. Even the wealthiest women find that to be a woman with children is to be vulnerable, to have hostages to fortune -- to be, in fact, a slave to love.

Here's my question. Is depending on a husband really any more and maybe even "a bit less" humiliating than living in fear of your nanny?