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Susan Scheftel Ph.D.

Is It Hard to Think About Nannies?

What Mary Poppins Knew.

A recent documentary film, “Finding Vivian Maier,” tells the story of an amateur historian turned filmmaker who discovered a cache of negatives in a box he had obtained at an auction. These undeveloped negatives were among at least a hundred thousand taken by a woman named Vivian Maier, someone who had worked as a nanny for different families in the Chicago area until her death at the age of 83. Though some of Maier’s employers and charges were aware that she took photographs as a hobby, it was only the serendipitous discovery of these negatives (removed from a storage locker) that has suddenly put Maier on the map as one of the most prodigious and original street photographers of our time ( In the film Maier comes across as an unusual and mysterious person, beloved by her charges and employers. On the other hand, the film reveals that she was occasionally frightening and even abusive, sometimes prioritizing her secret artistic agenda over the children she cared for. An extraordinary example given by someone whose family employed her for years, involved Maier taking her small charges to the stockyards in Chicago in the service of her art, but surely not the children’s developmental needs.

In documenting the arduous search to reconstruct Maier’s identity, many whose homes she passed through are interviewed. All who speak of her knew little about Maier’s artistic passion, and even less about her background. No one seemed to have been compelled to enter the inner sanctum that Maier’s room would inevitably become, nor were any of those interviewed distressed by the padlock she insisted upon putting on her door in every household in which she lived. Striking also, even as the interviewees look back in time, is an absence of curiosity about who Maier had been as a person, apart from her role as nanny. The biographical facts currently available were all discovered by John Maloof, the filmmaker, and were news to those whose homes she had inhabited for years at a time. How is it that it took the archival talents of an accidental biographer and filmmaker to discover a background unknown to the families whom Maier worked for as a live-in nanny for years? Startlingly, most of the families sheepishly confess they knew virtually nothing about this complex and mercurial woman to whom they readily entrusted their children. “Finding Vivian Maier” highlights a paradox that extends far beyond the subject matter of the film. How much do we know about those whom we hire to care for our children? Are the complex feelings pertaining to hiring another person to care for one’s child in one’s absence so overwhelming that they tend to be suppressed?

Though it is not uncommon for some women to hire other women, often of another socioeconomic class, to care for their small children at home, the subject of nannies tends to remain under the radar as a topic meriting special attention from mental health professionals. We have statistics as to how many women are in the workplace, as well as interesting research on children in daycare. We have fewer details about what happens behind closed doors in private residences. Even the cohort of professionals that includes sociologists and psychologists (precisely those who might be writing or thinking about the significance of the role of nannies), seem to remain relatively mute on the subject. It seems that there are pervasive blind spots when it comes to nannies, such that even professionals who function well in the workplace can become blinkered in their judgment and integrity. This rather hidden domain is intermittently visible when the media exposes very upsetting cases of tragedy or abuse of children in the care of nannies, or even of nannies themselves being exploited by their employers.

We have read heartbreaking stories (actually much rarer than cases of parents abusing children) of caregivers whose charges were injured, abandoned or even killed. We have read other stories of caregivers woefully mistreated by their employers. Most parents would like to think that nothing of that nature could ever happen to them; yet there seems to be something about the situation of hiring someone who starts out as a stranger to care for one’s children that lends itself to anxiety and denial: parental emotions which in turn can put children at risk.

Even though I am a psychologist often working with parents, I have to remind myself to ask about whether a child has a nanny, how long the family has employed her and more importantly what kind of a person she is and what type of relationship the family has with her. Parents sometimes, but rarely, think to volunteer this information up front. I have had quite a few cases where there was some sort of background “nanny issue” that did not initially emerge, yet created difficulty for all concerned.

As a place-holder for parents, the nanny can embody the inevitable ambivalence generated by separation for children and parents alike. Many parents have said that it is sometimes less taxing to work in a high powered job than to deal with the demands of small children. The fact of wanting some space from one’s children can make parents feel guilty. On the other hand, parents find it painful to miss their children and their small daily milestones. By not thinking about the nanny, parents can spare themselves from internal conflict that gets stirred up by virtue of separation from one’s children. Just by showing up, the nanny steps into a difficult spot that may make her hard to think about. She can represent the negative space between child and parent. She is there when and because the parents are not. Her literal presence underscores the fact that parents need and want help, cannot “do it all” (and importantly feel guilty about this) and sometimes need respite from their children.

In the original children’s book, Mary Poppins, written by P.L. Travers (recently herself the subject of the Disney bio-pic “Saving Mr. Banks”), the impact of the nanny is underscored by the fact that upon arrival Mary Poppins is blown against the door, such that the force of her impact causes the whole house to shake. She WAS important! Though in fact Mary Poppins arrives as an enigmatic stranger, it was also the case that in Edwardian England, the setting for the story, the nanny had a place in society and in parents’ minds. Moreover, Mary Poppins is regarded as a fascinating and effective character in her own right and treated with admiration and curiosity. In best case scenarios this is still so. When the nanny figure is carefully chosen and respected as a separate person, but also as someone who carries the torch of parents’ love and concern, the nanny, the parents and the children are protected and contained in a mutually reinforcing circle of care. This curiosity and reciprocity are the secret ingredients of Mary Poppins’ magic medicine and the hidden contents of her carpet bag of tricks.


About the Author

Susan Scheftel, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Institute for Training and Research