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The Help in La-La Land: My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

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Mona Simpson's latest novel, My Hollywood, is an honest and poetic exploration of why caring for a child -- whether by a mother or a nanny -- still just can't get the respect or security it deserves. In her modern-day version of a situation portrayed in The Help by Kathryn Sockett where caring for young children is by and large done by someone who is paid to mind, protect, comfort, feed, clean and coddle the child, we see once again the contradiction of paying for love and care but not offering trust or security. In Alabama during the early 1960s, the help was paid little, trusted less, and yet the children were given blithely and with confidence that the best of care would be provided. When a certain age was reached, the child moved on, regardless of attachments formed on either side, and the help was given other work around the house. In Mona Simpson's Los Angeles, the help is paid better (although still without benefits or social security), trusted more (used as sounding board, shoulder for crying and companionship) but lied to more as well, and the children still given just as freely. When the children are ready to move on or the parents want to try something new, the help is, as Lola, Simpson's nanny narrator calls it, "chopped"-- fired with maybe a severance paid and a job reference or two. And once again, attachments between caretaker and child be damned. In other words, the parents of Simpson's novel still haven't figured out the respect that childcare deserves.

For Claire, the mother narrator of My Hollywood (the chapters alternate between her point of view and Lola's), childcare is necessary to allow her to pursue her composing career while her husband pursues his dream of writing television comedy. She meets Lola in a park and hires her on the spot. The hiring of Lola to watch over her son Will turns out to be one of the few wise decisions the beleaguered Claire makes. We can't help but feel sorry for Claire: she is so overwhelmed by angst, guilt, and frustration. She wants to be a good mother and she wants to be a good composer, and there just is not enough time in the day. Meanwhile her husband is free to work as long and as hard as he wants and then come home to a cared-for house and a loving child. Paul doesn't seem to mind too much that his wife has zero interest in sex. He has his eyes on the prize -- his own show -- and that is all that matters.

For Lola, being a nanny has allowed her to put her children in the Philippines through school; the youngest is on the verge of completing her medical degree and then Lola will be finished providing for her family far away. Her friends in Los Angeles, fellow nannies, are her support system when she needs it, and she helps them back, when and how she can. Lola is proud of what she has accomplished and confident that she has done the best for her children that she could.

In contrast, the mothers of Los Angeles, as portrayed by Simpson, are only proud of whatever status they can claim, either through their husbands or their homes or the schools their children attend. They lack confidence and cover up their insecurities with expensive clothes, jewelry and spa-care. For none of these women, not even Claire, is it enough to be a mother who cares for her kids.

And there is the problem: no respect for childcare. The problem is not mothers or fathers who have careers they want to pursue. Claire is a talented composer and loves music and should follow her talents and her passions. The problem is that whoever is caring for a child, whether it be a stay-at-home parent, a paid nanny or a volunteer grandparent, deserves respect in the form of financial security and thanks, lots of thanks. Only when Claire finally figures out who needs to leave and why, and who needs to be kept on and for how long, will she be able to compose the music -- or Simpson write her novel -- of dreams pursued, children cared for and caretakers appreciated.