In Kathryn Stockett's best selling novel-turned-new movie The Help, where black maids are raising white women's children in Jackson, Miss., at the cusp of the Civil Rights movement, she confronts the uncomfortable, intimate, and often, ugly relationships between women and their "help."
In an age before soccer moms and baby sling-wearing-as-social-statement, well-heeled women of a certain set happily handed off their spit-uppy infants to others to bathe, potty train, and entertain. In Stockett's Deep South, mothers preferred playing cards and sipping gin and tonics, while maids were charged to chase the children.
This was the era when black maids cleaned the toilets but were not allowed to use them. They could raise generations of a white family's children, but couldn't sit at a dinner table to eat with them. A maid was someone who could be trusted to care for your kids but not always to polish your silver.
Five decades later, maids and nannies are still cleaning houses and caring for children, now in bigger numbers than ever before. Once the domain of high society, nannydom has become democratized because more than half of all moms today work and rely on hired help to care for their kids.
Maybe that's why the fictional The Help makes so many mothers cringe. While the gross racism and separate water fountain segregation feels distant, the awkward dynamics of the mom/nanny relationship seem familiar. In our post-racist, socially evolved society, no other relationship may be as emotionally and morally charged for a middle class mom as the nanny/employer one. It can be co-dependent and complicated.
The complexion and pedigree of today's nannies have changed, with more white and college educated women now working in childcare. But there are still thousands of black and brown skinned immigrants who leave their own children in their home countries to find domestic work in the United States, acting in the hybrid role of housekeeper and nanny. And it is often these women who make up a certain caste system of care-giving in America. They have left their own children to care for ours, and this can make many moms squeamish.
But as hiring childcare has gone mainstream, moms today don't want docile, "yes ma'am" nannies, but rather partners in childcare. With millions of mothers working outside the home, we've raised our expectations of hired help. We want replacements for us, a mommy 2.0. Educated, multi-lingual nannies are trendy. We will forego a clean house if that means the nannies will whip up a batch of organic squash mash, build a couch fort and remember to drill the kids with math flash cards.
This is because unlike The Help's moms of the Deep South who spent their days playing bridge and who felt no work was too degrading for the maid, today's working moms are more likely to swing between feelings of guilt and nanny envy.
Moms can feel guilty for asking their nannies to do certain chores or activities that may not be part of their contractual responsibilities. Yes, many nannies have contracts today, along with Christmas bonuses, paid vacations, educational stipends, and even gym membership. And these same moms can feel guilty for even leaving their children with the nanny.
And then there's the nanny envy. A recent Care.com survey found that during the summer, 69 percent of parents reported feeling often or sometimes envious of their nannies spending time with their children.
So while things have changed since the era of The Help - domestic workers in New York State recently received legal protection and their own bill of rights - the intense relationship moms have with their nannies has only gotten more complicated.
Ask a working mom of young children and she may admit that she can live without her husband but couldn't function without her nanny or childcare. It is not just the children who adore and are attached to their nannies, but the moms are too. With fewer extended families living together and both parents working, we are more dependent and devoted to our "help" than ever before. And so we hire loving childcare to build our own village, not in the cotton plantation style of Stockett's story, but in a more modern, politically correct, socially responsible, super mom 2.0 style.