Superwoman & Her Cape

Those fraught relationships between mothers and nannies

I have a friend who is a Superwoman. She has four kids under the age of six, multiple degrees, has launched a successful nonprofit, and is in the process of launching another. In addition, she wears a serene smile on her face and dresses beautifully. I asked her how she does it. She sparkled. “I couldn’t do any of it without my cape,” she said. Her cape? “My nanny,” she whispered.

Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering, (University of California Press, $22.95) , by Cameron Lynne Macdonald, exposes the relationships between superwomen and their capes, attempting to understand what happens on the home-front when the mommies put on their smiles and high heels and go to work. She interviews upper-middle-class women who, on the whole, choose to work, heightening the emotional charge around their decision. These women work for a variety of reasons: some want to provide their children with a lifestyle that necessitates two salaries; others pessimistically anticipate the potential of one day needing to depend on a single salary, and fear leaving the work force; still others (gasp) seek the fulfillment, independence, and stimulation of work outside the home. Regardless, they are all “caught in a vise between the cultural pressure of the ideology of intensive mothering and the structural rigidity of male-pattern careers,” and so turn “to a private solution to a public problem. They hire a wife.”

Macdonald notes that “working mothers are… faced with the hard reality that they cannot be in two places at once.” She spends the majority of the book defining the patterns of behavior they use to (micro) manage the home-front, a space in which, “paradoxically, they felt out of control…because of the success they had worked so hard to attain [at work].” She notes two pervasive patterns: Mothering by proxy, in which mothers turn their caregivers “into extensions of themselves,” and create rules “to produce a consistent childcare experience for their children, regardless of the nanny.” And “shadowmothering,” where the nanny is given autonomy while the mother is not home, but must “vanish upon the real mother’s return, leaving no trace of her presence in the psychic lives of the children they shared.” Both methods, she concludes, ultimately result in frustrated nannies and guilt-ridden mothers. Not to mention confused, hurt children.

Macdonald’s research into the behaviors of nannies and mothers exposes that, overall, each woman is thinking primarily about herself — her career, her fulfillment, her status, her feelings. She often cites examples of children embracing nannies and mothers bristling; in these cases, the nannies must assuage the hurt feelings of the mother. The feelings of the children become secondary. In this complex relationship between the superwoman and her cape, “children’s affections were often the primary currency,” tools in a negotiation process, and data for evaluation. Macdonald’s work raises vital questions and points to important patterns in the mother-nanny relationship. Perhaps most importantly, though, it reveals that the cause of all this, the children, are truly the ones in the shadows, caught between their mother’s skirt and her cape. 

Maya Bernstein works as Director of Education for UpStart, a nonprofit that supports Jewish innovation, and writes regularly for and the Lilith blog.