"The Nanny Diaries," a recently released tell-all novel that chronicles the gilded lives of New York-elite Park Avenue moms and their caregivers, has caused a flurry of talk in my neighborhood, New York's Upper East Side. Although authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus say that the life of the family they chronicle is a composite of their experiences working for over 30 families during the six years they babysat part-time to help pay college expenses, I don't recognize this family. Yet I live in the same neighborhood, my children play in the same playgrounds, attend the same schools, and participate in the same after-school programs.
While raising children in New York for 13 years, I have always relied on the help of our babysitter, who has been with us since my oldest was a newborn. I have spent hours with the caregivers of many, many New York children from all kinds of backgrounds. A few of the sitters I've met are as gifted as Mary Poppins, while others resemble the Wicked Witch of the West.
As my children moved through baby groups, sports and art classes, pre-school, private school, and Little League, I have become acquainted with many different kinds of parents. I have never seen what Ms. McLaughlin recounted in a recent New York Times interview: "The emotional chill, the selfishness toward poorly paid employees, the occasional over-medicated mom this was the norm." The author goes on to say there were exceptions i.e. functional wealthy families, but concludes that, "There really isn't a situation that occurs in the book that our peers or we didn't experience multiple times in multiple families."
As in all strata of society, there are always a few unfortunate bad apples. In the case of the diaries' "Family X," it seems more tragic given their vast resources. But family dysfunction doesn't occur just because there is wealth.
Caregivers are a fact of life in New York, where there are more than 1 million children under the age of 10. The city's large number of immigrants and abundance of college students provide a pool of eligible candidates to suit the needs of all kinds of families not just the wealthy.
Authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus present themselves as the great saviors of children in a cold, unforgiving world of privilege and appearances where all the household help is underpaid, overworked, and mistreated.
But for all the "bad apple" families, there are probably an equal number of unsuitable babysitters, like the college student from the Midwest who quit the week my friend returned to work, despite her year-long contract. My friend and her family scrambled for several weeks while alternative child-care arrangements were made. Another mother discovered her caregiver had been arrested for shoplifting when the police called her and asked her to pick up her child at the precinct.
Our own babysitter has provided 13 years of her love to my children. I, too, have benefited from her experience raising five children of her own, guiding me through baby's colic and handling grumpy teens. I admire her calm, gentle manner and the way she sees the bright side of life. Although she doesn't live with us, we consider her a member of our family. We throw her birthday parties every June. We buy her scones, which she likes to eat for lunch with a cup of tea. Once we flew her and her three children home to the West Indies to attend an unexpected family funeral. My husband and I and our two boys all love her and respect her deeply. My sitter has been the person backing me up all along, through the birth of my second child, and holding down the fort when I had to travel for business or care for my in-laws.
But our babysitter is not the exception. All over my neighborhood there are caregivers who have become part of families. I know of couples who have paid for their caregiver's healthcare costs. Others have loaned money or given time off with pay so that a sitter could help a relative in need. I know of a woman whose husband was transferred to the Midwest to become CEO of a large company. After a year, their former sitter missed them so much that they rehired her, moved her and her family from New York, and found them an apartment and a school for her daughter.
These are the stories of families who know how integral these "family members" have been in helping to raise their children. They don't make it into splashy novels because they aren't as titillating as the ones "The Nanny Diaries" discuss. But they are so much more important.
Andrea Disario Marcusa is a freelance writer.