The “Shadow Mothers”: Nannies and Au Pairs in Fiction

This Mother’s Day got me thinking of a very sensitive relationship–that between mothers and the nannies or au pairs to whom they entrust the pivotal job of raising or looking after their children.  There has been a great deal of examination into the intricacies of the mother-nanny relationship including the emotion of handing a child over to a stranger, the guilt of the working mother, and the economics. Sociologist and author Cameron Lynne Macdonald, who writes  about caregiving in all of its forms, refers to nannies and au pairs as “Shadow Mothers” in her book of the same name. Nannies are in a difficult place; they are expected to look after the child of the working mother, form strong bonds with their care, yet not threaten the mother’s place. Here is a selective list of fiction in which nannies or au pairs play an important role. Featuring murderous nannies, struggling students, recent immigrants or emotionally fragile au pairs and babysitters, these books transport readers into the lives of working families and the workers who provide a very essential service. They often develop strong bonds with and can even help keep the family together. And, as some of these works show, at times their relationship with the family members can become very complicated. All The Time In The World by Caroline Angell When she became a nanny for the wealthy, Upper East Side McLean clan, Charlotte didn’t intend to become part of a new family. Babysitting was a job to hold her over until she could figure out how to get back to her main career as a music composer. What she finds is that she is extremely good at taking care of children, and when tragedy strikes the McLeans, she discovers she is also gifted at holding together an entire family.  Almost Gone The Au Pair—Book One by Ophelia Night When 23 year old Cassandra Vale accepts her first job as an au pair, she finds herself placed with a wealthy family in a rural estate outside of Paris, and all seems too good to be true. But she soon discovers that behind the gilded gates lies a dysfunctional family, a twisted marriage, troubled children, and secrets too dark to air. The Au Pair by Emma Rous Seraphine Mayes and her twin brother Danny were born in the middle of summer at their family’s estate on the Norfolk coast. Within hours of their birth, their mother threw herself from the cliffs, the au pair fled, and the village thrilled with whispers of dark cloaks, changelings, and the aloof couple who drew a young nanny into their inner circle. Now an adult, and mourning the recent death of her father, Seraphine begins to go through his belongings, when she uncovers a family photograph that raises dangerous questions. The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey Overcoming a life of hardship and loneliness, Gemma Hardy, a brilliant and determined young woman, accepts a position as an au pair on the remote Orkney Islands where she faces her biggest challenge yet. Girl In the Rearview Mirror by Kelsey Rae Dimberg Accepting what she believes will be a dream job from a prominent political family, a young nanny is dazzled by her employers’ glamorous life before a mysterious stranger draws her into a menacing web of secrets. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins When the eight-year-old daughter of an Oxford College Master vanishes in the middle of the night, police turn to the Scottish nanny, Dee, for answers. As Dee looks back over her time in the Master’s Lodging, an eerie and ancient house, a picture of a high achieving but dysfunctional family emerges: Nick, the fiercely intelligent and powerful father; his beautiful Danish wife Mariah, pregnant with their child; and the lost little girl, Felicity, almost mute, seeing ghosts, grieving her dead mother. But is Dee telling the whole story? Is her growing friendship with the eccentric house historian, Linklater, any cause for concern? The Nanny : A Novel by Gilly Macmillan Growing up blaming her mother after the mysterious disappearance of her beloved nanny, an embittered woman is forced to return home decades later when the discovery of human remains forces her to question everything she thought she knew. The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus Nanny, a struggling NYU student, takes a position caring for the son of the rich and glamorous X family, and learns how to juggle a vast array of tasks so that a Park Avenue wife never has to lift a well-manicured finger. The Perfect Nanny : A Novel by Leila Slimani When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau.  Such A Fun Age : A Novel by Kiley Reid Seeking justice for a young Black babysitter who was wrongly accused of kidnapping by a racist security guard, a successful blogger finds her efforts complicated by a video that reveals unexpected connections. Summer Darlings by Brooke Lea Foster In 1962, coed Heddy Winsome leaves her hardscrabble Irish Brooklyn neighborhood behind and ferries to glamorous Martha’s Vineyard to nanny for one of the wealthiest families on the island. But as she grows enamored with the alluring and seemingly perfect young couple and chases after their two mischievous children, Heddy discovers that her academic scholarship at Wellesley has been revoked, putting her entire future at risk. Determined to find her place in the couple’s wealthy social circles, Heddy nurtures a romance with the hip surfer down the beach while wondering if the better man for her might be a quiet,