Nannies and Au Pairs are "Shadow Mothers"

Weekly Trip to the Library for Nannies and Au Pairs

Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering by sociologist Cameron Lynne Macdonald examines the complicated personal relationships between working mothers and the nannies and au pairs that work in their homes.

The author examines what it means to both mothers and childcare workers to be a “good mother” and what it means to outsource some of this role. The author analyzes how the mother-employers chose a caregiver, a “shadow mother” to act in their place when they can’t be present. We have edited a review by Susan Sapiro about this book below.

Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Motheringfocuses on the delegating of “motherwork” – the physical and emotional tasks involved in caring for children. Since a large part of motherwork are these emotional tasks – soothing, stimulating, forging strong bonds – outsourcing these tasks can be controversial and challenge “the fundamental understandings of motherhood” and the idea of family.

One of the inspirations for the book comes from the authors personal caregiving experience. When she was 16, she was a summer babysitter/mother’s helper for a family. She had worked with the family for some time and had grown close to their children, especially the baby. One day, something happened that upset the baby and she reached for Macdonald for comfort, not her mother. Almost immediately, Macdonald was “frozen out” by the mother. Shortly after, the family paid her for the summer but let her go from the job. It wasn’t until many years later, as she started the research that became Shadow Mothers, that she understood the mother’s reaction and the complex emotions and relationships between mothers and their children’s caregivers.

The book has four sections:

  • the restrictions that influence the mother-caregiver relationship
  • how the mother-employers try to solve the contradictions between the conflicting “ideal mother” and “ideal worker” ideologies in their lives
  • the caregivers’ perspectives on their employers’ mother and management strategies
  • alternative mother-caregiver interactions

The professional mothers interviewed for the book are highly successful in male-dominant fields. Yet, even after having children they are put in the impossible position of having to be completely career-focused. At the same time, the mother-employers hold themselves to similarly high standards as mothers, insisting that they should be utterly child-focused. The women share the resulting tension from these competing expectations in both ambivalence about their careers, and in how they managed their relationships with their caregivers.

The caregivers that are interviewed are skilled workers who are frustrated that their jobs are seen by their employers, and society in general, as “unskilled,” “natural” family work. The author relates a number of situations in which the nannies often seem to place their young charges’ needs, and their own desire for recognition of their role, over their own financial needs.

Not surprisingly, the paid caregivers often have strong reactions to their employers’ management styles. Nannies and au pairs also believe in a different version of “good motherhood” which is often critical of their empolyers’ lives and mothering techniques. In the author’s interviews with nannies and au pairs, the caregivers often yearn to be seen as a “third parent” in the family, a recognition the mother-employers are reluctant to give. In response, the caregivers use different strategies to either resist or succumb to their employers’ limits on their roles.

In the final chapter, the author explains that economic differences between upper- and middle-class mother-employers and their working-class nannies causes tension between the nannies and their employers. She believes that economic status was the basis of most of the conflicts between the mother-employers and nannies. As long as upper middle-class mothers continue to hire working-class caregivers, the mothers will need to accept that their children will be influenced by the class-based values of their caregivers, not only of their families.’

Buy your own copy by clicking links below:

Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering


  1. This sounds wonderful, I never heard of this book. It sounds like it might be "academic" hard to read, but correct. I feel that the points made sound true!

  2. In a good parent nanny relationship yes the nanny is like a 3rd parent and that's how parents and nannies should want it to be.

  3. Sounds like a great book!

  4. I suppose I am immensely blessed to be the Nanny/second Mom for two little girls in a family I have known since they were first married years ago. The mother is a good friend, I babysat for them when their first child was a baby, and I have been her teacher in preschool since they "snagged me away" to work for them.I love those children like they were my own and she LOVES that I do. She told me just yesterday that her "mommy guilt" of the past is simply gone by me taking care of the children. I do everything that she would. Gymnastics, preschool, doctor appointments, discipline, etc. The only thing I WON'T do is spanking. I was a teacher for 13 years and while I feel spanking is needed in some cases, and I spanked my own children when they were small, the alternatives are so ingrained in me I just can't.I sometimes marvel at the fact that I get paid for do something that I enjoy so much. My friend/employer tells me often that having me in her home to care for her children is a 'dream come true' and 'feels like i'm in heaven'. With accolades like that and a loving, bright toddler that loves to learn, and a 3 month old princess that smiles at me like I'm the best, what more could a Nanny ask for? 🙂

  5. I read this book and it is excellent. It's upsetting at times because there are a lot of emotions for both caregivers and mothers. Tough topic but good info for nannies and parents to read.

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