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The use of the umbrella in The Nanny Diaries alludes to Mary Poppins. The use of the scene is to show how the expectations of a Mary Poppins household, and a Mary Poppins nanny is unrealistic. “The Nanny Diaries” tries to be real, and contradict the magical expectations of nannies that Mary Poppins has introduced.

I was watching The Nanny Diaries and I started thinking: if we categorize children, we categorize their caregivers too. We categorize everything and everyone. “Categorization…is part of a general strategy for simplifying and ordering the world…We make sense of the multitude of separate things and events which we encounter in our daily lives by seeing them as instances of types or categories.” (Fowler, 25). We all know the caregivers in movies- Mary Poppins is the first that comes to mind but there are others. In the film, “the children misbehave and feel distanced…until the nanny remedies the situation. These changes resonate with changing understandings of child rearing and family structure that had been emerging in postwar America. Childcare experts and psychologists rejected the previous generation’s strict disciplinarian methods of child rearing, as advocated by behaviorists such as John Watson (1928), for the more laissez-faire methods of “Dr. Spock” (1954). This change is seen to be consistent with a general cultural trend away from the self-denial of the pre-war period and toward the self-fulfillment that was an important element of the emerging new postwar consumerist economy. Inculcating indulgence and self-regulation, as did the permissive school of child rearing, resonated with ideas of individuality and gratification that were the necessary ethics for a consumer-based economy (Margolis 1984, 63).” (McLeer) However, in the books, the position of the nanny is more complicated. This can be accounted to the different time periods the books were written and the films were made. The films being 1960’s and the books years ranges from Victorian times to modern. For instance, in the film, Mary Poppins is clearly a mother-figure. “The libidinal mother was a popularized construct of postwar psychologists who supposedly would be “the ideal mother to go with the permissively raised child–one who would find passionate fulfillment in the details of child care” (Ehrenreich and English 1978, 221). The libidinal mother acted on her instincts and fulfilled all her desires by giving her child unconditional, spontaneous love.” (McLeer), however the message was different as well- child rearing practices had changed from the time the book was written to when the film was made. In the films, the family needs to be reconstructed and the nanny helps with that. “The role of the nanny is to restore family order by modernizing the [parent]-child relationship according to the rubrics of the childcare experts of the time, thus restoring [them] to [their] position of head of household. Although positioning the father at the head of the household is as old a notion as patriarchy itself, the emphasis…on non-disciplinary, friendly, father-child relations is something new.” (McLeer.)  The nannies are not only a stereotype, but a cultural figure heavy with meaning. “As a cultural figure, the nanny not only intervenes in nuclear-family isolation, but she represents the breakdown of the distinction between public and private spheres by existing simultaneously in both spheres, being at the same time family and not-family” (McLeer) 

For those who have never had a nanny, these depictions of nannies might be okay- the problem starts if you take a caregiver and immediately picture them as Mary Poppins without even observing the interactions they have with children. A good nanny in these films is one who “has perfected the magic act that is child care, creating an illusion of an effortless relationship; she could be his mother.” (McLaughlin, 44) As someone who has had three nannies I am hesitant to comment on the actual relationship between nannies and children- because it isn’t the same for every child, and the relationship can vary even from nanny to nanny. So if you’ll forgive me, I will talk in terms of nannies as symbols- and not real actual people.

The magical out of this world nannies are the most recognizable ones on television and in movies. They are the ones society love but that are impossible to find, because they’re fictional characters in fictional books. Mary Poppins “gets them to take medicine through song and games rather than by exerting her authority. She sits by the fire in the nursery and lulls them to sleep by singing. She fills their days with enjoyable activities, yet is the first nanny to have been able to make them behave.” (McLeer). In the book, it’s a whole other story (pun intended.) While there is “something strange and extraordinary about her-something that was frightening and at the same time…exciting.” (Travers, 12) she is otherwise serious. The children know that “Mary Poppins never wasted time in being nice.”(Travers, 199) and so are uneasy when she is not cross with them. She “was very vain and liked to look her best.” (Travers, 16) and meeting the children she “regarded them steadily, looking from one to the other as though she were making up her mind whether she liked them or not.” (Travers, 9) She is human. She needs to become acquainted with them, and they need to become acquainted with her. There is no strong feeling of acceptance right away. It is easy to forget that they might not have an instant connection, and may interact as strangers because their job is not really seen as a job. “Insofar as domestic servants are conceived as a substitute for the wife in a traditional household, they are expected to conform to an account of their work that is only partly real “work.” As Hondagneu-Sotelo observes, employers were often shocked to think that their child care workers were only working for the money (2001,120). The household is a different kind of institution than a market.” (Tronto, 37) The house as a workplace is forgotten as a public place and the public/private spheres are blurred. “One might argue that to make the choice to use domestic servants is only to participate in another market relation, no different from sending a child to a day care center, or purchasing prepared food, or eating in a restaurant that employs and underpays dishwashers.There are several morally relevant differences between hiring domestic servants and purchasing commodities and services on the market. First, the institutional setting of the household is a different setting than the market. Because domestic service takes place in a private home, it is often not regarded as employment at all.” (Tronto, 37) They are not seen as caregivers, or people who are doing a job; and they may fill or be expected to fill several other roles.

The nanny is a replacement for the mother. “The [books] show the dangers of absent mothers unconcerned with their mother role exclusively, while showcasing ideal motherhood through the nanny as stand-in, ersatz mother.” (McLeer) Mothers are seen as distant, and in Mary Poppins by P.L Travers, she is not sure of who her children really are, what they like, how they behave; it is the nanny’s role to fill. When introducing the children to the nanny, the mother says that “‘You’ll find that they are very nice children…And that they give no trouble at all,’ continued Mrs Banks uncertainly, as if she herself didn’t really believe what she was saying.” (Travers, 8) The mother does try her best; however it is not sufficient to the children’s needs. “Suddenly the door opened and in came Mrs Banks. ‘I thought I heard the babies,’ she said. Then she ran to the Twins. ‘What is it my darlings? Oh my Treasures, my Sweets, my Love-birds, what is it? Why are they crying so, Mary Poppins? They’ve been so quiet all the afternoon- not a sound out of them. What can be the matter?’ ‘…I expect they’re getting their teeth, ma’am.’ said Mary Poppins, deliberately not looking in the direction of the Starling…’I don’t want teeth if they make me forget all the things I like best,’ wailed John… ‘Yes-yes. There-there. Mother knows-Mother understands. It will be all right when the teeth come through,’ crooned Mrs Banks tenderly…Mrs Banks was patting her children gently, first one and then the other, and murmuring words that were meant to be reassuring. Suddenly John stopped crying. He had very good manners, and he was fond of his Mother…It was not her fault she always said the wrong thing. It was just…that she did not understand…’There, you see, Mary Poppins! They’re quite good again. I can always comfort them. Quite good, quite good,’ said Mrs Banks, as though she were singing a lullaby. ‘And the teeth will soon be through.’ (Travers, 145-147) The mother does not understand the children; it is up to the nanny to replace her and make up for what is lacking in terms of the family. The nanny does understand the children, but that is because she is almost in “the child world” separated from the “adult world”, despite the fact that she is an adult. The nanny knows more about the child than the mother does- as a consequence of spending more time with the children, the mothers are distant from the children. When having to deal with Michael, Mrs. Banks comes to the conclusion that “That child must be ill.” (Travers, 85) however, Mary Poppins when confronted with the same problem, “turned and faced him…’You…got out of bed the wrong side this morning.'” (Travers, 86) He is “enjoying his badness, hugging it to him as though it were a friend, and not caring a bit.” (Travers, 86). His mother does not recognize this; it is his nanny who really has a sense of what he is feeling and has formed a connection to him. The connection is not instant though, and they have to get used to each other; a fact which is overlooked by the parents. “When their Mother had gone, Jane and Michael edged towards Mary Poppins, who stood, still as a post, with her hands folded in front of her. ‘How did you come?’ Jane asked. ‘It looked just as if the wind blew you here.’ ‘It did,’ said Mary Poppins briefly…As it did not seem that Mary Poppins was going to say any more…Jane too, remained silent.” (Travers, 10) They do become closer to Mary Poppins and enjoy her as a sort of substitute mother. “Michael sipped [the milk] tasting every drop…making it last as long as possible so that Mary Poppins should stay beside him… He could smell her crackling white apron and the faint flavour of toast that always hung about her so deliciously. But, try as he would, he could not make the milk last for ever, and presently, with a sigh of regret, he handed her the empty cup and slipped down into the bed.” (Travers, 102) Michael tries to keep her close, and when she does leave, the children console themselves by telling each other that “She did what she said she would, anyway. She stayed till the wind changed.” (Travers, 203)

In The Collected Tales of Nurse Matilda, the children’s mother is oblivious. They are “a huge family of children; and…terribly, terribly naughty.” (Brand, 9). The parents “think of them in groups-there were the Big Ones and the Middling Ones and the Little Ones and the Littlest Ones; and the Baby. The baby was really a splendid character… It talked a curious language all of its own. There was also the Tiny Baby, but it was so small that it couldn’t be naughty, so it was very dull and we needn’t count it.” (Brand, 9-10) The children are not able to be individuals, and as they are not specifically interacting with their parents, it is easier for Mrs. Brown not to “believe that her children were really naughty.” (Brand, 11) The role of the mother has changed- she no longer needs to care for the children, and “It is evident that…meltdown[s] fall into [the nanny’s] domain, which alternates between middle management and cleaning staff.” (McLaughlin, 86)

The nanny has several roles, although the chief one is to care for the child, they may end up becoming servants. “The status of quasi-family member means that the domestic servant is enmeshed in the complete details of the lives of the people served. Domestic workers’ work is expected to reflect the values (for example, in raising children or performing household duties),tastes (for example, in purchasing food, cleaning products, and other commodities for the household), and other aspects of the lives of their employers. The space in which they do their work is not a public workspace, but someone else’s most private space.” (Tronto, 37). Child care and the home are interconnected. “Part of the work of domestic service itself is to nurture and maintain care relationships. While these concerns also exist in market relations of care (for example, among nursing home aides and their charges), they are presumed to be paradigmatic of domestic relations, and thus, form a central part of domestic service.” (Tronto, 37). They may be seen as an extension of the child, and not people in their own right.

It is an assumption that the nanny should naturally take care of the children not only during the day, but at all times. Mary Poppins does not even have the privacy of her own room. “From the carpet-bag…came a folding camp-bedstead with blankets and eiderdown complete, and this she set down between John’s cot and Barbara’s.” (Travers, 13) In the Nanny Diaries, it is noted that “I’m…one of the few nannies with a visible face. Apparently, Mrs. X was not alone in her concept for the evening; all the nannies are in huge rented costumes at least three feet in circumference; the child is a small Snow White, nanny is a large Dwarf, the child is a small farmer, nanny is a very large cow, the child is a small Pied Piper, nanny is a large rat. However, the winners, hands down, are the Teletubbies. I exchange wan smiles with two Tinky Winkys from Jamaica. A couple with a small Woodstock and large Snoopy in tow comes over to us.” (McLaughlin, 91) The nanny and the child are paired up together, with the child in the dominant costume, and the nanny in a supporting role. Despite the fact that the nanny is taking care of the child, the nanny is employed by the parents for the child. They are meant only to support the child.

The nanny as the silent, obedient, caregiver is embodied through the character of Nana. Nana “was a prim Newfoundland dog…who had belonged to no one in particular until the Darlings engaged her. She had always thought children important, however, and the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, and was much hated by careless nursemaids, whom she followed to their homes and complained of to their mistresses. She proved to be quite a treasure of a nurse. How thorough she was at bath-time; and up at any moment of the night if one of her charges made the slightest cry. Of course, her kennel was in the nursery. She had a genius for knowing when a cough is a thing to have no patience with and when it needs stocking around your throat. She believed to her last day in old-fashioned remedies…and made sounds of contempt over all this new-fangled talk about germs…It was a lesson in propriety to see her escorting the children to school, walking sedately by their side when they were well behaved, and butting them back into line if they strayed. On John’s soccer days she never once forgot his sweater, and she…carried an umbrella in her mouth in case of rain.” (Barrie, 3-4)  Nana depicted as a dog is an interesting strategy. Nannies can be treated like dogs by some families. They entertain the child, feed the child, play with the child, read to the child-but at the end of the day, they aren’t really valued by their employers. Nana is loyal to the children, fiercely so; but when she worries about them, she gets treated as the children do; with no agency. She is othered in relation to the caregivers of the Darling’s friends, as “There is a room in the…school where the nurses wait. They sat on forms, while Nana lay on the floor, but that was the only difference. They affected to ignore her as of an inferior social status to themselves, and she despised their light talk.” (Barrie, 4) The fact that she is a dog does not go overlooked, even though “No nursery could possibly have been conducted more correctly.” (Barrie, 4) they cannot see past her physical appearance as a dog and see that she cares about the children.

Mary Poppins is also connected to animals. The Hamadryad is “First cousin once removed-on the mother’s side” (Travers, 169) Her birthday is celebrated at a Zoo, and part of the celebration consists of “the animals singing and shouting…leopards and lions, beavers, camels, bears, cranes, antelopes and many others all forming a ring round Mary Poppins. Then the animals began to move, wildly crying their Jungle songs, prancing in and out of the ring, and exchanging hand and wing as they went as dancers do.” (Travers, 172) She is not quite human. She looks and acts as one, but she is related to and enjoys the company of animals. When questioned about it the next morning, she says that “I have all I need of Zoos in this nursery, thank you.” (Travers, 177) repeating the lesson that the children had heard from the Hamadryad: “We are all made of the same stuff…we of the Jungle, you of the City. The same substance composes us…we are all one, all moving to the same end.” (Travers, 174-175) The animals and humans, like the Zoo and the nursery, are the same-they have the same status; and the same needs.

I can say from first hand experience that to have a nanny is tough. There are good things and bad things about it. You’ve got to get used to a strange person living in your house, you learn about their culture, and they learn about yours, they can be great- or they can just see you as a salary. The relationship to the parents might not be that great either. They are present when they interview her, they have “The Play-with-Mother portion of the audition. She is in for the night…I hear about her pregnancy, Lotte Berk, the last Parent’s Night meeting, the pain-in-the-ass housekeeper…the string of nanny disasters before me and the nursery school nightmare. Completion Phase III: I am actually excited that I am not only getting a delightful child to play with, I’m getting a new best friend!” (McLaughlin, 13) however, they are not a major part in the child’s upbringing as the nanny is, and have little (or no) contact with them. Nana “resented visits to the nursery from Mrs. Darling’s friends,” (Barrie, 4) and “Mary Poppins never told anybody anything.” (Travers, 15)

It seems to me that nannies offer a way for parents to neglect children– it might not be deliberate, but we see an awful lot of Nanny-child, not enough of Nanny-parent, and virtually no parent-child. The child and the nanny have their own world, and the parents have their own. “The distance of the child’s room from the parents’ room always runs the gamut from far away to really, really far away. In fact, if there is another floor this room will be on it.” (McLaughlin, 10) With the cult of the child, the children were also objectified. Mrs. Banks is faced with a choice. She “could have either a nice, clean, comfortable house or four children. But not both, for he couldn’t afford it. And after Mrs. Banks had given the matter some consideration she came to the conclusion that she would rather have Jane, who was the eldest, and Michael, who came next, and John and Barbara, who were Twins and came last of all.” (Travers, 1-2) The Banks children are compared to a house, and objectified. The Brown children are summed up in Mrs. Brown’s thoughts as “poor, dear, darling, blameless little angels!” (Brand, 20) They could do no wrong in her eyes, and even as “Mrs Brown took one look at her dear children, armless, one-legged, choking up mud-and-cocoa and smelling of dung, [she] said ‘What a lovely time you seem to be having darlings, but where is Nurse Matilda?'” (Brand, 76). Instead of wishing to see them as people, she leaves them to the care of Nurse Matilda. Mrs. Banks does likewise and is shocked by Mary’s reaction to the children. “Mary Poppins continued to regard the four children… Then, with a long, loud sniff that seemed to indicate that she had made up her mind, she said: ‘I’ll take the position.’ ‘For all the world,’ as Mrs Banks said to her husband later, ‘as though she were doing us a signal honour.’ ‘Perhaps she is,’ said Mr Banks, putting his nose round the corner of the newspaper for a moment and then withdrawing it very quickly.” (Travers, 9-10) Mary’s reaction has reminded Mrs. Banks that she is offering a service. In Nanny’s case, “We will dance around words such as ‘nanny’ and ‘child-care,’ because they would be distasteful and we will never, ever, actually acknowledge that we are talking about my working for her. This is the Holy Covenant of the Mother/Nanny relationship: this is a pleasure-not a job. We are merely ‘getting to know each other’…The closest we get to the possibility that I might actually be doing this for money is the topic of my babysitting experience, which I describe as a passionate hobby… As the conversation progresses I become a child-development expert-convincing both of us of my desire to fulfill my very soul by raising a child and taking part in all stages of his/her development: a simple trip to the park or museum becoming a precious journey of the heart.” (McLaughlin, 3-4) The job is reduced to a rewarding experience, and so the nanny’s place in the home is minimized.

There are alternatives to having a nanny. “Short of hiring someone to come into their homes full time to take care of their children, upper middle-class parents could choose to take their children to daycare centers, to use the services of women who provide daycare in their homes, to leave their children with relatives, or to arrange for their children to spend their time in after-school programs. Any worthy form of daycare provides workers who are deeply committed to the interests and needs of each child. But the fear for upper middle-class parents is that their children may not receive enough attention in such settings.” (Tronto, 43) Parents have reasons for choosing one form of childcare over another. “Hiring a nanny is a way for parents to try to keep control of their children’s senses of their needs. This becomes increasingly difficult in our culture where increasingly the market defines the needs of people (Luttwak, 1999; Schor 2000). Nonetheless, denied authority elsewhere, parents can view their imposition of their view of needs as a necessity for the children’s well-being.” (Tronto, 45) While this is true, the Mary Poppins film then contradicts the entire view of nannies. “Although Mary Poppins shows American audiences how to bring harmony to the family through correct mothering, the message to American mothers is not that they should go out and hire a nanny. Rather they are being told that a woman’s chief and most satisfying role in life is in the home, and that their dissatisfactions therein can be solved by rearranging family configurations.” (McLeer) It is about encouraging the family dynamic. The family is made a happy one; it is not about the child- but the family. The way to promote this image is with the clear restoration of the breadwinner/homemaker model.


Works Cited

IMAGES: (In order of appearance. Everything else in alphabetical order.)

  1. http://img.timeinc.net/people/i/2006/startracks/060522/scarlett_johansson.jpg
  2. http://www.puppiesandflowers.com/blogimages/marypoppins2.gif
  3. https://someonetoday.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/b_img_4653.jpg


  1. Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. New York: Bantam Dell Classics, 2008. Print.
  2. Brand, Christianna and Edward Ardizzone. The Collected Tales of Nurse Matilda. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007. Print.
  3. Fowler, Roger. Linguistic Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
  4. McLaughlin, Emma, and Nicola Kraus. The Nanny Diaries. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2007. Print.
  5. Travers, P. L., and Mary Shepard. Mary Poppins. San Diego: Harcourt Brace &, 1997. Print.


  1. “Nanny Nonsense.” Web log post. Tell-A-Gram. WordPress, 4 Mar. 2013. Web. 7 Mar. 2013. <http://tellagram.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/nanny-nonsense/.
  2. Danielle, “REVIEW: Mary Poppins by P.L Travers.” Web Log post. Enchanted by Books. 24 Mar. 2013. Web. April 21 2013. <http://enchantedbybooks.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/mary-poppins-by-p-l-travers/


  1. Mary Poppins-An Advertisement Magic Spell. Prod. MarkArcana. Youtube. Youtube. 19 April 2009. Web. 21 April 2013
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  3. Mary Poppins Flying Nanny Scene. Prod. Emily Lewis. YouTube. YouTube, 22 July 2012. Web. 21 April. 2013.
  4. Funniest Scene in peter pan (eng) Prod. zinedinealex Youtube. Youtube. 25 Oct. 2009 Web. 21 April 2013
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  1. Mcleer, Anne. “Practical perfection? The nanny negotiates gender, class, and family contradictions in 1960s popular culture.” NWSA Journal 14.2 (2002): 80+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.
  2. Tronto, Joan C. “The ‘Nanny Question’ in Feminism.” Hypatia 17.2 (Spring 2002): 34-51. Jstor Web. 19 April 2013.