A couple of years ago in a book club, I read The Nanny Diaries, a witty but satirical novel about a nanny’s experience working for a ritzy New York family written by two former nannies of the same. It was one of the more wittier and yet most difficult books I’ve read. Why? Because it hit a little too close to home.
The story covers 10 months in the life of “Nanny,” a 21-year-old NYU student who works as a nanny to make her way through college. Here’s a loose plot summary via Wikipedia:
The story opens at the start of Nan's senior year. She's 21, living with a flight attendant roommate in a studio apartment and money is tight. She was working as a nanny for a family but they moved to London over the summer. She places an ad to find another position but a chance encounter in the park lands her a position with the X family caring for their young son Grayer. What at first appears to be just another normal nanny position soon turns into the job from hell as Nanny struggles to balance the stress of both her senior course load and caring for Grayer amid the chaos of his parents' crumbling marriage and selfish attitudes towards their child.
Why did it hit too close to home? Because the lure of selfishness in this life (something disturbingly played out in the parents’ lives in the novel) is incredibly strong in our culture and frankly this novel reminds me that I’m not immune. While my husband and I don’t have the wealth or upper-class status of the couple in this book, middle-class parents like us face way-too-similar temptations: the lure (and pressure) to succeed in one’s career, the ensnarement of social status and acceptance, the pull of promises of personal fulfillment and happiness—all those things that entice you away from the Way and towards the never-ending chase towards gratifying your own desires, a chase that (as Romans 1 so well lays out) snowballs into a life of destruction and pain not only for us but for those we love.
Now, we haven’t made the long series of disastrous choices of the parents in this story (in fact, we’ve been married long enough that we can see behind us a series of different, hard choices made in a struggle to live as God desires), but there’s more than enough in the story to make me very uncomfortable. How many times have I told my children to shush or too-sharply dismissed them so I could finish an article? How many times have I put the pressure of social acceptance by others above my children’s feelings? How many times have I put my agenda above loving my kids, husband, or those around me? Or, even more subtly, how often have I nursed the feelings that it’s all about me instead of what really matters: loving God and loving others? Too often. And this novel pricks me with those reminders.
About two thirds into the novel, I was so empathetic with Grayer that I couldn’t read the rest of the book. The pain he suffered at the rejection and selfishness of his parents was too much—a pain I horrifyingly sometimes see reflected in the faces of my own children. While it may not be as often as in Grayer’s life, even one time is far too many times. The authors are effective and witty—but ruthless. They’ve seen this world of lonely, rejected children and they relay it to us with a sharpness that ended up being too much for me. And that shouldn’t only stop short upper-class moms but also middle-class moms like me.
The last scene in the novel brought me to tears, and left me with a truth that haunts and challenges me to this day. Nanny has left the position but leaves a message for Mr. and Mrs. X. Essentially, she tells them:
Grayer loves you. I have borne witness to his love for you. And he doesn’t care what you’re wearing or what you’ve bought him. He just wants you there. Wanting him. And time is running out. He won’t love you unconditionally that much longer. And soon he won’t love you at all. So, if there’s one thing I could do for you tonight, it would be to give you the desire to know him. He’s such an amazing little person—he’s funny and smart—a joy to be with. I really cherished him. And I want that for you. For both of you, because it’s just, well, priceless.
When we get wrapped up in our own fears and desires, the people around us lose. They lose love. And love, frankly, is really what it is all about: loving God and loving others. And, as Jesus reminds, that’s a life that focused on God and others and not ourselves: a life of denying self and putting Jesus in the driver’s seat. Funny, though, as we live that way, we find things we don’t expect--truely wonderful things. We find love (real Love), the beauty and wonder of other people and Jesus, incredibly-always beside and in us. And that, in Nan’s words, is priceless.
If the film carries through with the themes, wit and sharp pokes of the novel, it will be a film well-worth seeing.