More guilt? Just what the doctor ordered


Psychiatrist’s au pair scare theory will have working mothers everywhere crying into their coffees

FOLKS, HOLD off buying those tickets to Nanny McPhee. An alarming theory about childminders has emerged in England, home of the starched white apron, the Silver Cross pram and the motto “nanny knows best.”

Psychiatrist Dennis Friedman claims in a new book – An Unsolicited Gift: Why We Do What We Do– that baby boys who are handed over to nannies at too early an age are likely to become womanisers later on. Let another woman into the nursery, he says, and next thing you know, your son will have commitment issues for the rest of his life.

According to Dr Friedman, who’s 85, the boy who has an alternative mother at home will forever seek out “the other woman” to fulfil his needs. The toddler who has his toast cut into fingers by a fresh-faced au pair, or his knee bandaged by nanny, will never be happy with just one partner, he claims.

Dr Friedman, a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and part-raised by a nanny himself, admits his book won’t be a terrific hit with women who feel they have a right to have a career and social life while bringing up their baby. However, he insists that delegating child-rearing responsibilities too soon – he says before the age of one – saddles sons with life-long double-standards when it comes to women.

“It creates,” he says, “a division in his mind between the woman he knows to be his natural mother and the woman with whom he has real hands-on relationship: the woman who bathes him and takes him to the park and with whom he feels completely at one. “As a result, he grows up with the idea that although he will one day go through all the social and sexual formalities of marriage, he will have at the back of his mind the notion of this other woman, who not only knows, but caters for, all his needs.”

Baby girls aren’t immune, he says. “If they have a nanny or au pair they are filled with a ‘vacuum of need’ inside them which they fill in a variety of ways such as drink, drugs, sex or money.”

Drastic all round then for the nuclear family. And terribly British too, when one thinks of all those aristocrats who constantly hark back to nanny, and how they saw a lot more of her than they did of Mummy.

I fully intend to forget all about Dr Friedman the minute this column is over, but a tiny worry will remain to add to the far bigger ball of guilt that is the working mother’s constant companion. OK, I should have said the woman who works outside the home there, but you know what I mean. The question posed by this big vocal bag of guilt is: “Can I do anything right, or is it officially my job to damage my child and deny him his chances from the get-go?”

In 18 years of motherhood, I can’t recall too many studies or surveys suggesting that this career lark is a good thing for the family, but there have been hundreds that highlight the negatives. Career women have been warned that their children risk being less intelligent, less emotionally stable, less fit, less good at sport, less able to concentrate, more prone to depression, less confident and far less attractive than their cared-for-by-their- own-mum peers. Okay, I made that last one up, but no doubt some scientist or psychologist is working away on the theory.

I cling to one positive study from Australia which discovered that babies of career mums and stay-at-home mums get approximately the same amount of cuddling. At least that’s something, but disturbing studies abound.

We’re told that breastfed babies grow into better all-rounders than their formula-fed friends; that teenagers who eat with their families less than three times a week are more likely to turn to alcohol, tobacco and drugs than those who dine with their families five times a week. And this fresh from a study at the University of Reading: boys who never forge close relationships with their mothers are more likely to be aggressive and suffer mental health problems later in life. Great.

The Germans, though they have a female chancellor, also have a popular term for people like me – Rabenmutteror Raven Mother, which is used to describe women who abandon their nest in pursuit of a career. But never mind what other people think, and anyway, I believe that ravens are considered quite attentive as mothers in the world of birds. For now, I have to worry that my son, who was handed over to the fabulous Kay when he was three months old, will have trouble settling down in his own nest.

She sang him songs, made him chuckle and walked the legs off him for two years. When he had his first serious fall, while both his parents were present I might add, he cried for Kay. Let’s hope he doesn’t spend the rest of his life finding her replacement.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.