Leila Slimani’s bestselling thriller, The Perfect Nanny, opens with two short sentences you can never unread: “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.”
If you love dark, propulsive thrillers, you’ll be hooked. And if you’re a parent, you’ll be forced to read it with one eye open. The novel—a “whydunnit” about a seemingly impeccable Parisian nanny who ends up murdering her charges (based on a similar real-life case in New York)—is so astute on the peculiar difficulties of modern family life, I found it almost physically excruciating to read. Like a good horror film, it offered a safe environment in which to explore all my latent fears. From the first page, Slimani and her cool French authorial voice seemed to be perched beside me, one manicured finger pressing down on my deepest psychological bruise: the guilt of being a working mother.
The book has already sold more than 600,000 copies in France, where it won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Just out in English, it has been translated into 18 languages, with 17 more to come. In France, the novel has been so universally applauded that president Emmanuel Macron offered Slimani the position of minister of culture, a post she refused with a Gallic shrug, having said in an interview, “I want to be free.”
The Perfect Nanny is about murder, but it’s also about something much more universal and morally confusing: the terrible vulnerability of parental love and the price we pay to sustain professional success when our children are very young.
It has often been said, wryly, that behind every great man there’s a good woman and behind every great woman there’s a good nanny. But for the most part, childminders are socially and economically marginalized—part of that unacknowledged tribe of carers and stay-at-home parents who push toddlers on swings and tend to the elderly and the sick while the rest of the world gets on with the serious business of making money in the real world.
It’s no secret that the job of caring for children and the home can be difficult, draining work. The ability to be simultaneously organized, energetic, creative, tidy and task oriented while also being entirely at the whim of a tiny, demanding human is a rare gift.
Not all mothers—and even fewer fathers—are truly good at it. And for a heap of complicated reasons, parents often make the decision to outsource some portion of their child-rearing and domestic duties to a dedicated professional. For many working mothers, employing a nanny is a necessity for maintaining their sanity, marriage and career. But it is, of course, also a luxury reserved for the reasonably affluent. There are psychological complications that come with the decision to hire someone else to do the work that social expectations dictate that mothers should do. The big one, of course, is guilt, along with its constant handmaiden, shame.
I’ve been writing on the topic of parenting since my oldest son was born 5½ years ago, but I’ve rarely found cause to mention the succession of full-time babysitters who have made this exercise possible. As I type this, I can hear our childminder downstairs in the kitchen, feeding lunch to my baby.
Like most working mothers, I am of two minds about this situation. On the one hand, I’d like to be downstairs feeding lunch to my baby. On the other hand, I’m happy to be up here in my office doing the work I enjoy. I can’t do both (believe me, I’ve tried). I’m also keenly aware that I will judged, as all mothers are, for failing to do all of the above.
And so, like many women, I pay a nanny, who at times has earned more than I do to care for the children whose safety and well-being I prize above anything else. It’s an imperfect solution to the most modern of problems: How do middle-class families raise children in a society that prizes economic success above all else?
Slimani’s book observes this problem and turns the screw one further by asking “What is it actually like for nannies? What is it like to make someone else’s happy family life possible without actually being a full member of the family? What are the hidden worries and desires of the women who work tirelessly to make our lives social media-ready without actually appearing in the pictures themselves?
Of course, there is no single answer to this question, but what is certain is that the conflicting feelings that many working mothers have for their caregivers get right to the heart of the terrible vulnerability of being a parent. “Ever since her children were born,” Slimani observes of her protagonist, “Myriam has been scared of everything. Above all, she is scared that they will die. She never talks about this—not to her friends, not to Paul—but she is sure that everyone has had the same thought.”
Of course we have. And that’s why reading The Perfect Nanny is such a painfully lurid, one-eye-open kind of pleasure. Consider this column both a recommendation and a warning.