Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Book Review: A Spoonful of Sugar
Mary Poppins has been a cultural touchstone for well over half a century. Before the 1964 Disney film came out, her character starred in a popular series of books that were first published in 1934. Even now, her name is synonymous for the perfect nanny. But do today’s working families really need Mary Poppins? After all, her mission was not to take care of Jane and Michael (who had already run off several other women), but to show their parents they needed to spend more time with their children. (Although Mr. Banks’s job at the bank is blamed for his malaise, Mrs. Banks is ridiculed for her suffragette work.) After Mr. Banks has his epiphany, Mary Poppins flies off.
Today’s families do not need a nanny who abruptly takes off.
Author Amanda Orr has updated the Mary Poppins fantasy with her debut novel, A Spoonful of Sugar. Covering much of the same territory as Allison Pearson’s groundbreaking I Don’t Know How She Does It, Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens, and Jennifer Weiner’s All Fall Down, Sugar does not star Colombian nanny Maria, but rather Maria’s harried employer, Anna Moore. We meet Anna the day before her six-month maternity leave (a true fantasy for most women) comes to an end. Anna’s baby, Max, is her third child; she also has two- and four-year-old daughters. Anna is the creative director for a Seattle-based advertising agency, and when she pops in to show off her latest baby, she discovers someone else in her office. While this problem – and this employee – are quickly dispatched with, there’s another one at Anna’s daycare center, a particularly gross type of problem that results in Anna starring in a sensational YouTube video titled “My Daycare is a Shitbox.”
Anna needs help, and she’s not getting much from her perpetually stoned mother and clueless husband Patrick. She finds Maria through Craigslist and hires her practically on the spot. Maria is a graduate student in early childhood education, and she wants $24 an hour to take care of Anna’s children. Anna agrees, and never stands up to Maria, even when she shows up in barely-there outfits and rearranges Anna’s house. The children love Maria, and Anna is forced to shell out even more money when her perfect friend Colette tells her the girls need to be in pre-school as well. Caught up in a campaign for a prospective client-- a pharmaceutical company that has a new drug for stressed-out women -- Anna is on a business trip in San Francisco when two earthquakes happen – an actual one that results in a dislocated shoulder, and a metaphorical one when Maria calls to say she can’t watch the kids the next day. Naturally, everyone in her family expects Anna to drop everything and go home.
Is a nanny like Maria really Mary Poppins, or does she create more problems by setting expectations and then not fulfilling them? While it’s well-known that American non-parents are happier than parents, a recent study pinpoints the reason why: lack of subsidized childcare, maternity leave, or work flexibility. For women like Anna, just getting to work, staying at work, and leaving work presents challenges every day. A sick child, an absent day care provider, a work crisis – these are daily events, and keep working mothers from ever achieving a real sense of balance.
The fact that authors are still writing very similar stories fifteen years after I Don’t Know How She Does It shows how little progress we’ve made in dealing with these issues. In fact, things have become worse – jobs pay less but demand more, child care and education costs have gone through the roof, and expectations for children and parenting are higher than ever. Simply put, most child care providers cannot live on the salaries they earn, and most American families cannot afford high-quality child care, which is also very difficult to find. Anna’s situation pinpoints a complication unique to the mother-nanny relationship – how tricky it is to manage to employee who works in your home and is paid to love your children. How could Anna fire Maria for not showing up when her daughters are crying for her?
Sugar has some unique plot twists, and Anna is a very different character than I Don’t Know How’s Kate Reddy, but no new ground is broken here. This says more about the national attitude toward child care – that it’s a personal problem and up to each individual working mother to solve – than author Orr’s debut.
Thanks to Amanda Orr for the book in exchange for an honest review.