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Leventhal, H. (2014). Nanny Knows Best—The History of the British Nanny (2013) by Katherine Holden, published by The History Press. Att: New Dir. in Psychother. Relat. Psychoanal., 8(2):209-211.

(2014). Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 8(2):209-211

Nanny Knows Best—The History of the British Nanny (2013) by Katherine Holden, published by The History Press

Review by:
Hazel Leventhal

In January 2013 Dr Katherine Holden, a social historian, presented a clinical forum at The Bowlby Centre that provided a fascinating glimpse into the childhood world of John Bowlby and his wife, Ursula. They were both from large, wealthy families who employed nannies and her research and interviews with surviving members of their families showed how each person has a very different memory, and experience, of the nanny and how far-reaching and long-lasting these experiences were. They also impacted on Bowlby's ideas regarding separation and attachment and so helped him to formulate his theory. Although it may seem an upper or upper-middle class phenomenon, it is in fact highly relevant to today's society where many young children, whose mothers work, have multiple caregivers. It is worthwhile to remember when exploring these formative years in therapy that it is not only the parents who affect their children but also their nanny, childminder, au pair, nursery worker, or other adult with whom the child spends a considerable amount of time. Dr Holden's work highlighted the rich seam of experience that is sometimes overlooked or forgotten about.

Her book is erudite and meticulously researched encompassing letters, memoirs, and interviews with mothers, nannies, and the now grown-up children involved, thus giving a comprehensive picture of a world where there was often conflict and ambivalence regarding the upbringing of children, with mothers relegating their maternal responsibilities to mainly young and often inexperienced women from different social backgrounds who, nevertheless, were responsible for looking after their children and inculcating in them the values, manners, and attributes considered appropriate for their social status at the time. There are numerous references throughout the book to attachment and attachment theory and how the mother-nanny-child triangle was played out in all its myriad ways. It also explores the trauma of loss and abandonment experienced by both children and their nannies when a nanny left the family with whom she was working.

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