A British Au Pair Has Been in the Dock in New England. the Reaction Back Home Shows What a Self-Deluding Attitude We Have to Child Welfare

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), October 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

A British Au Pair Has Been in the Dock in New England. the Reaction Back Home Shows What a Self-Deluding Attitude We Have to Child Welfare


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


Working parents may miss the loveliest parts of their children growing up. They also bypass the nightmares. I have only second-hand recollections of the baby choking on a chunk of wood and the toddler disappearing into Regent's Canal clutching his duck-feeding bread.

By the time I got home from the office most crises were over. The nannies who looked after my children were by and large good. No one got sacked. No one died. In the cocooned word of the privileged working mother dramas mainly avoid black endings.

The case of Louise Woodward, the British au pair charged with murdering the baby in her care, was different. It was also an oddly emotionless affair; a fable of workaholism, of stinginess, of risk-taking and scapegoats.

Among the designer lawyers, courtroom chrysanthemums and plaster skull, there was no overwhelming sense that Matthew Eappen had died needlessly. Nor was Woodward a tragic player. As I write the jury deliberates, but it is hard to see how they could justly convict, on the evidence produced, a model defendant; all shampoo-advert hair and Alice bands.

Sure, she drank a beer illegally and chatted on the phone when she should have been minding the children. If these are the marks of a killer au pair, the rise in infant mortality rates may be exponential.

But this case was cluttered with secondary guilt. The Eappens, bereft as they were, had entrusted their small children to an unqualified 18-year-old. Their older child, aged two and thus unable to mount a convincing defence, was in the frame for damaging his brother. As for procuring virtual slave labour as part of a programme of cultural exchange: what an indictment of American child care.

But how insufferably smug we British are. Starchy distaste for this Herodian system of baby-minding suggests that British professional women behave divinely to their nannies. On the contrary, we are frequently vile. For every middle-class nanny-from-hell story, there exists a childminder sacked for such heinous crimes as putting her own washing through the family machine or eating too many Fruit Comers.

The second myth is that affluent women are generous employers who put their children first. …

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