"When $800 strollers hit the market a few years ago, it looked as if baby status symbols had reached a new odd, capitalist apex. Now[...] primo credentials trade in a different kind of capital: nannies." Specifically, the brown-skinned kind.
MSNBC reports on the new hot trend in domestic workers - the Tibetan nanny:
For the past several years, Tibetan nannies have been all the rage in New York City. On message boards and playgrounds, some parents claimed Tibetan nannies were "very balanced and Zen" and aided in children's "spiritual development," whereas in areas such as Dallas, for example, Latino nannies have been more in demand for their Spanish-speaking abilities.
At the Diki Daycare Center in Astoria, N.Y., demand for Tibetan nannies became so great that the preschool began offering a Tibetan nanny referral service.
"Tibetan women are well known for being caring and loving nannies," reads the promotional literature. "They are recognized for becoming ‘one of the family' and offer the same compassion and quality of care for their charges as they do their own children." Furthermore, it says, "Cleanliness, organization & dedication to education are values of Tibetan culture."
Over the years, we hear about nanny trends that come and go. The always in-fashion Swedish or French au pair, the ubiquitous Caribbean nanny, the Chinese nanny boom in the 2000s, and now Tibet is the new hot spot. It can be tough for those who aren't the flavor of the month, or those coming from a similar class/race background as the employers:
"They talk about how everybody hires the Filipina nannies because you can get them to do anything or that families will look for a British nanny who has the right accent," says Tasha Blaine, a former nanny and Sacramento, Calif.-based author of the recently-published book "Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work For, and the Children They Love."
Blaine discovered this first-hand while working as a nanny - not just from fellow caregivers, but also from prospective employers. In one interview, a mother advised Blaine to warn families in advance of meeting that she was Caucasian, with a degree from a prestigious college. "She said, ‘I'm not sure that people would feel comfortable asking someone like you to make their beds or do the laundry,'" she says.
Ahhh. And this race/class dynamic resurfaces again when discussing the small matter of how to compensate some who is assisting in raising your children:
In fact, Tibetan nannies have become so popular that they may have become victims of their own success as they've been able to request and get escalating salaries - much to the annoyance of some employers.
"Our nanny has priced herself out of our range and I will let her go because she guilted us into paying through the nose," recently wrote an outraged New Yorker on the message boards of UrbanBaby.com.
Damn it, you darkie ingrate, what's wrong with cheap labor anyway? We brought you to this country!
Okay, at this point, I should explain that I am not exactly impartial in this whole designer nannies debate. From the time I was eleven years old until the time I was about fourteen or fifteen, I worked as a nanny. For a nanny. My employer was a lovely woman from El Salvador. In the 80s, she was forced to flee civil war, leaving behind her home country in pursuit of a better life in America. When she arrived here, she then fled with her two sons from domestic violence at the hands of her husband. When I went to work for her, I always noticed that her medical degree was prominently displayed on the walls of her apartment, in spite of the work she found as a nanny/domestic.
Back then, I didn't know anything about the situation, save for the fact that this nice lady (I'll call her Isabel, here) saw me playing with her children and my younger sister, and offered me the unheard of sum of $100 a week to stay with the children after school and to make them dinner until she came home, around seven or eight in the evening.
I didn't understand, then, what it meant to make money under the table, and why there were weeks when Isabel could not pay me the cash she promised. I did not understand why she would often call me around eight or so and ask me to stay later, or promise me $40 in cash for an overnight stay, when her employers wanted her to stay late to clean up after a dinner party where she remained in the shadows for most of the evening.
I didn't understand the strange dynamic of power when you assist in raising someone else's child because they have asked you to, and the even stranger dynamic that occurred as Isabel spent her days cooing over a white child and I spent my days helping her children traverse the hostile worlds of elementary school and middle school.
Later, when I grew older, I felt a bit of rage at Isabel's employers. Why did they keep her late, so many nights? They knew about her children. Did they just not care that their nanny had a life of her own as well, children she needed to raise? Why did they so blithely blow off payment so many weeks, weeks when Isabel would struggle to put gas in the car and feed her children on the already paltry wages they were able to pay in cash?
It is one of those situations where there aren't many good answers. Isabel, with her conversational English skills and non-transferable degree found a job where she could, and was grateful for the opportunity. She joined with an El Salvadorian church in the area and eventually worked her way into a better job, her own home, and a better car. We've lost contact over the years - I still hope she is doing well.
But my time with her changed the way I look at domestic labor forever.
In this month's Latina, Elizabeth Méndez Berry evaluates a new film called The Maid, a character study of a loyal domestic worker who often sabotages the other maids in the house to retain her spot as number one. Berry interviews Angélica Hernández, a former domestic worker that served families both in Mexico and the United States. She explains:
As a 20-year-old newlywed, she could only find work as a live in maid, so she saw her husband briefly on Sundays. "I used to go to my room and cry," she says. Her work was never done: She'd go to bed at midnight and get up at 6 a.m. to make breakfast and then get the children ready for school. After her husband died 11 years ago, she moved to New York City.
"It's hard for us because there are no rules and no support," says Hernández, who has had several employers refuse to pay her. "There are good employers, but it's like reading the lottery." While live-in domestic work in the States is less common than it once was, it's not extinct, according to Priscilla González of Domestic Workers United, a nonprofit in New York City. "Domestic workers are not protected by most labor laws in this country," González says. "Along with farm workers, they're explicitly excluded from civil rights protections and the right to form unions."
Indeed, it is a global problem. A wave of scandals involving the abuse of domestic workers by diplomats have surfaced around the world, but most of the issues of modern nannies revolve less around physical abuse and more toward labor coercion and withholding of wages - which serves as a very convenient method of control.
I am sure there are families who treat their domestic employees equitably and fairly. But I am also sure these would not be the type of people comparing and contrasting different ethnicities as if they were deciding between two of the latest "it" bags instead of hiring an actual person.
Tibetan Nannies: Parents' New Status Symbol? [MSNBC]
Latina [Official Site]
Diplomat's Nanny Lifts Lid On Modern Slavery [The Independent]
Diplomats May Often Fail to Pay Household Staff [Women's E-News]