Nannies: Friends, Family, Or Employees?

Illustration for article titled Nannies: Friends, Family, Or Employees?

In middle school, high school and college, I made tons of cash from babysitting. But I'll never forget the day I decided I didn't want to take care of other people's kids anymore.


I was picking up a 10-year-old girl — for whom I'd been babysitting for a while — from school, but I'd forgotten my wallet. Her school — and her home — were in my neighborhood, so when she came bounding out of the school, I told her that instead of going straight to her house we were going to stop at my place first. She'd never been to my house, but she said, "sure," but then asked: "Is it one of those buildings where people are hanging out of the windows going 'yo yo yo'?" Hmm. I guess this was a valid question, in a way. But it still stung; basically this little white girl wanted to know if I, a black woman, was taking her to the ghetto. I'd taken her to the park, and to piano lessons, and I assumed that she trusted me — and to some extent, she did — but she was also surprised to find out that my mom's building had a marble lobby and a doorman (hers had neither) and that a pal in her class lived on the floor above us. But I think I was hurt because as odd as it seems, I thought we were friends. And you don't ask friends stuff like that. But her question reminded me of my "place."

This memory was triggered by reading about Just Like Family, a new book by Tasha Blaine, which explores the role of nannies, the people paid to become part of a family.

"I've heard nannies say a lot that you have to love the children like they're your own, but at the end of the day you have to know they really aren't. You are like family, but you are an employee," Blaine tells Salon. For the book, Blaine — who has worked briefly as a nanny — interviewed over 100 nannies, and found that that they fall into two camps: The "career" nannies, and the "amateurs."

Blaine focused on three women: Claudia, an immigrant from Dominica who has left a son behind to work in the New York but faces eviction while watching someone else's two small children all day; Vivian, an American-born, college-educated nanny who works with the International Nanny Association; and Kim, a live-in in Texas going through a divorce and forcing herself to accept that she may never have kids of her own.

Of course, in the book, there are the stories about how, though families welcome these women into their homes, line between what is and what is not appropriate is blurred. for example: One day, Claudia tries to figure out if her employer will be working from home the next day so she can plan a schedule for the children, and she "gingerly" goes to his desk and flips through his calendar. As noted in this New York Times piece, "Unspoken, but implied: She can be present for blowout fights, wash their dirty laundry, and help raise their children, but she can't look at a calendar?" Then there's the time Kim is invited to a baby naming event on her day off — and discovers she's expected to set up all the food, carrying heavy platters up flights of stairs, because she is the help. It's like, just when you think you're something more, you're forced to remember you're something less.

But most interesting is the fact that generally, these are working women working for working women. Says Blaine: "They are women who are often navigating the same issues as the women who hired them. There are class and often race differences, to be sure. But Claudia and her boss are both working mothers." As for why people look down on nannies, Blaine offers, "I think it comes right along with our society undervaluing what it takes to raise children."


And, at this point, Blaine doesn't think she would hire a nanny, even if she could afford to: "I don't know if I'd be very good at navigating that relationship. Part of the problem was, having done my book, I would start talking with them and instinctively wind up getting their life stories. So then I would have the guilt. And I would want to be their friend. And I knew that if I thought they were doing something wrong I would probably not bring it up as well as I should. Day care was a better fit for me."

The Secret Lives Of Nannies [Salon]
How Do Nannies Manage? Gingerly [NY Times]



Being a nanny for 2 years taught me so many things that I'm grateful for...and it's such a fine line. I cared deeply for the 3 boys I looked after, and I can't even express the feeling of hearing the youngest scream my name as I drove away on my last day...

Taking care of other people's kids is something that is grossly de-valued. You're there for the moment parents aren't. And yet you can't replace them, you aren't them, and you know it.

It's an interesting look at what we value and how we grow...and what matters.

I came out of nannying glad for the experience, and knowing that I liked kids and that I'm good with them. And also knowing that I have no desire to be a parent. I want to teach, when I can, but I don't want to parent. It's just not in me.