The secret lives of nannies

The author of "Just Like Family" talks about what it's really like to be paid to love someone else's child

By Lynn Harris
June 8, 2009 2:20PM (UTC)
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My grandmother grew up 100 years ago in the rural South, where precious few white people questioned the notion that blacks were an inferior race. It was inconceivable that her family's "mammy," Lucy Forrester, would ever -- if she set foot in their Model T Ford in the first place -- presume to ride in the front seat. And yet Lucy Forrester was so beloved, so deeply connected to the family she worked for that they named my grandmother -- Lucy Crawford -- after her.

Today, in families across America, nannies -- even without such overt or institutionalized racism -- occupy a similar spot, layered with so many shades of gray: They are outsiders and insiders, they are not the children's parents, but they may have an even firmer hand in childrearing. They are not family, but they are part of the family. And that is the tricky terrain writer (and, briefly, former nanny) Tasha Blaine explores in "Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for and the Children They Love." Her primary sources: nannies.


Blaine interviewed over 100 nannies for her book. But at its core lie the stories of three nannies Blaine followed and interviewed extensively for two years, "in order to portray, for the first time in this level of detail, what a nanny's life is really like and what nannies really think about their jobs," she writes. "If parents wonder what happens all day long, nannies wonder why so few of them bother to ask. By presenting an almost exclusive nanny point of view, it was my hope to give caregivers a voice while also providing a keyhole for parents into a world they never really enter but always speculate about."

Meet the three featured nannies (whose names have been changed): Claudia, who yearns for something different -- and for the son she left behind in her native Dominica; Vivian, an ambitious, slightly manic "career" nanny outside Boston, a player in the International Nanny Association, who manages nearly every detail of her twin charges' lives; 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.

Readers hoping for a NannyCam highlight reel of conniving caregivers and evil employers will -- mostly -- be disappointed. For one thing, when it comes to nannies, wonderful bonds often do get forged, between caregiver and child, caregiver and parent. And if anything's despicable here, it's what the book puts into relief: our deeply flawed system of patchwork, unaffordable child-care -- what's a nanny supposed to do with her kid? -- and deep-seated labor inequities. Nannies (along with elder caregivers and housekeepers) are explicitly excluded protection under the National Labor Relations Act; the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group of domestic workers' organizations in 10 cities across the country, has encouraged nationwide activism, including support for the first-of-its-kind Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights -- including notice of termination, severance pay, sick days and holidays, and an annual cost of living wage increase -- that is now pending in the New York state Legislature.


But the personal narratives carry you along -- When will Claudia realize she's going to be evicted? Could Kim's boss be more of a loony dickhead? -- and together, they tell the story of a whole world of women, mostly women, who work so that others may, too.

Salon recently spoke with Blaine about her book.

What inspired you to take on this topic?


When I was briefly working as a nanny, I was floored by some of the stories I heard and the nannies I met. One woman I met in the park had been fired after seven years and not allowed to say good-bye to the children. She was just sitting in the same park she went to for years with these children, but now she didn't have the children with her. Another woman I met in a nanny group was a pediatrician in her home country and just shocked at the way she was treated in the United States as a nanny. The sense I got from almost every nanny I spoke to was that they wanted to be heard; they wanted to be respected.

It was amazing to me that there was this rich, complicated and riveting world out there that so few had fully entered and explored on an everyday basis. I slowly began looking into the issue as a whole, reading newspaper stories and the few books out there on the topic and I just found myself more hooked. I found plenty from the parents' point of view but not much from the nannies' perspective. I wanted to tell their story, to capture their voice. And I wanted to show them not just as nannies taking care of other people's children, but women with inner lives and personal lives. When I think about it, it was the nannies who led me to this book. They were just so compelling.


I didn't realize there was a professional nannies' association. It seems like there are really two totally different nanny worlds that never overlap.

Yes, I hadn't seen or heard much about the quote, unquote "professional" nannies either. And that is the starkest contrast that I saw. The "career" nannies, versus the --

 Yeah, what do you call them? Amateur?


Well, exactly -- there's no proper term. But there are nannies who make it a life choice, a career choice, and there are nannies who come here and do the job out of necessity. Claudia did it because that's what other women she knew when she came here were doing. She got here, and it was like, I can give you a recommendation to do this job here. She needed to work, and she needed to be able to send money home.

Right, and that's one of the fundamental challenges of this work, as your book shows. You might not have chosen to do child-care because you love children, but that's what you're expected to do. How do nannies seem to feel about -- as you put it -- being paid, essentially, to love?

It is a funny thing. On the one hand, I think of Claudia, who yearned for other things in life, but still loved the kids she took care of. It was complicated because she could both wish she had another job and, every day that she was at work, feel really connected to the children. On the other, some of the nannies at the International Nannies Conference I attended said they felt guilty about putting a dollar sign on what they did in the first place. If they asked for a raise, they wondered, did that mean their love wasn't real?


I've also 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. That's why the title of the book obviously has some ambiguity to it. But it's not necessarily true that they want to be more like family. Many nannies told me they would rather have some kind of more formal structure to the job and a certain higher level of professionalism than be more part of the family. A lot of nannies I talked to say they'd think they were "just like family" and then something would happen on the job that would jolt them out of that feeling. Like being invited to an event for the child and then finding out that instead of being a guest at the event they were expected to work the event. That happened with Kim, who attended the family's baby naming on her day off, only to find that no one helped her set up all the food -- making trip after trip with heavy platters up a flight of stairs -- because in fact, she was the help.

It was also so hard to think about Kim taking care of a newborn just as she was coming to grips with her own fertility. And Claudia: making the Hobson's choice to leave her son behind in Dominica so she can do best for her family. I remember your paraphrase of her feelings: "Did her life now -- taking care of other people's children and working off the books ... justify the fact that she had given up her son?" The irony is really heartbreaking.

I found it unimaginable. As a reporter doing this I had a lot of trouble getting Claudia to even talk about it. It was so painful for her; she would just shut down. She was heartbroken and mad at herself and carried so much guilt. Her relationship with her son was so different from her relationship with her daughter [who came with her to New York]. Some nannies in her position become extra close to the children under their care because they're filling that void. I read in another book about nannies who say they wish they had wings and could just fly to their home countries and spend an hour with their children.

But you know, I met another nanny who -- well, I'm sure on a certain level this was her way of dealing with it -- but she was really strong and sure that it was because of what she did that her kids, who had come to live with her eventually, were going to college. That ultimately it had led to a better life for them.


In any regard, it's like the classic immigrant story. And it's exactly this kind of issue that drew me to the topic.

By the way, can you dispel once and for all the myth that anyone who employs a nanny is rich?

Absolutely. I was not interested in writing about the uber-wealthy in the first place. It's not a "skewer-the-rich" book. In fact, a lot of nannies prefer to work with families who aren't super-wealthy. My sense from the nannies who said that is they felt less respected on the job, more like servants. They felt disposable -- just another one of the help the family had hired over the years. But in any case, the families always have more money than the nanny. So there is always that discrepancy.

What are some of other major misperceptions about work as a nanny?


That it's not really work, first of all. And that nannies are some sort of Other. Really, 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.

Why do you think the profession is so looked down upon? In an alternate or sane universe, nannies would be vaunted and valued, along with teachers.

I think it comes right along with our society undervaluing what it takes to raise children. It's also the fact that you're working in a home -- people are going to view it as being part of the service industry.

How do nannies tend to see the issue of being paid on versus off the books? Does being paid one way or the other make them view their job in a different way?


I think for some nannies it's just a practical issue -- like, if I get paid on the books I'm going to make less money. And they can't do that because they're living in the moment of having to pay certain bills by the end of the month. Vivian was paid on the books with benefits and health insurance, and -- I'm not suggesting that every family can afford this -- it really did help her feel like it was quote, unquote a "real job." So it's complicated. Because as you noted it's not just wealthy families who have nannies. And there are nannies who say if you can't pay a nanny on the books with benefits then you shouldn't have a nanny to begin with. But that's just not the reality of what's going on out there. And that's not going to happen overnight.

Does your family employ a nanny?

This is why my book took so long! We could not afford a full- or part-time nanny. My husband is a newspaper reporter, and when he was sent to work in Albany for a while we got a part-time college student to help with our daughter -- it's much more affordable there. Once we got back here to Sacramento, we got a grad student for 15 hours a week, then my sister, who is a kindergarten teacher, took care of my daughter for the summer.

There have definitely been times when I've thought, you know, it would be so much simpler if I could just hire a nanny. But 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.

Obviously, this is an imperfect system. It may function well at an individual level -- loving relationships are often created, people get to work -- but really, it's not a system in the first place. What kind of change do you think needs to happen to make things better for both nannies and parents?

I don't have one single answer for that. I do think the dialogue is opening up, but we have a long way to go. Obviously, there are groups like Domestic Workers United fighting for basic rights. If they manage to get things done that will not only improve nannies' work experience but also boost the perception of it in broader society. But right now, well, I keep thinking about Judith Warner's book "Perfect Madness," and how we don't have high-quality affordable day care like they do in, say, France. And on a personal level I keep thinking, when do we get to kindergarten? It's like the healthcare system -- the child-care "system," such as it is, is a mess. And it doesn't do much to support women, and women who want to work, and women who have to work. Including nannies.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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