Our Child Care System Is Broken, Even If Nannies Are "Amazing"

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

When children enter school and the nanny’s services are no longer needed, decent parents will do their best to find another position for her (or him). And so the parents post on the listserv. A few years ago I began to notice that parents would often describe their nanny as “amazing,” as in, “our amazing nanny is now available!”

A search of the listserv reveals 519 instances of “amazing nanny.” But 0 instances of fantastic, incredible, great, spectacular or even good nanny. If you Google “amazing nanny,” you get 28,000 hits, one of which is from Gwyneth Paltrow, describing her children’s caregiver; others are ads from Craigslist or even the names of nanny agencies. Punctual, dependable, affectionate—ordinary qualities that I would look for when hiring a nanny—are pretty far behind. Linguistically, “amazing nanny” is a collocation: a combination of words such that one of them invites the others, like “dollars to donuts,” “get to the point,” or other idioms, clichés, and turns of phrase. It’s also an example of inflationary language—using more and more extreme terms to describe positives and negatives. So while your latte might be merely tasty, if you describe it as awesome, you’re using inflationary language.

So why is the collocation “amazing nanny” cropping up on job boards?

I emailed Tamara Mose, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of Raising Brooklyn, an ethnography of Caribbean caregivers in Brooklyn. She wrote:

“‘Amazing nanny,’ while I’m sure many genuinely feel that way, is really an employer’s way of alleviating the guilt they feel because they know they are placing a … low-wage worker in a financially precarious position. If we also consider that employers know these workers have families with dependents either in America or in their homeland, the guilt runs even deeper because the employer feels somewhat responsible for this worker’s work situation (or lack of employment). Therefore, by stating the worker is ‘amazing’ they hope to help the worker transition into another family as quickly as possible in order to not feel badly themselves for putting someone out of work. The other perspective is that they want the employees to witness the ad themselves and see that they tried their best to get them alternative work. This also lessens the guilt.”

Okay! Is there any aspect of parenting that isn’t fraught with worry and guilt? I was offered a full-time job in January that I ultimately turned down—due to guilt. I interviewed two women, nannies I had met on the playground and whom I knew to be attentive and affectionate caregivers. They were both undocumented, and ultimately I didn’t feel comfortable with either the legal and tax implications or the impossibility of running a background check. I felt guilty leaving my kids, for 50 hours a week, with someone who had no formal training, was subject to no regulations, and had no driver’s license or passport I could photocopy. I felt guilty about the power imbalance; I felt guilty that—even though we would have paid the going rate—we’d be participating in a system that is often unfair to immigrant women of color. I felt guilty that I was considering going back to work at all—why wasn’t I totally fulfilled as a full-time stay-at-home mom? And finally, guilt’s companion, resentment: I felt resentful that paying a fair wage meant that my whole paycheck, plus some, would have gone to pay the nanny.

And so I rejected my job offer, told the potential nannies thanks-but-no-thanks, and continued with my frantic schedule of working during evenings and naps and trading off child-care duty with my husband. That obviously didn’t work out well for anyone—the nannies who needed work, me who wanted the full-time job, or my kids who were cared for by strung-out parents.

The weird thing about the posts for an “amazing nanny” is that in many conversations I’ve had with parents, they’ve complained about their nannies—not only are they, in reality, not “amazing,” but they’re late, they’re lazy, they talk on the phone too much…the list goes on.

When I mention to Dr. Mose, who spent two years observing the Caribbean nanny network in Brooklyn while she was writing Raising Brooklyn, that I’ve heard many women dismiss the work the nanny does as “just not that hard,” she laughs. “They’re paralleling the gender hierarchy of husband and wife. This is how many husbands view stay-at-home mothers—they don’t value what they do.”

Actually, as a culture we don’t particularly value caregivers, who historically have been excluded from overtime and minimum-wage regulations and other labor protections. A new rule guaranteeing these protections for home-care workers has been postponed. Because these jobs take place in employers’ homes, with no coworkers and no witnesses, domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Written contracts are rare. Even workers who are paid “fairly” often have long gaps between jobs and aren’t able to save appropriately for retirement. Dr. Mose notes, in her ethnography, that employers will often be late returning from work and not compensate the workers for the extra time, or expect them to pick up other duties that weren’t outlined in the original agreement, like errands or housework, for no additional pay. The workers comply rather than risk losing the job.

Dr. Mose said that parents often have a double standard for themselves and their nannies when it comes to what constitutes good care: “Parents are on their phones too. Even if we’re working and taking care of children, we’re still social human beings. Any parent can attest that child care is very monotonous and isolating. I’ve seen grandparents in the park [who were supposed to be watching the kids] reading the paper.”

©flickr/Erich Ferdinand

If I had taken the job and hired the nanny, I doubt I would be a better employer than those Dr. Mose describes. I suspect that my guilt and worry and resentment would have created inflated expectations. After all, we would have been paying her more than we pay in rent—I would have noticed every late arrival, every moment she wasn’t perfectly cheerful. I’m sure I would have at least considered foisting housekeeping tasks onto her, because after all, I watch the kids and clean at the same time and—well, it’s just not that hard, right? I would hope that she would indeed be amazing, or at the very least better than I am: more patient, more willing to go on expeditions, more arts-and-crafty, a better cook. Because that’s her job, and I also have a hard time resisting the idea that nannies should be Mary Poppins and mothers should be the Madonna—even though I know perfectly well that I’m not and she probably isn’t either.

It’s these two huge issues—the expense, and the way that we view women and care work—that are colluding to make American parenting and caregiving a sick system. The cost of nannies or day care means that parents like me either can’t get into the workforce or have to write a check each week that’s the equivalent of a mortgage payment. But the women who are doing the child care are still not paid enough—there’s no health insurance and no pension, there are long gaps between jobs, and they’re often paid under the table. Their retirement savings are paltry. (I spoke to a national organizer for domestic workers and she said grimly, “There is no good situation for a nanny in retirement.”)

No one wins in a sick system. And the end of the relationship between the employer and the nanny is the employer lobbying on the nanny’s behalf on a job board, doing their verbal best to paper over a shaky structure.

We’re all pretty crushed here, but we have got to find space in the crush for sensible structural changes like a well-trained, well-compensated, regulated, subsidized child-care workforce, with pathways for citizenship for the women who are already performing these jobs. We have to acknowledge that child care is a job rather than something that women just like to do. (The justification for denying home-care workers wage protections has been that they are “companions,” not “workers,” a bit of semantic bullshit that boggles the mind.)

“Amazing nanny,” with its connotations of superhuman perfection, is just…weird. It jumps out at you on the page or screen; I read these ads and I think, Should I be amazed? Can’t I just hire someone who’s not vulnerable, who’s reliable, and who, when my family doesn’t need her anymore, doesn’t fall into a financial abyss? Can’t I pursue my work without participating in an exploitative system?

Because that would truly be—well, really, really great.

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