Saturday, September 6, 2014

Do You Mind Paying Your Nanny a Living Wage?

I guess it had to happen eventually.

I was a nanny for ten years. I have been a mother for nearly three. Inevitably, my loyalty would have to cross the divide, falling decisively on one side or the other.

A friend told me today what she pays her nanny, who has a degree in child development and years of experience.  Her nanny is a grown woman and lives in NYC, where it costs about ten dollars for a bottle of coke and the selling of a kidney to buy a monthly Metrocard. I expressed surprise before I had the chance to stifle my reaction. Or perhaps I didn't try hard enough because I was annoyed, which was decidedly immature and impolite on my part.

But I have been down this road before. Every time mothers start to complain about the cost of childcare in the city I have to make a decision: to get into it or to ignore it. Sometimes I want to shout:

"You know I am right here, people? You know that my side job for ten years was caring for the young of others? You know that you are all crazy and ungrateful and selfish, right?" But I don't. They cannot comprehend. It isn't worth the argument.

My husband and I can't afford much childcare; my toddler is approaching three and we have only just now enlisted the services of a sitter for 4 hours a week. Still, I pay the going rate, despite my babysitter quoting me a lower figure.

Because I know. I know what sitters and nannies do and I know how hard they work. I also know that people think that if one wears dress shoes to work, one has a "real" job, and if one wears sweatpants (in order to chase after a toddler all day) one has a "pretend" job. Parents seem to develop instant amnesia the second they hand a child over to a sitter, forgetting how incredibly hard their task is in raising kids.

Let's take a look at what a nanny does every day:

1. She arrives at a stranger's house with a smile on her face and a stability that cannot waiver from one hour to the next: her job is to be emotionally available, loving, a guiding influence and a boundary-setter.

2. She must be BORED for many hours of the day. Childcare is tremendously rewarding but it can also be the loneliest of tasks in our segregated modern world. She must summon emotional courage and stamina in order to endure the sheer number of hours of playing with a child that she faces every day.

3. A nanny gets sunburned every summer. She schleps tired children over her arm, she pushes strollers over long hills and city sidewalks, she stands for hours awaiting a child at the top of a burning hot slide. However slathered in sunblock she is, a nanny gets burned every summer. As a bonus, there is never anywhere to pee on those playgrounds.

4. A nanny soothes. A nanny chats. A nanny wipes soiled bottoms. A nanny dries tears and sings lullabies. A nanny rocks a child to sleep. A nanny reads with her best character voices out loud from the same books over and over. A nanny bathes and applies baby lotion and puts on diapers and sits with a child who can't sleep, stroking a sweaty head. A nanny cuts the crusts off of bread. A nanny cleans the kitchen if she gets an hour during nap time. A nanny parents.

5. A nanny forges a bond with a stranger in order to give that little stranger the comfort and love that their parents are unable to provide while they earn a living (or in some cases go to the gym or to the movies or go on a date or clean the house.)

It is in many ways analogous to prostitution: nannies offer up their bodies and souls to make an hourly rate; they pretend to love sometimes unlovable children because that's their job. More often than not, they pretend hard enough that they end up loving them for real.

A nanny is someone who knows intuitively and through experience how to take charge, how to love, how to nurture and how to hold a tiny sticky hand even when she is desperate for five minutes alone, just five minutes to urinate or have a snack.

So anyway, my friend got mad. Real mad. She sensed my surprise and all of her insecurities came tumbling out in a volcanic heap of mother exhaustion. She threw every bit of pent-up disapproval she had for my mothering at me. She "disagreed" with my choice to let our child co-sleep, she "disagreed" with not having a completely routinized day, she "disagreed" with me that I didn't like the idea of cry-it-out, she would never let a child stay up late, etc...

It was pretty awful. It turns out that like every other issue to do with parenting, how much you pay your nanny is a hot button item.

I don't regret the loss of the friendship. Sometimes things just don't work out. I also couldn't care less what she thinks of my mothering. What I do care about is that mothers aren't the only ones who are tired, defensive, much maligned and unappreciated. Those people you see caring for kids who aren't their mothers and fathers? Those are nannies and daycare workers and babysitters. And they have to pay for the Metrocards that bring them to work every day to care for other people's young.

If you live in an expensive city, you should be paying your nanny a wage appropriate for the cost of living in that city, and appropriate for the exhausting physical and emotional effort of her job. You should be making sure your nanny has food and drink, you should be asking your nanny how her day was and not just if the kids are all right. She is a person who lives in your home for much of the day, and therefore she is family. And if you don't respect her needs, she will find a family who does.


  1. I just had this conversation with people the other day. I didn't think the rate they were discussing was fair, but I realize they can't, for the most part, afford to pay more, and so they find older women to take care of their kids at their own home, and are not expected to take kids anywhere for activities other than a short walk, which I'd think is a sort of a decent compromise for someone who would otherwise probably not have other means for an income. But I've been looking for part-time, half-day preschools and was shocked at how sub-par everything seemed. A good nanny/preschool teacher that would fit your family's culture (by that I mean, for example, non-'Disneyfied') is hard to find, and priceless.
    On a different note, it's always shocking to me that people can't separate their own ideas about motherhood from their relationship with another mother. How hard is it to live and let live, really? I got so much grief for pretty much the same things you're listing, and my response would be A) No, I couldn't care less, B) How dare you, and C) If we never speak again it might be too soon. So either these people pretend to be your friends while judging you so harshly behind your back, or an honest conversation triggers an insanely exaggerated and dishonest response. Your silver lining is the fact that you weren't confronting a family member. Now that's rough.

  2. I had never thought about this. Good post.

  3. What a good post! I love it.
    It makes me feel hurt and disrespected hearing employers brag about things like that, knowing how much effort I put 11 hours a day into loving and caring for their child.
    It makes my 'pretend' job be a joke, when all I do is give my best, day after day to teach their kids value I would want mine to have.
    I deserve better paycheck. But I don't go to other nannies and talk about stuff like that. I respect my employers financial situation and I hope when right time comes, and they can afford it, they will pay me because I deserve it. and so does many, many other nannies who are being exploited.

    I am founder of a website dedicated to exactly things like this - it is a support for nannies and au pairs and our place to be there for each other.
    I do not want to spam, but if you would like, please check it out:

  4. Thank you for standing up for Nannies! I know that not all parents can afford a living wage for a Nanny, but a Nanny is a luxury, and parents that can afford that luxury should pay for it accordingly. I've read several articles about the cost of childcare -is it worth having a job that barely covers that cost compared to just raising your own child?

    1. The answer to that last question is really complicated, for most women who have careers. The economic toll, long-term, of leaving even just for a few years, is enormous. And as a nanny-turned-mom, myself, I still get bored. Adult interaction, at a career you're good at - I can see the appeal! And again, long-term, women make a whole lot more money if they go back to work as soon as possible.
      The real problem, here, is that our culture (in the US) doesn't value motherhood or see children as valued people until they're in kindergarten, if then. If childcare were something we actually cared about, we would spread out the cost and quality child care centers would be far more common than they are now. I'm not "unemployed" because I have a child young than "school age," so we qualify for government benefits, but that's the only admission that my role as mother to this child is worth anything, economically. It's a huge ball of lies and denial and misogyny. Nannies bear the brunt of that frustration, whether the women (usually it's the moms) who employ them understand that consciously or have simply internalized the message that they should reproduce and yet they have become under-valued, having done so.

    2. The political and social problems surrounding childcare in our society that you raised here are all valid and crucial to this discussion. However, the parents I have most in mind in this post are those that happily part with hundreds of extra dollars on dinners and wine and shoes and vacations and yet their fingers ache paring with any cash for their nannies. There is an epidemic of undervaluing a service, because it is not as tangible, not as gratifying as a material pleasure, and frankly, a lot of people are shallow and cannot see their own material obsessions and selfish behavior, nor can they see how hard their nannies work, because to do so would require acknowledging that for a big part of the day, they are not the parents, a nanny is. And that is a very hard truth to deal with.


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