A nanny does many incredible things.
Without relying on pop-culture narratives of magic or painting caregivers as somehow superhuman in their work ethic, it’s necessary to name the skill that makes these remarkable feats possible in the first place.
Nannies possess a stealth-like ability to maneuver between the weird middle space of public and private social life. The scope of this skill is what make nannies much more than just “babysitters” or good-natured helpers with “parental instincts.”
In Western countries such as the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, nannying and other domestic work is largely unregulated, underfunded and sometimes unappreciated. This means that at the same time that in-home childcare providers are responsible for wiping runny noses, giving under-ducks on swings, singing lullabies at naptime and placing Band-Aids on scraped knees, they’re also engaged in a careful balancing act of self-promotion and workplace obligation.
In other words, a regular shift at an employer’s home often requires nannies to manage high outputs of emotional energy; maintain employer expectations while remaining true to their personal childrearing practices and principles; manage cultural and linguistic differences between themselves and their employer-family; and advocate for worker’s rights and compensation on their own behalf. All at the same time.
The juggling act that characterizes nannying work sets it apart from other professions, not least because many nannies live-in, or with, their employer-family. This is part of what makes the whole “nanny as part of the family but also not” so double-edged.
At its most idealistic, nannying work is about facilitating family harmony by contributing to the smooth running of the day-to-day spiderweb of schedules in which most dual-earner families find themselves entangled. As a result, rich, meaningful and intimate social relationships — especially between the child(ren) and caregiver — can be formed and nurtured. Hiring a nanny to perform care and contribute to a family’s household creates the possibility for a community of adults to collaboratively and co-dependently raise children together. It takes a village, after all.
I’ve been nannying for about seven years. I’ve worked in two different cities for five different families, caring for children as young as 11 months to as old as 14 years. I’ve looked after twins, a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and, at this point, I’ve helped potty-train more children than I’ll ever have myself (five). There’s a reason I’ve stuck with the work for so long: I find it incredibly fulfilling to support a family and to be another available, accepting and approachable adult in a child’s life — someone they can trust who is not their parent. The warm baby snuggles, the crayon drawings given as gifts and the expressions of gratitude I receive from tired parents at the end of a long day makes all the other more trying stuff worth it.
But professional in-home caregiving has an unsavory side, too. When exploited, the relationship between a nanny and employer-family can become strained, toxic, unsafe and even abusive. This is particularly precarious for live-in caregivers. The reasons why this happens — and why some nannies, such as myself, have the luxury of living-out — is shaped by the gendered, racialized and class-based dimensions of the global domestic labor and caregiving industry.
While nannying work certainly carries with it the potential for shared moments of joy and respect, the landscape of the profession is not without its economic struggles, physical demands and personal sacrifices. The extent of these inequalities depends on how well a nanny is treated, as well as the socio-political context in which she happens to be working for a particular employer-family in the first place.
As far as nannying goes, I’m quite privileged. I’m a white-skinned, English-speaking, female-identifying early childhood educator and caregiver with Canadian citizenship, and I have always lived separately from my employers.
This doesn’t mean that my nannying career consists of non-stop play and unwavering respect (it doesn’t and hasn’t).
What it does mean is that, while I aim to be inclusive, the following list is based primarily on my personal experience and knowledge of both nannying work and the broader field of early childhood education and care.
Here are 5 things to consider before hiring a nanny to care for your children:
Nannying work requires lots of emotional labor.
The emotional output needed to respond and be attentive to young children’s needs can be exhausting. Specifically, because nannies are paid for their caregiving, the pressure to maintain high levels of energy throughout the day as part of the job differs from the unpaid emotional labor that parents or guardians provide.
Some sort of emotional attachment between children and their nanny is also necessary, in order for the days to consist of more than just tears, frustration and impatience (for everyone involved).
Opportunities to take breaks during a regular workday are few and far between, particularly when nannies are responsible for household chores in addition to child care. During naptime, nannies responsible for tidying the house and doing laundry may be able to snag a few minutes for themselves (if they’re lucky) before the kids wake up. This leads to even greater emotional and physical fatigue, as nannies are denied adequate time to rest and recharge.
Having structured breaks is even less likely when nannies live-in with their employer-families, as boundaries between the nanny’s work and leisure time become too easily blurred — and sometimes even exploited. In situations like this, nannies must decide whether to resist employer requests (a boundary negotiation that presents its own set of worries and risks) or continuously make themselves available to suit the family’s needs.
Being a nanny is similar to, but different than, being a parent.
Nannies are responsible for taking care of other peoples’ kids. Sometimes, a nanny’s work availability exceeds 40 hours a week in order to provide overlap with parents’ full-time work schedules. In a typical work week, nannies might spend more time with the children in their care than their parents can, due to parents’ increasing career demands and the overall expense of supporting a family.
Some parent-like behaviors that nannies perform include keeping children safe from all types of bodily harm; providing emotional support and opportunities for creativity; transporting kids to and from organized activities (there’s nothing more cumbersome than a stroller on a crowded bus); cooking nutritious food at mealtimes (or just … cheese quesadillas, because that’s all the toddler will eat); and administering medications to children when they’re feeling sick (and ending up with pockets full of Kleenex).
Although your nanny may provide care to your child in ways that mirror yours as a parent, the fact remains that, at the end of the day, a nanny isn’t the parent. In order for nannies to be well supported and integrated in an employer-family, parents and guardians must take ownership over the irreplaceable, integral role they play in their children’s lives. As their nanny’s bosses, having this perspective will also reduce any tendency to pass off duties best performed by parents onto their nannies.
Nannying work is gendered.
There’s a reason an entire episode of “Friends” is premised on the “hilarity” of Rachel hiring a male nanny to care for her newborn daughter. Despite “The One With the Male Nanny” episode airing in 2002, very little has changed in the way of gender diversity within the field of North American early childhood education and care. Women — especially women of color — make up the majority of in-home caregivers and early childhood educators, with male and non-binary caregivers being disproportionately underrepresented.
One major contributor to the feminization of caregiving work is that, in the past few decades, as many birth parents (mainly mothers) in Western societies transitioned from unpaid work within the home to paid employment outside of the home, someone still needed to look after the kids. The pervasive stereotype that women are somehow “better” with children than folks of other genders both impacts hiring processes and perpetuates economically driven gendered divisions of labor.
This gendered labor becomes quickly racialized when, due to the high cost of local nannies, many upper- and middle-class families turn to government programs and agencies that recruit nannies from overseas. In order to take advantage of the job opportunity, these women migrate from their own families in their country of origin to care for someone else’s children. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild refers to this as a “global care chain.” The gendered origins of nannying can be traced through global linkages that shed light on how we see child care — and who we prefer to see performing it — in the United States and Canada.
Nannying work takes place across cultural and linguistic barriers.
Culturally specific approaches to childrearing need to be taken into account during the hiring process between nannies and employer-families. As a nanny, I’ve worked for families who belong to different ethnicities and cultures than I do, including Jewish, Russian and Kiwi families. Attitudes toward discipline, the role of religion and spirituality, and recognition of developmental milestones vary cross-culturally. These differences should be discussed openly and respectfully between parents and caregivers, either at the outset of a nannying contract or as they emerge organically through the work.
Language barriers pose another challenge to nannies and employer-families, occasionally leading to communication breakdown unless efforts are made to include each other as much as possible in conversation. As many nannies migrate abroad from the Philippines, the Caribbean, China, Tibet, and Sweden to work in Canada and the United States, differences in language choice and use are highly relevant to the work being performed.
Taking the time to respectfully engage with one another’s culture creates space for multidirectional learning between an employer-family and the hired caregiver. An unwillingness to do this quickly leads to a home and work environment where both adults and children feel unheard and unseen.
Nannying work is unregulated.
In Canada, because of my citizenship status, my nannying career is technically considered self-employment. This means that I pay taxes like any other small business owner for providing a service to the public sector.
The problem with this is that the term “self-employment” implies that I’m my own boss. I’m not. My bosses are the parents who pay me to look after their children. Sure, I can decide which families to work for and stipulate my contracts, but the rest of the power lies in the hands of my employers. Very rarely has this felt like an equal relationship, simply due to economic logistics.
The best nannying jobs uphold the terms of a fair contract collectively drafted immediately after a caregiver is hired, because then accountability is built into the working relationship. If either the nanny or the employers start to slip up on the terms of their arrangement, there’s something concrete to refer to and a conversation can be had.
The tricky thing is that, in a self-employed situation, if my bosses dismiss our contract for whatever reason, it’s my responsibility to point this out. No one else is looking out for me, professionally speaking. There are no human resources representatives and no agencies or societies whose guidance and intervention I can rely on when it comes to confronting my employers. I am my own advocate.
When the fit just doesn’t seem right between a nanny and employer-family, the nanny’s choice becomes to either stay (and “not make a fuss”), renegotiate the contract or quit. The economic consequences of these options make this decision all the more complicated. As references are usually needed in order to be hired with a new family, ending on a sour note with previous employers is not the best option. But for nannies employed either through visas in the United States, or programs such as the Canadian Caregiver Program (formerly the Live-In Caregiver Program) in Canada, violating the terms of these agreements puts obtaining permanent residency at risk, or can even lead to deportation.
The unregulated nature of nannying means that employers have a special responsibility to collaboratively create — discussing a fair wage and paid benefits such as sick and vacation days — and abide by the terms of a contract with their hired caregivers. Through this, the employer-caregiver relationship remains mutually beneficial and grounded in trust, reliability and respect.
Keep your family close, and treat your nanny just as well.
The work that nannies do is legitimate, valuable and important.
Recognizing the breadth of nannies’ capabilities and competencies — including their dedication, resilience and strength — grants visibility to the “in-betweenness” that in-home caregivers must always navigate in performing child care for families other than their own.
By welcoming nannies into their homes and supporting their transition into the ebb and flow of their family’s life, employers can transform global employment disparities into communities of care.