It’s been a big moment for Nanny Power. When Amy Poehler accepted her Time 100 award, she thanked her children’s nannies. In the recent article deconstructing the motives behind Obama’s mother’s trip to Indonesia—widely thought to be a formative experience for the future president—the author implied that access to affordable childcare and domestic help abroad may have been a factor. Royal Wedding buzz noted the prominent presence of William’s former nanny, Tiggy Legge-Bourke. (Some even suggested that William was attracted to Kate because of her resemblance to Tiggy—and that Prince Charles was drawn to Camilla because she looked like his own nanny.) And this week’s T magazine featured a piece about a young woman who’s dedicated herself to the rights of nannies and domestic workers.
To me, the question isn’t so much why nannies are getting so much attention at the moment, but: What took us so long?
In many other parts of the world, childcare is not a one-woman job. But here, there is no government subsidized day care to validate the idea of shared responsibility. There is no history of the Nanny-as-beloved family member, whipping the family into shape and bringing her own innumerable gifts ~à la Mary Poppins. In contemporary America, childcare workers are seen largely as placeholders for the True Caregiver—the mom—rather than as valuable contributors to our children’s lives.
This may have something to do with the American value of independence, or the dream of success; the ability to stay at home and care for your children is seen as a sign of privilege. Many Americans subscribe to the deep-rooted idea that women’s rightful place is in the home. The assumption is that it’s a mother’s job to manage the care of the children, and household—and that anything but mother care is inferior. So if a mother is not able to do it herself, she is more inclined to feel guilty. And if she feels bad about having a nanny, she is more likely to diminish the nanny’s value, emotionally, if not financially.
There are a few big problems with this scenario. One is the very real fact that our children’s caregivers need and deserve to be valued for what they, as unique individuals, can offer our children—not just for their ability to keep them alive while we’re off doing other things. As the profile on Ai-Jen Poo, the (apparently stylish) founder of Domestic Workers United in T Magazine puts it:
“On average, a domestic worker is likely to get less than $15 an hour, no benefits and none of the credit or glory. To my knowledge anyway, there has never been a successful career woman — or man, for that matter — who’s responded to being praised for “doing it all” by saying, “Actually, Manuela (or Angelica or Harriet) does most of it. You don’t have to be down on your knees scraping congealed crème fraîche off marble tiles to see that there’s something not quite right about this picture.”
The other is the idea that mothers should be “doing it all” in the first place. Meagan Francis, author of the book The Happiest Mom, just wrote on her blog about the struggle contemporary moms feel about hiring help. I believe that by perpetuating the myth that mothers are doing it all, mothers may actually shooting themselves in the foot. The fear, I think, is that by calling attention to the need for and value of domestic help, we’re making ourselves seem dispensable. But I’d argue that it’s the opposite: Devaluing the work that nannies and caregivers do is devaluing the work of motherhood. This, clearly, is the last thing any mother wants. We already deal with the problem of mothers’ work not being taken seriously enough; In today’s Motherlode column, Lisa Belkin talks about the question of moms going on strike to gain more respect for their day to day efforts. Part of respecting those efforts is respecting the people who are paid to do them, too, whether they’re paid by you, or somebody else. Amy Poehler’s acceptance speech has made the rounds, but I think it bears repeating here. We’ve got a lot of lack of respect to make up for.
“And for you working women who are out there tonight who get to do what you get to do because there are wonderful people who help you at home, I would like to take a moment to thank those people, some of whom are watching their children right now, while you’re at this event. Those are people who love your children as much as you do, and who inspire them and influence them and on behalf of every sister and mother and person who stands in your kitchen and helps you love your child, I say thank you and I celebrate you tonight.”