No one can do it all, especially working mothers.
Nannies are becoming more essential to the economy and an integral part of nuclear, functioning families as the American economy demands more and more two-income households. In thousands of U.S. homes, nannies are working long hours for little pay, held by the love of the children they care for and serving as a second parent -- a role that can lead to conflict.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2010, in families with children, 58 percent of households had two working parents. Karina was one of the nannies who helped care one such family.
For two years, Karina, whose name has been changed to protect her identity as she is an undocumented worker, nannied four girls (ages 3, 5, 7 and 11) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan alongside the family’s live-in nanny of three years. She came to the U.S. as an au pair in 2008 from Mexico and now says she can’t believe she lasted as long as she did with the family. Karina not only cared for the children, but also did housekeeping, working close to 12 hours a day with an hour commute from Brooklyn.
“I would have to be there at 8 a.m. and stay until 7 p.m., maybe even 8 p.m. sometimes. There was never any time to stop. And, I was only getting paid $130 per day,” said Karina. “Plus, the kids get so attached you. And, the drama of watching four little girls, from doll snatching to sticker stealing ... The kids were always fighting over something. It was emotionally straining.”
Being a nanny is like being a second parent. “Nannies want to form lasting bonds with the children. They recognize they won’t be there forever, but they do want to be recognized for their hard work,” said Cameron Macdonald, author of "Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs and the Micropolitics of Mothering," to The Huffington Post.
Macdonald, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, interviewed 50 nannies from the Boston area, expecting that wages and working conditions would be their primary complaints, but realized they wanted recognition for their role in the children’s lives. She also interviewed 30 mothers who worked full-time and needed child-care workers the most.
In her book, she describes a “shadow mother” as a nanny who takes the mother’s place for up to 60 hours a week without threatening the mother’s role as primary parent. One mother, Macdonald recalls, almost quit her job because her 1-year-old preferred the nanny, then father and then finally the mother. The mother said it was infuriating.
It's a situation many nannies know all too well.
“The worst was when it was bedtime, the kids wanted me and not her. It felt so strange. I could tell she was mad at me but I didn’t do anything wrong,” explained Karina, who tried her best to convince the kids to ask for their mother at bedtime.
Coincidentally, a similar personal situation led Macdonald to research her book. At the age of 15, she was a nanny for a 18-month-old, but was eventually fired for becoming too attached with the child. “The baby fell and the mother couldn’t calm her down so they had to give her to me," she said. "I was never officially fired, but after they dropped me off at home I never heard from the family again. I was confused more than anything else, I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a report from 2010 showed that out of 1.2 million child-care workers, 244,000 were foreign-born. McDonald found that undocumented domestic workers and au pairs were treated more poorly than those with working papers.
That also was Karina's experience. “I think she took advantage of me. If I worked over nine hours a day, she wouldn’t pay me overtime. Plus, if I wanted to sit down and take a break, the mother would say to me, ‘Are you sick?’, which of course meant that was not allowed,” said Karina.
Karina doesn’t work for that family anymore; she was eventually let go. “As soon as she let me go, I thought to myself, ‘Yes! I’m free! Freedom!’, but then it hurt because I knew I would miss the kids,” said Karina.
Now, she works for two lesbian moms in Brooklyn for only nine hours a day, gets paid overtime if needed, and only has to watch two children, ages 2 and 6, to whom she happily teaches Spanish.
“If I had known that I could have worked for such a lovely family that appreciates me so much, asks me how I’m doing and lets me take a break every once in awhile, I would’ve left the other family a long time ago.” said Karina. “I never knew it could be this good.”
The Brooklyn couple also gave Karina the option of going to the gym where she could leave their 2-year-old at the gym's day care there.
According to Macdonald, being a nanny can be an excellent job, if respect is included. But there are two obstacles at play: society and the workplace.
“We as a society have to step away ... from the nuclear family. We have to accept that multiple loving adults are a part of the child’s life and that there is nothing wrong with it. Attachment to multiple loving adults, as long as it is stable, is good and healthy for the child. Popular media leads us to believe that it’s the mother’s love or nothing,” explained Macdonald.
Yet, the pressure on mothers to be the be-all and end-all still remains. Macdonald said that mothers must have a life outside of the office and cannot work as if that factor does not exist. That tension leads to unhealthy relationships between working mothers and their child-care providers.
Macdonald’s take-away message from nannies: Give your child-care provider flowers on Mother’s Day. She is not taking anything away from you. She is enhancing your life. It can be a win-win situation.