Once upon a time, in the late nineties, when the economy was doing the polar opposite of what it's doing now, money figuratively rained from the sky upon certain Manhattan hoods. This abundance spurred a number of articles in New York City publications bemoaning how hard it was for the newly minted rich to find good help. For reasons we've yet to ascertain, 'the help' never had a voice in these pieces. Either editors didn't deem it necessary, or, more likely, the help didn't want to jeopardize their income -- or citizenship -- by speaking out.
We read these articles as two recently "retired" nannies whose tenure had been served in the Fifth/Park Avenue blocks known as The Gold Coast, where it was the encouraged norm for wives to neither work nor parent. We were white, college-educated citizens -- the exception -- who worked alongside other nannies supporting children of their own in far away boroughs or farther away islands. We witnessed exploitation ranging from nannies made to share beds with their charges to those whose pay was flat out "withheld." These one-sided articles were the final push we needed to do what we could to give the help the mike.
When first sent out, our manuscript was titled If Your Nanny Could Talk. But, replied bewildered publishers, they ... can. So we were tasked with finding something that made more sense. When we proposed The Nanny Diaries we thought it wonderfully ironic conjuring a woman in sweat pants, covered in spit-up, popping a bonbon while chronicling the juicy details of eight hours spent playing trains on unforgiving sisal. In retrospect it was blindingly naive how unprepared we were for readers to take us, well, literally. But that's another story.
The New York Times ran an article last week entitled "How to Speak Nanny" and we were interested to see that the linguistic capabilities of Manhattan's domestics are once again up for discussion. This time more than one nanny was directly quoted. And even more thrilling, the topic was employee-employer relations! (The core thesis of our satire: This Is A Job.) The article kicks off by accusing us of being part of the problem in "...painting mothers who employ nannies as over-entitled she-devils." So first a little clarification. In The Nanny Diaries Nan says:
There are essentially three types of Nanny gigs. Type A, I provide "couple time" a few nights a week for people who work all day and parent most nights. Type B, I provided "sanity time" a few afternoons a week to a woman who mothers most days and nights. Type C, I'm brought in as one of a cast of many to collectively provide twenty four/seven "me time" to a woman who neither works nor mothers. And her days remain a mystery to us all.
We are guilty of writing about Type Cs, but working moms, while rare for us, were our most positive gigs because, as employees themselves, they remained conscious of what we had in common. Expectations were clearly communicated, check-ins were regularly scheduled, and our salary was prompt and consistent. These employers did not tacitly list telepathy as a job requirement.
In the years since our first novel's publication, we've taken every opportunity to advocate for resources to support what can feel like an incredibly daunting relationship. Managing someone while you're wearing a towel in your own bathroom is no small task. And it is heartening to read that consultants are cropping up to provide best practices to mothers and nannies alike. With skyrocketing real estate costs, there is a dearth of daycare in this city that would shock the rest of the country and for better or worse, the majority of Manhattan's parents depend upon the unregulated nanny system.
So if we might weigh in but one more time.
The best nannies we worked alongside understood that the primary need of their job was to make their employers feel as comfortable as possible about one's frequently awkward presence -- lest we forget, she is also standing in your bathroom. There is an art to making it appear, while still showing humble respect for your guest/employee status, that you feel right at home, that you love their child but are not impinging on their love, that, even when a child is sick, cranky or nap deprived, there is nowhere else on earth you'd rather be. Ironically, the more skilled a nanny is at this high wire act, the more at risk she is of being treated as a sort of step-child relation, rather than as an employee.
We were impressed with the honesty and self awareness of the working moms interviewed yesterday, but feel it important to point out that expecting a nanny to figure out what is expected of her based on "looks", arbitrary bonuses, or humiliating corrections from outsiders and then complaining about her to strangers on blogs -- well, sorry, that's Type C behavior. If a mother switches to a relational paradigm from a professional one, as many of the mothers in the article did in their unintentionally passive-aggressive communications, there is bound to be conflict. Their relationships with their nannies risk being as healthy as their least healthy family relationships. We've all had bosses who treated us like our parents did on their worst day. These jobs drive us to look for new jobs, at best and write books, at worst. The challenge is not to learn to speak nanny, but to feel like one.