What I’ve Seen As A Nanny In One Of America’s Richest Zip Codes
At the playground, people almost always think I’m the mother of a 2-year-old boy I’ll call Sam (not his real name). We look alike, but they think this whenever I’m taking care of children, even when it’s totally improbable that I would be the mother for reasons of age or race or coloring. That’s probably because I’m white. I work alongside women from Jamaica, Tibet, and Trinidad who nanny for upper and upper-middle-class New York families. I’ve seen a lot since I started nannying four years ago — foremost, how nannies are treated.
Many nannies are looked down on and underpaid, uninsured, unprotected, invisible, and fired without warning. They are disposable and devalued, working 10- to 12-hour days at an average of $17 an hour (per a survey by Patch) for a median income of $22,290 across the country (per BLS data) and higher — closer to $35,000 — in New York; nothing compared to other professions, especially given the hours involved. I think of us as part of an ancient framework that has been smuggled into modernity: the trope of the selfless female caregiver. As a culture we are too technological, too cool, too busy to value child rearing. We nannies feel differently.
I’ve had many wonderful afternoons making tea parties with “my” children, or taking nap-walks in the rain. Belting out French songs at the top of our lungs when they were learning those in school. I cut their apples into trees, make peanut butter swans, and create rhythms for their day, whether I tell the parents or not. This is to settle them down. It always works. I’ve known Susie, Irene, and the other nannies here for a year, since I started bringing 2-year-old Sam.
Most of the nannies I have met are amazing. They are generally even-keeled, and that’s excellent news for the kids of sometimes anxious New Yorkers. Some kids start acting like tiny, neurotic adults themselves, a miniature model of their parents. At the music group a mom checks her phone every minute or two.
The mom leaves. I wonder where to. The office? Pilates? God help her if she’s not going to work, I think. Nannies tend to raise an eyebrow at stay-at-home moms. I hustle Sam home, to feed him lunch and tuck him into his crib for nap. I always sing him “Moon, moon, shiny and silver.” I love Sam to the moon.
The other nannies traced different paths to this life. One, who I will call Shala, can’t talk to me because she’s in a head cast. She fell on the sidewalk, and the boy she watched when we first met, last spring, moved away in December. She sends me photos of herself in the hospital. I don’t want to ask how she’s paying for her surgeries. She is the mother of a teenage girl who last year was offered a full scholarship to Choate. Shala brought her daughter up on her own, in a Manhattan housing project, a long way from Haiti, where she grew up.
She summers with “an old man” in the Hamptons, who needs help feeding himself. The rest of the year, she cares for Manhattan and Brooklyn kids. She treats the kids like her own. Brings them to her place for overnights, takes them to the Met, the waterpark. Everywhere.
Another, who I will call Nadia, is a 22-year veteran nanny, and doesn’t want to do this forever — this is too physical, she says on the phone recently while cooking dinner for her kids. Her pay, $22 bucks an hour under the table, works for her. “That’s my worth. I get exactly what I ask for, and a raise, and a bonus.” Her 10- to 12-hour days add up. Back home in Guyana, she was an assistant cashier in the accounts department of the main post office, handling millions of dollars. She didn’t expect to do this kind of work, but she got experience as she went, and she’s dedicated. She puts all her kids on a schedule, because “they need that — otherwise, you run out of patience.” Like many nannies, she believes she trains the parents as much as the children. Some jobs she won’t take, because “some people will take advantage: ask her to walk their dog, or do their laundry.” Overall, though, she tells me, she loves her job.
Her current family treats her well. She can buy “anything she likes for lunch, but doesn’t take advantage.” They defended her when a mother screamed at her in the building’s playroom. “It means a lot,” she says “when they let you know they have your back.” She also loves it when families tell her what a great job she’s doing. She says that when families say kind things to nannies, they empower them.
She has colleagues whose families, she frets, won’t let them go to a doctor. “Parents take time off for anything — an 18-month-old Broadway show — but we can’t take off to go to a doctor, all of the time.”
“When their kids get sick,” she says, “sneezing in our face, or with a stomach virus, we have to take it. If we have a little cold, they don’t want us to come in. But if their kids are sneezing all over, we bring it home to our own kids.” She explains that she knows how to protect her daughter from stomach virus: “I spray my jacket with Lysol, take a bath, and change my clothes when I get home from work.”
She lives in an $840-a-month apartment in Brooklyn, where, she says, she just put in a beautiful kitchen backsplash. Before that, she lived “in the hood.” It was more, $1,800 for a two bedroom. She is happy in Brooklyn. She describes a cold day, when her old boss asked her to take her child to the park. “Thank you,” Nadia says she replied to the mother. “I won’t be going to the park.”
She elaborates to me: “Thank you, I won’t be going to any park in no 30-degree weather. They ain’t paying my health insurance. It doesn’t matter to them if I get sick.”
“As a nanny, you have to know your worth,” she says. “A lot of nannies don’t know their worth.” The whole culture doesn’t know our worth, I think. Doesn’t know the half of it.
How can we be too busy as a society to care for children? Children need love; to be bundled up and held; hot soup; rhymes; and fresh air the same way they always have.
A nanny I’ll call Daria says she earns enough to live well. “I’m from Jamaica,” she says. “I know how to make something out of nothing.” I do, too, I tell her. I could make the best dinner you ever ate out of those acorns we just passed.” We share a laugh. These are handy skills, since after paying rent in New York City, the grocery budget isn’t always very big. The average rent for one-bedroom apartments in New York is $2,831 a month, according to Rentjungle.com.
Daria hadn’t planned on being a nanny. She left Jamaica when her marriage collapsed. Her own two kids stayed in the Caribbean with her husband. “That was a tough new beginning,” she recalls. She tells me the kids she’s cared for over all these years feel like her own. She cooks for them even though no one asks her to because she wants them to have nourishing, hot food. She tells me how she still sees them, all these years later. How one of them, now 20, picked her up at the train station, home from college, in a suit, carrying flowers, and took her to lunch.
“Seeing him in that suit…” Her own mother died when she was 4. When she was fired from a longstanding job without notice, the husband (of the woman who fired her) slipped her a significant amount of money as a going-away gift. She still cries when she talks about him, and I want to, too. She calls him a prince. That man is not a prince, I think. He’s a king.
“I’m a believer,” she explains. “If I don’t have work for a year, I know God will provide.”
That’s handy, I think, since she also told me that although every family says she is “like family,” and cries on her last day, every single one has fired her without notice. Every single one, she says. And, she lacks health insurance. When she needs a doctor, she pays out of pocket, or goes to clinics.
A nanny I’ll call Dolma comes from Tibet. I remember that when my best friend had her first child, she wanted to hire a Tibetan nanny, because “they don’t even have a word for depression in Tibet.”
Dolma, a U.S. citizen, came here with her father in the ’90s after winning the immigration lottery. She has nannied for eight years. A Tibetan friend recommended her for her first job, when she finished school, citing the benefits. I ask her what the benefits are. She responds: the holidays you get, and the health insurance.
“Health insurance?” I’m surprised. She tells me that her employer volunteered to pay both her taxes and her insurance at her job interview. She and her husband, who is self-employed, according to Dolma, live with their two sons in Queens. She makes $17.05 an hour to look after one child.
How did I get here? My husband and I are both dreamy types. Our money came from our generous families, until it didn’t. By then, our boys were 11 and 8. We moved suddenly from outside of Philadelphia to Brooklyn, without jobs, savings, or a means of support — and against the advice of almost everyone we knew. We moved for our kids to have opportunities we couldn’t see for them in Pennsylvania, to live near our extended family, and for our own artistic dreams. Moving consumed all our resources.
Everything scared me then. I couldn’t sleep at night. I had nightmares about us ending up on the street. I hadn’t been able to get a foothold in the world. At home, yes. I was told I was a good mother, and I was a skilled chef. My husband worked odd jobs to support his standup comedy habit. In spite of my resources, I couldn’t see a place for myself anywhere I looked. I was literally choosing each day between buying soap, bread, or toilet paper. Not all three. Trying to cover the holes in my shoes, my husband’s shoes, to get the stains out of my children’s jeans became a serious business. A matter of pride.
At home, I shuffled boxes of cornflakes and soy milk around like cards, arranging them like a still life, to simulate abundance for when the kids came home from school. The fridge was sometimes empty. I’d put things in from the cabinet that didn’t require refrigeration, which left the cabinet, in turn, empty. Cabbage, corn flakes, crackers, as elegantly as I could put them. I’d groom juice boxes; boxes more expensive than bottles, of course, and juice more expensive than fruit, but I desperately wanted my kids to feel at least a little “normal,” so I paid the price. I’d showcase items on the top shelf. Presenting… apple cider! I wanted the kids to feel “held.” as they say.
I kissed pennies found on the street. “I’m rich! I’m rich!” I’d say to myself. I was learning that they add up, that 300 in coins equals a subway pass, as well as what it feels like to have no pass, and spend the whole day walking. The grocery store usually proved a shock. I’d fill my cart with everything I wanted, the way I had in the past, as if there was money in my wallet and in our bank account. But there wasn’t. My husband played accordion on the subway, and came home with 40 bucks.
And then I found nannying and I am still doing it, at 50. We are doing well now. My husband got a masters degree and a good teaching job, our children (now teenagers) are thriving and I take care of babies.
Sometimes it seems to me that we steal and pillage from cultures where the ancient art of loving — of constructing a world for a child — is known. Why are many nannies paid just enough to survive? How many feel like the nanny friend who said to Nadia, when she asked her why she didn’t go to “her” child, who was crying on the swing, “His mom don’t pay me enough to run behind him”? Why would you want someone who feels like that with your kids?
These women bring their human capital here, from Trinidad, Ghana, Guyana, and Tibet, and sell it for relatively little money, because the market permits it by a mass and long-standing consensus. Why our — and I use this word advisedly — low status?
I was poor myself, in spite of my gifts, and the privileges of my class and race, because, I think, my deeply feminine gifts aren’t valued in a patriarchal marketplace. I had fallen through the cracks of a world where masculinity is worshipped. And I climbed back through those cracks by acting the opposite.
As Dolma said, “It’s a lot of responsibility, taking care of a small human being.”
Elizabeth Gollan is working on a book about her life as a caregiver and personal chef and the political and cultural meanings of those professions.
Co-published with Romper.