The Real Nanny Diaries

Compared to their counterparts in many European countries, American women get almost no public support in their struggle to combine work and motherhood. Judging from the dispiriting conservative freak-out over health-care reform, that's unlikely to change any time soon -- one can only imagine the type of demagoguery that would attend any attempt to create French-style state-funded crèches. Yet most American women work, and given the contraction of many male-dominated industries and the fact that more women are attending universities than men, they may soon make up a majority of the employed.

In some families, this means men will take care of the kids. But for many, it means that nannies will. Indeed, as Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote in the introduction to their 2003 collection, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, "Strictly speaking, the presence of immigrant nannies does not enable affluent women to enter the workforce; it enables affluent men to continue avoiding the second shift." The cheap domestic labor of poor women, at least as much as any shift in mainstream gender roles, makes the modern upper-middle-class duel-career lifestyle possible. Increasingly, nannies raise the children of the American meritocracy. Yet their voices are hardly ever heard.

That's why Tasha Blaine's rather extraordinary book, Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for, and the Children They Love, deserves attention. The bland title doesn't do justice to this surprisingly gripping work of immersive journalism, which interweaves the lives of three very different nannies in an almost novelistic fashion. Blaine writes solely from the nannies' point of view, and she must have spent an immense amount of time with them to bring so much life to their days. Unlike Global Woman, this book isn't a polemic or an exposé; Blaine is more concerned with nuanced storytelling than politics. Nevertheless, it's hard to finish Just Like Family without a sense of lingering unease. Americans generally pay lip service to the idea that no work is as important as raising children, but when they hire people to do it for them, they tend to pay them little and respect them less. Of course, there are plenty of nannies in popular culture -- in novels like The Nanny Diaries: A Novel tell-alls like You'll Never Nanny in This Town Again, and reality TV shows like Nanny 911. But their educated, fairly empowered protagonists have little in common with most of the women who actually do such work. Blaine's characters are far more typical, if still better off than most nannies, because none are undocumented. The book tells the stories of Claudia, an immigrant from Dominica acutely pained by her unfulfilled ambitions; Vivian, an overbearing, hypercompetitive, and fiercely loving Pentecostal; and Kim, sweet-natured, meek, and perpetually ill-treated. All face searing difficulties navigating an ambiguous profession that essentially requires them to sell their love -- often for cheap.

Vivian is the best off of the three. She seems both hyper-competent and a bit unhinged, obsessed with being named Nanny of the Year. Her challenges appear to be mainly emotional. She's deeply invested in the twins she cares for, essentially considering herself a third parent, and reels when she's excluded from important decisions like where to send them to school. Such frustrations are probably built in to even the healthiest nanny situations. These women guide their charges through most of their waking hours but are considered interlopers if they weigh in about child-rearing issues.

Perhaps it couldn't be any other way -- one can imagine, reading Blaine's book, how maddening and presumptuous Vivian must seem to her employers. But this only underscores how complicated the whole arrangement is. Nannies take on all the drudgery of stay-at-home motherhood without any of its power and emotional rewards, however meager those might often be. Meanwhile, by hiring them, families turn over the raising of their children to people who almost by definition have very different educational, class, and cultural backgrounds from their own.

Of course, the dangers many nannies face are far starker than simply having one's opinion disregarded. Claudia, like many nannies, had to leave her own son behind to be cared for by relatives while she spends her days with other peoples' children. She's around the same age as her employers, and she watches them move forward in the world while she remains stuck, barely getting by with no prospect of retiring, even as she's expected to send money back home. Her economic situation is extremely tenuous -- given that she works more than full time, she barely makes minimum wage and gets no benefits -- and at one point she and her daughter, who lives with her, are evicted from their tiny Brooklyn apartment.

Still, it's striking that she finds her lack of social status nearly as painful and humiliating as her money troubles. She fully understands how little society values what she does, and as a result, she considers her job degrading. Even the word "nanny," writes Blaine, "made her voice crack."

The question of dignity is an important and a thorny one. Many people -- perhaps most people -- aren't respected for the work they do. But few jobs combine intimacy and powerlessness the way nannying does. Kim especially embodies the vulnerability inherent in entering another's family on utterly unequal terms. Kicked out by her second husband, she ends up as a live-in nanny in a house with an increasingly cruel, menacing father; the possibility of violence lurks in their every encounter.

Each of these stories, in its own way, reinforces Ehrenreich and Hochschild's point about men and domestic work. Though only one of the fathers in this book is truly awful, none seem particularly engaged, and all of the nannies find their work harder when the men are around. Indeed, child care seems to be something mostly negotiated between the two women in each household. The unspoken truth in all of these stories is that taking care of kids is often a grim and tedious business, one that people with power tend to find a way out of. Yet it's almost sacrilegious to admit this, and as a result, nannies must contend with their employers' ambivalence, an ambivalence that can manifest itself in micromanaging, contempt, and even abuse.

To say this is not to damn all the parents in Just Like Family. The mothers especially are mostly likeable if harried figures, though Blaine treats them as minor characters. That's as it should be. There are countless books about how middle-class women feel about the work-family divide. That's a perfectly worthy and important subject, but the value of Just Like Family is that it foregrounds the women who are too often treated as mere appendages to others' ambitions.