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Beyond nanny-mama drama

Day care is a challenge, yes --
but not the nightmare depicted in headlines

By Amy DePaul

May 1st marks Worthy Wage Day, part of a campaign led by the Center for
the Child Care Workforce to improve the pay, working conditions and professional opportunities of the largely female child-care workforce. A child care worker earns an average hourly wage of $8.37, according to a report from the CCW that draws on an occupational analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To add insult to injury: only 18 occupations of the 770 surveyed by BLS reported lower wages than child care workers; coming in at higher earnings were service station and locker room attendants.

When was the last time you read an article about the financial struggles of women who make a living caring for other people's children? The truth is, we don't hear too much about how child care workers support themselves or their families on their earnings: who cares for their children, for example, and whether they aspire to a job with better pay and whether they have health insurance. We do hear a lot, in contrast, about child care workers who turn out to be mentally unhinged. Especially if they are nannies.

Peruse the headlines for coverage of nanny care, and you'll find numerous articles. For example, "The Odd Case of a Naked Nanny" (St. Petersburg Times, last year), reported on a young woman charged with sexually inappropriate behavior around the child in her care. Similarly, a 2003 Washingtonian magazine article included an anecdote about a family who discovered their nanny cradling their infant while topless -- they found out about her proclivities through their nannycam. In a particularly memorable 2002 Wall Street Journal article, a Houston woman nearly hired a nanny who turned out to be a convicted killer. (To be fair, nannies have made their voices heard too. Witness The Nanny Diaries, a bestselling 2003 novel about dislikeable rich people in Manhattan and the nannies they mistreat.)

All of these situations are alarming, without doubt, and they suggest a dark, seamy side to child care. The other source of media interest in daycare, beyond sexually perverse and murderous nannies, is tragic incidents, such as the one featured in the San Jose Mercury News story last year, "An Arrest and Mourning -- Tragedy Spotlights Child Care Worries." This story recounted the death of a child who wandered away from negligent care givers and was killed crossing a train track. It's an atrocious story, but I think we'd all agree that the chances of mediocre child care far outnumber the odds of lethal care.

Still, articles like this raise a question: Do fear-driven stories about child care somehow give us permission to pay babysitters so little? There's no way to answer this question credibly, nor are most working parents in a position to fork over top-dollar prices for care. But popular depictions of child care work and their relationship to its devalued status bear thinking about, especially at a time when immigrant laborers who work on the domestic front lines are starting to demand respect.

Sometimes it's not the news coverage that seems to portray child care in the worst possible light -- it's the women who write about it in anguished terms. In an essay appearing in the 2005 collection Because I Said So, writer Debra Ollivier describes a tense moment when her daughter flees a maternal scolding to rush into the all-too-willing arms of her live-in nanny:

"Celeste hung on to Marta [the nanny] with a defiant look as if to say, 'Come and get me.' And that is precisely what I did. 'Marta,' I said, 'Give Celeste to me.' Celeste wrapped her legs harder around Marta…. Marta held Celeste and did not move. 'Marta,' I repeated. 'Give me Celeste.'"

You can't fault a writer for being honest in telling her story, but it's important to remember that most daycare is not performed by a live-in nanny as occurred in Ollivier's essay. Kids are usually either with parents at home or at their babysitter's house; they don't usually get the option to choose between care-givers (except, come to think of it, in two-parent families when they try to play one parent off the other).

An example in the extreme of women baring their souls -- and dirty laundry -- was Helaine Olen's account last July in the New York Times of firing her nanny after avidly reading her blog, which detailed the young woman's personal life and occasional sexual exploits in some detail:

"Our former nanny, a 26-year-old former teacher with excellent references, liked to touch her breasts while reading The New Yorker and often woke her lovers in the night by biting them. She took sleeping pills, joked about offbeat erotic fantasies involving Tucker Carlson and determined she'd had more female sexual partners than her boyfriend. How do I know these things? I read her blog."

The nanny wrote a response to Olen's piece in her blog that was equal parts amusing and over the top. The result made for delicious reading -- the equivalent of eating way too much chocolate -- but very little insight into the way that mothers and their babysitters can and do work together every day.

And they do work together every day. Ann Little of Greeley, Colorado feels lucky that her 37-hour-a-week nanny, 27-year-old Carrie Lovell, has taken such great care of her daughter, Alice, who is two and a half. Carrie hails from a traditional Christian background while Ann is unabashedly left-of-center, secular and feminist. Ann doesn't find their differences insurmountable in the least.

"Carrie's coming from a different place but I respect and honor that in her… She's got this great way of being authoritative in a quiet way… To be honest, no, we don't really have any problems, but I have no ambitions to prove myself as the greatest mother in the world. I have no agenda about being the boss at home. Carrie makes suggestions and… she knows what's going on developmentally."

In addition to listening to her babysitter, Ann pays her competitively: $14.50 an hour plus a health plan, social security and disability (no household chores required, just clean-up of toys or after meals). Ann knows she is privileged at that she and her husband can afford to be generous, joking that her real luck is living in Greeley, where the paucity of restaurants and distractions means, "We have nothing to spend our money on."

Carrie, for her part, appreciates Ann's flexibility. Recently, she was able to leave early to attend classes she needed for a pilot's license and she notes that Ann seems to value her updates on what Alice does during the work day and how she's doing.

"As a parent, Ann's very involved in her child's life," Carrie says, but there are times when Ann takes her advice on issues like potty training or tantrums. Carrie has been working in child care since she was 17 and says the vast majority of her relations with employers have been positive.

Over the years, Carrie has gotten to know other nannies, and most don't have problems with jealous mothers or surveillance cameras or murderous inclinations for that matter. The biggest complaints are parents who don't respect their time commitments, consistently coming home late.

Respect and decent pay go a long way in making child care agreeable and successful, says Ann, who understands that many parents simply can't afford reliably high-quality care. Maybe the problem is a feminist one, she suggests:

"A lot of people can't or don't pay enough, That just means there's going to be limits on the quality of the worker you can recruit," says Ann. "That's what happens in a female-dominated profession. People expect women to volunteer their work, whether its child care, teaching school or cleaning the toilet."

mmo : april 2006

Amy DePaul is free-lance writer, former newspaper reporter and mother of two. She currently teaches journalism at the University of California, Irvine and California State University, Fullerton, as well as writing for Alternet.org, Z Magazine, Clamor and other alternative presses.

Related reading and resources:

Center for the Child Care Workforce
Worthy Wage Day, May 1, 2006

Worthy Wage Day is part of a campaign led by the Center for the Child Care Workforce to improve the pay, working conditions and professional opportunities of the largely female child-care workforce. You can find out more about Worthy Wage Day and get the CCW's report on child care workers' earnings at the organization's website.

Whose Minding the Kids?
Child Care Arrangements: Winter 2002

U.S. Census Bureau, Oct 2005. Report, 24 pages, in .pdf.
According to the latest figures, 63 percent of U.S. preschoolers are in a regular child care arrangement. 40 percent of children under 5 are cared for by relatives, 34 percent by non-relatives. Less than 4 percent of preschoolers (690,000) are cared for by nannies or babysitters in the child's own home. 2.6 million preschoolers are cared for by their fathers while their mothers work. On average, preschoolers spend 32 hours a week in child care.

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