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Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Is Nanny a Fancy Word for Domestic Servant?

nanny-or-slave?/ Kalim -

I’ve been looking for work lately. As a nanny this means a variety of things. Posting advertisements on parenting message boards, interviewing at Nanny agencies, filling out myriad online applications and getting recertified in any lapsed certifications (CPR, TB whatever). I consider it a practice session in Zen-like humility; a test of dignity under duress.

At six thirty p.m. on a Thursday, the portly teacher starts the CPR class by bragging that she has trained practically every lifeguard in the city of Glendale, as though that’s a legitimate claim to fame. She then instructs us to treat everyone like they have AIDS, as part of a discussion on the use of gloves and breathing barriers.

“I’m assuming you guys all have AIDS right now,” she bellows. Political correctness has yet to reach the Red Cross classes. After, she makes a comment about when Asians give blood, they only take a half a pint, “because they are so little.”

The class was already clocking in at a bloated four hours when an elderly gentleman of indiscriminate European origin got into it with her over administrative minutia. I was sure I could teach the essential skills in fifteen minutes. I’ve taken the class at least eight times myself. Hence, I offered to play the CPR victim at the next opportunity. While I lied on the ground and played dead I thought, I went to NYU for this?

One online service offered, as part of its application, a nanny skills assessment. Separated into sections ranging from discipline to nutrition and child development, it asked questions like, “If you’re caring for a toddler and the parent is at home working in another room and the child won’t stop going into the parent’s room, do you:

a. Bribe the child to stay in the room with you.
b. Talk to the parent at a convenient time for them, in a neutral, non-confrontational clear communication manner about possible solutions.
c. Put a gate up and put the kid in time-out.
d. Grin and bear it.”

All the questions had pretty obvious answers but sometimes I wanted to pick the one I knew was wrong, because it was more honest. Yeah, obviously the “right answer” is (b) but in the reality of nannying, I go with (d) every time and my employers thank me for it.

Another question asked how to properly defrost a hunk of meat. As a vegetarian that one stumped me. But I got mad when it docked my total score. Would my lack of carnivore cooking skills make me an inferior nanny? What are reasonable expectations for this job?

There have been multiple instances recently where I have been reminded that being a nanny is essentially a service position. I am a domestic worker ultimately—a servant to a varying extent to the people who employ me.

For the hours I am in their homes, I exist at their beck and call and even in the hours my time is my own, my employers have expectations for me. While I would strive to never cancel on them, they do so to me with impunity. Many times I’ve been asked to reschedule at a moment’s notice. Lord forbid, I not answer my phone.

Here in L.A., the mothers who reply to the ads posted on message boards ask how much housecleaning you are willing to do in addition to watching their kids. I read an article explaining that with the downturn in the economy folks are trying to streamline their household staff and I see it proves true. Part of their decision on who to hire to help raise their kids is based on the prospect’s experience with heavy cleaning.

It is interesting to me in relation to my last post on perfectionism in parenting. There is an ambivalence in the degradation of household work and the obsession with perfect parenting. As a feminist, I am aware that women’s work is habitually undervalued and that consequently childcare is a consistently underpaid profession. At the same time, I am also aware of the pressure people put on themselves around parenting and so I am surprised when they allow people they treat like idiots to do it for them. They want you to both prepare their kids for Harvard and wash the dishes. It’s the most important job in the world yet they want it done as cheap as they can get it.

© 2011 – 2013, Kellen Kaiser. All rights reserved.

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Kellen has watched other people parent for years. She has worked as a babysitter, infant teacher, nanny and in continuing education and quality improvement for childcare providers. She aspires to be a foster parent someday.

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsanna   |  Sunday, 01 May 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Spot on! The last two sentences are something I’ve wondered about for a while – as an onlooker (don’t have any children of myself yet).
    Brava/o nannies, you do a good job!

  2. Commentsokin   |  Friday, 27 May 2011 at 6:27 am

    kellen – queen of the insightful observation. this is brilliant – can’t wait for more!

  3. CommentsNanny Wanted: Must Be Both Idiot and Expert | InCultureParent   |  Friday, 03 June 2011 at 9:28 am

    […] In my continued exploration of the perfectionism associated with modern American parenting, my last article focused on the contradiction between parents’ insecurities and anxieties and nannies who are […]

  4. CommentsKELLEN KAISER … YA GOTTA LOVE HER | Jacalyn S. Burke   |  Monday, 15 February 2016 at 9:39 pm

    […] ARTICLE AND MORE HERE: Is Nanny a Fancy Word for Domestic Servant? By Kellen […]

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