On a parenting message board, I compete with people named Luz Hernandez, Diana Carrillo and Alma de la Cruz. In Los Angeles, Latin nannies are ubiquitous. As I recall in New York, it is West Indian women raising the upper class. All over the world, women trade parenting. In Hong Kong, babies are raised by Indonesians, in Australia they’re Filipinos. It made me think about the amount of trust entailed in letting someone care for your children, the leap that occurs when you leave behind the most precious part of your life in your own house with a virtual stranger. It’s fascinating that people give that responsibility to those they consider so different from themselves.
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 treated like servants. The expectation is that we are both experts and idiots at once. In Ehrenreich and Hochschild’s book, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, they refer to the “Happy Peasant” as the ideal domestic worker. In all likelihood, “Blanca” is not plagued by the same parenting insecurities as her employers. She raised her children with confidence and is happy to raise yours in the same way.
Many parents are happy to hand over their children to someone who relies on traditional, “folk” parenting techniques not set out in a book by Dr. Sears but likely handed down through generations. “Blanca instantly potty trained my resistant toddler,” glowed one online reference letter. The mother makes no mention of how exactly this miracle occurred, what magic Blanca brought with her. Multicultural parenting is the norm in most of the big mansions of the hills in Los Angeles, and it’s going unacknowledged.
Multiculturalism is a modern day virtue, and I am not surprised to hear mothers on the message boards happily crow that “thanks to Maria, my child now speaks Spanish fluently.” Being bilingual is, after all, one of the best gifts one can give their children. But I am also aware of the power dynamics that are part and parcel to the nanny/mom situation, and are likely only heightened by race and class differences. I know how much of the job is grinning and bearing it. The multicultural team parenting that is abundant is not removed from the general gap in privilege that exists between the same two people outside the home. One culture is privileged over the other by definition even if in reality, due to the many hours shared between nanny and child, the nanny’s culture may in some ways prevail. Kathryn Stockett explored that issue in her novel, The Help, as did Adam Sandler in his film Spanglish. In the book, Raising Brooklyn, author Tamara Brown examines the issue from both sides of the fence as both a West Indian and Park Slope, Brooklyn mom.
I would guess the children will benefit in the long term from the exposure to nannies whose backgrounds are different from their own. The only person at risk is the nanny who is often subject to being taken advantage of thanks to the intimate and informal nature of the work. Like the great red neck swan song, I am losing jobs to people who are easier to oppress. But mostly I find myself on the sidelines of this phenomenon, having more in common with the mothers than the nannies who are my competition. In that way, I am equivalent to the medieval ladies in waiting, who serve a royal until it is their time to be a boss themselves. Regardless, I am fascinated by the unspoken give and take that is happening in so many American homes.