Thursday Interview: Tasha Blaine “Just Like Family”

Tasha Blaine’s book ‘Just like Family’ is one of the most poignant portrayals of a Nanny’s life in America today. If you would like to know how many Nannies feel, buy this book. It was my great pleasure to interview Tasha for this blog. If you repost please provide a source link back to this site and to Tasha’s site. Nanny X 2012

The book JUST LIKE FAMILY created a media buzz in 2009, what’s happened since then for you?
After the book was published, I moved from Sacramento back to New York.  I’m working on a memoir, although that’s in the early stages. I’ve also worked as a freelance editor and writer.  I have two daughters, seven and four years old, so I’m pretty busy with them too. 
Did the book itself provoke any real change for Nannies?
I certainly don’t think the book provoked change along the lines of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that was recently passed in New York, but I do hope it deepened employers’ understanding of the challenges nannies face. Obviously, there are class and cultural differences between nannies and the mothers who hire them, but I was struck by the universal themes running through all of their lives: they are all wives, mothers and workers.  I felt it was important to note that many nannies are working mothers too. They leave their children and go to work to support their families. 
How did you get the book published – what was the process?
When I was fifteen years old, I spent one day a week working as an intern at a literary agency in New York City.  I was eventually hired as an assistant and worked my way through college.  So when it came time to write a proposal, I already had an agent because I had been her assistant.  Once she helped me shape the proposal, she sent it out to publishers.  I lucked out with my editor.  I had two children while writing the book, and two difficult pregnancies.  My first child was premature and I spent ten weeks on bed rest with my second. I was completely unprepared for the impact having children had on my daily life.  My editor was extremely patient with me because the book took much longer to finish than I expected.
In your style of writing you have the ability to speak to the common daily indignities suffered by domestic workers without rendering the characters as helpless victims or preaching to your audience. How hard was that for you?
It wasn’t hard at all!  I never saw it as my job to tell people what to think.  It was my job to bring three women to life on the page.  I knew from the start that I wanted to be a keyhole into these women’s lives so I simply thought of myself as a fly on the wall.  I wanted their personalities, their interactions on the job, their love for the kids to speak for themselves.    
The portraits of the three characters are deeply moving. I’m imagining the characters are composites woven from the many narratives you listened to : is this an accurate assumption, or do Claudia, Vivian and Kim originate as authentic nannies?
Oh they are real women!  I think it’s important to also know that when I met them, I had no idea what would happen to any of them and I didn’t even know them that well. I talked to each of them about their goals, their frustrations and their hopes for the future, but I had no idea how it would play out.  For example, I had no idea whether or not Vivian would win Nanny of the Year, but her focus on the award and her determination was impressive.  Her passion for the job and insistence that it was a career was not something I had seen very often.  I also knew that Claudia was utterly burnt out on the job, had fallen into it out of necessity, and wanted desperately to find a new path, but I didn’t know how that might affect her interactions with the kids or whether she would ultimately find peace.  My original intention with Kim was to tell the story of a live-in nanny and first-time parents.  That job, in particular, threw me for a loop. 
Your compassion for these types of workers resonates within the words. I sense that this brief experience of being a Nanny and the research behind your book has changed your life forever. Is this true? 
I was humbled by what I saw and grateful to the people who allowed me into their lives.  Being a nanny is an extremely tough job without much tangible recognition.  We give a lot of lip service in this country to the people who raise our children–nannies, day care workers, stay-at-home moms and even teachers–but their actual status is disproportionately low.  Caring for and teaching children requires patience, consistency, intelligence and street-smarts.  My husband, who is a newspaper reporter, recently made a joke that being alone with our kids for a week was harder than the time he spent in Israel covering the war with Lebanon. He was joking, but like all jokes there was an underlying truth to what he said.
For working mothers (especially new moms) who decide to read this book, what advice can you offer them when hiring and working with a Nanny?
Here’s a list I came up with a little help from Kim:
Are you still in touch with the characters in your book (or the women who are based on them)? 
I am, although not as regularly as I used to be.  I saw Claudia just a couple of weeks ago, which was great. It’s easier to see her because we live close to each other. 
What are they doing now? 
Vivian is married and has two kids. She’s also a writer and nanny consultant.  Claudia is still working for the same family, but she’s much happier with herself. She has continued to take classes for nursing and since the book she’s spent a lot of time with the son she left behind as an infant.  Kim is still working as a nanny too and doing great. 
(This is a curve ball) Having written about the experiences of the modern day ‘helps’ – what did you think of the book/movie The Help?
I stayed away from reading The Help.  I don’t exactly know why. But I did recently see the movie, and I surprised by how moving it was. I have to admit, I cried.  The women in The Help live in a different time in our country’s history, but I have heard almost the exact same stories from the women I interviewed.  
One of the recurring themes isn’t just exploitation or racism, it’s the love nannies feel for the children in their care.  Even when employers are nasty or unreasonable, nannies remain attached to their children. In fact, I sometimes felt the worse employers treated their nannies, the more nannies wanted to protect the children.  I heard stories of nannies staying on jobs where they were clearly mistreated because they feared for the children or couldn’t bear to leave them. 
Do you have any advice for Nannies working today who feel trapped, exploited and unhappy?
Absolutely.  Go to playgrounds, bookstores, music classes, libraries, anywhere you can find other nannies in your area who have more experience on the job.  When women come here from other countries, when they don’t know the culture or the language and they are sending all their money home, a community of other nannies is essential. This is also true of American born nannies who are just young and inexperienced.  Every nanny I interviewed had at least one nightmare job that taught them how to stand taller, demand more, communicate better and set clearer boundaries.  

Tasha Blaine completed her MFA at New York University. She spent several years researching and interviewing nannies, at their work and in their homes.
Tasha was born and raised in New York City and now lives in California with her husband and their two daughters.