Mr. Uppity (Mr. Men series, all rights reserved)
By Nanny X,
Sometimes I admit I get emails that trouble or perplex me. I tend to leave answering them until I have thought through what is really going on under the surface in a household.
Last week I received a ‘problem’ email from a mom who felt her nanny was getting “too big for her own boots”. The woman cited various evidences such as, “she questions our schedule,” and “she talks about her childcare experience a lot” to “she’s too over-confident like smug”.
I couldn’t help wondering whether the nanny in question was a woman of color. Some might argue that the nanny’s ethnicity shouldn’t matter but truthfully and painfully – often – it does. Because despite our best efforts we continue to live in a country divided along lines of class gender and race. While metropolitan hubs like NYC boast more diversity in terms of wealth and race, this needn’t dispel old belief patterns.
Let’s examine the problem first without a reference to race.
A wise old nanny from the islands once advised me, “don’t be too smart, or too capable or too loving a nanny.” I was astonished at her words. Were nannies really set up to fail? Over time it became apparent that in most instances but not all, nannies must be willing to the proverbial ‘fall guy’ if parents are to emerge from years of relative absence without blame or guilt in their children’s eyes. Our intimate experiences, joys and nurturing within a family must become a distant memory once the children become adults.
The taboo of motherhood in all of its complexity decrees that none shall replace her from her pivotal position within the family unit, and quite rightly so. Nannies do not yearn or conspire to dethrone a mother. Nannies have families of their own and yet at times, navigating that delicate maternal ego is excruciating. After all, are nannies not commanded to love a child unconditionally in its parent’s absence? Nannies are driven to embrace that recently vacated parental space. It is not a nanny’s fault that she has fun with her charges or witnesses their first milestones. And what nanny hasn’t caught an employer’s spark of jealousy when a toddler has run first to her and not to its parent when an accident occurs?
Amidst this mush of repressed expectations and emotions the nanny must perform her job and do it well but not too well. Is the crying, clutching toddler with separation anxiety preferable to the happy well-adjusted infant who waves her parents good-bye of a morning? In other words, does a nanny who exudes professional confidence soon discover herself despised?
So let us turn back to this week’s problem. I have termed it: “the Uppity Nanny”.
If our capable nanny is a woman of color, the domestic landscape she inhabits becomes more murky. Any hint of professional pride might be taken as arrogance. If our nanny is proactive and assertive her employers might misread this as being “uppity”. In a Caucasian nanny these traits can often be dismissed as being a go-getter, not always so for the brown-skinned or immigrant woman.
We have all heard the negative stereotype of the “Angry Black Woman”. In childcare, that archetype is very real. Racial profiling most notably came to the fore after the tragic Yoselyn Ortega/Krim case. On forums and boards for days after the double-homicide, there were scores of negative comments about Ortega’s racial background. As though there was a legitimate link between violence and ethnicity? True, many mothers were in a collective state of shock but that’s exactly when the unconscious tends to peek through.
Thus, a nanny of color must be prepared to be over-burdened without remonstration indeed, she should be grateful. As a working nanny in Manhattan one of the things I noted time and again was the difference in what certain types of nannies were asked to do. Some will venture this has more to do with education than race but I heartily disagree. It all boils down to assumptions made based on ethnicity.
For example, one mother candidly told me that she and her husband deliberately sought women from the islands because they worked harder and that they “also didn’t mind changing the beds”. Another woman fired her German nanny after learning from her BFF that hiring a “little Spanish lady” was more cost-effective as “they do more for less and don’t whine about unpaid vacations”.
If healthy working relationships are to exist and in fact to thrive between parents and nannies, these racist and classist attitudes must cease. The foundation for these stereotypes is rooted firmly in the West’s despicably racist past. If women of color are to ascend and flourish within childcare as professionals – or anywhere in society – they should not be burdened by elitist hypocrisy.