What David Bowie’s Will teaches us about nannies

By Jacalyn Burke,

When David Bowie passed away to cancer earlier this year, many of us had a strong reaction. Young people might remember the movie Labyrinth, older folk could recall heady teenage years spent listening to music that spoke to a blooming alternative culture. All of us felt touched by the British musician’s genius. But what transpired after Bowie’s will was made public was a testimony to his personal generosity – towards individuals that contributed to his life in a deeply private way.

One person in particular was singled out as a vital part of Bowie’s family life: his son’s nanny. Marion Skene a Scottish woman who helped to raise Duncan Zowie Jones was gifted with almost $1m. Bowie’s ex-wife Angie has also revealed how Skene took over when both she and her husband were incapacitated by drug use and busy careers.

She said: ‘We were messed up as a couple but this little creature came and David was a great dad. ‘But when the baby was around, our lifestyle just didn’t work. ‘David and I were away doing drugs, at first together and then later apart. Marion effectively became Zowie’s mother.’

 

It takes a tremendous amount of humility for any parent to admit to something so dysfunctional – let alone a public figure. What we can take from this disclosure and of Miss Skene’s inheritance is this – sometimes parents outsource effectively the day to day child care of their children to their nannies and that that emotional surrogacy has a profound value.

The question remains: does our society remember and appreciate the women (mostly women but also some men) who turn up each day without fail to pick up where we leave off as we head out the door for some 40-60 working hours a week? How do we show our appreciation in ways that go beyond the odd gift or a ‘thank you’? I mean … do we wonder how these women live, where they live and what kind of future they will have once they become too old to work? Do we ask ourselves if they have health insurance or access to a basic pension? Does it cross our minds to ask if they have residency or citizenship?

The statistics on nannies and their working conditions are guestimates at best, and this is mostly down to the fact that American working parents are forced to turn to an unlicensed and unregulated industry. Unlike other progressive countries the U.S lags behind in providing universal child care for its citizens. This contributes to labor injustices and endemic poverty amongst American child care workers in general.

We might not have $70m to dish out but we do have the ability to help our nanny secure a safe financial future. It can come in the form of an informal chat and an introduction to websites that help child care workers to source health insurance plans and financial advice.

David Bowie had the foresight to properly provide for a woman that likely dedicated many, many personal years of her life to ensuring that his son was fed, loved and properly taken care of. Her legacy is evidenced in the way that Duncan Zowie Jones actually regards her as ‘his mother’.

While we might not be wealthy rock stars we can appreciate that our nannies work very hard, daily, monthly and even over decades, ensuring that our children navigate childhood in our continual weekly absence. It isn’t about guilt but it is about communal responsibility. Isn’t it about time that our society truly recognizes the importance of nannies in a realistic, long-term way?

For more information on the lives of nannies in the U.S read my book: The Nanny Time Bomb. It is the ONLY book available to date that explores the industry over 10-years, paying specific attention to the working lives of nannies and examining how race, immigration status and class play their role in America today. It also offers very practical advice on how to find a good nanny and manage staff in our own homes.