Who Does the Nanny Leave Behind?

More and more parents in the United States are forced to rely on paid childcare because they want to be active in the workplace, can’t afford to stay home to provide care, or don’t get enough support from family and friends to eliminate the need for paid childcare services. For low-income parents, the growing cost of childcare can be a significant barrier both to being in the workplace and to having a safe place to take children, while those of higher income can choose between a variety of daycare services and the ultimate luxury: a personal nanny.

A huge percentage of the nannies and childcare providers offering personalised services in the US are immigrant women, some of whom are undocumented. They come to the United States because they want more economic opportunities, and some actually have formidable skills in their home nations; they may be doctors or engineers, for example, who can’t find jobs in their original fields and thus end up working as childcare providers.

Working as a nanny isn’t just about childcare for many domestic workers, who are mostly women. It can become a full-time job, as many live in and gradually take on chores for the house that don’t strictly have anything to do with the children. They’re not just raising children for their employers, but cooking, grocery shopping, taking the dog for walks, picking up dry cleaning, and performing other tasks. Those who protest, or who ask for a wage to compensate them for their increased duties, are reminded that there are many women lined up to take their place.

And these are the ‘lucky’ women, those who aren’t ensnared in trafficking schemes. Women seeking to travel to the US to work from overseas often connect with recruiters, who promise them jobs in exchange for a fee. The recruiter pledges to cover travel, visa applications, food, and other needs, and when women arrive on US shores, they find themselves in a situation they weren’t expecting, forced into slavery. They may be compelled to work in sweatshops, forced to provide care in unlicensed long term care facilities, or pushed into sex work, without the ability to reach out for help and get assistance from government agencies that are supposed to identify and crack down on human trafficking.

Of those who find actual positions as nannies, some stay with the families they work for over the course of a decade or more, creating an uneasy relationship. They are always ‘the help,’ but they’re also referred to as ‘part of the family,’ especially by children who may closely identify with the nanny because she’s the one who raised them and was there for them the most in childhood. They walk a bit of a tightrope in their relationship with the family. Over the course of their work, they typically don’t make very much money, and they send the bulk of it home to support their families.

They also don’t get many opportunities to see their own families. Navigating vacation requests can be complicated when you are expected to be on duty all the time, and when it costs a lot of money to travel home to see your loved ones. The length of the flight and the time difference can also mean that people need to be gone at least a week or more to make the trip worth it, as when Filipina women travel home to see their husbands, children, and other family members.

Women are forced to leave their homes in the Global South to care for the children of the West not just in the US but also across Europe. They give up years of their lives, and years they could have spent with their growing children, because they have few opportunities at home, and their nations export a huge percentage of labour because local economies are weak, pay is low, and competition can be fierce for good jobs. Going overseas for work may be the only option, even if it involves the immense pain of leaving a homeland and a family behind.

These issues aren’t widely explored in discussions about the gendering of household labour and domestic workers in the United States. It’s not just that the majority of our domestic workers are immigrant women, but that many of them are leaving their our families to care for ours, well aware that their position in the United States can be tenuous. If deported, they may struggle to survive in their home nations for months or years until they can sort out the paperwork to attempt to return, if they can return at all.

And once children grow up and they’re out of a job, they have to cast around all over again for a new job. Finding an employer who isn’t abusive, and who will pay fairly and provide safe working conditions, can be a struggle for anyone, but especially for an immigrant woman worried about the consequences of being outed if her documents aren’t in order. This creates a circular system of exploitation that puts domestic workers in a very vulnerable position, one that can only be addressed by pulling the curtain back and talking about who does our domestic labour, how, and why.

Even as the mainstream feminist movement celebrates the achievements of women in the workplace, it doesn’t look at the numerous sacrifices forced upon other women to make that possible. For every woman CEO leading a major company, there’s quite probably an immigrant woman raising her children, cleaning her house, and taking care of her errands. Is that really egalitarianism, or justice for women?