The Nasty, Shocking, Unfair Reality of Some Nannies’ Lives

Dear Barbara and Sara,

You’ve raised one of my favorite subjects—men! How I love them!

What I’ve noticed about professional-class men with working wives—and, Barbara, you’re right, the piece had a narrow focus: professional-class family life—is that they are willing to do their share of the housework. They have a sense of fairness about it. (True, there are still men who won’t run a load of dishes or scrub a bathtub because they consider those tasks women’s work and therefore emasculating—but such men tend not to marry career women.) But here’s the problem: Men have very different notions of how domestic work should be done, and their standards are much lower than their wives’. If I may quote from an earlier essay I wrote for the Atlantic (on the subject of sexless marriages):

What we’ve learned during this thirty-year grand experiment is that men can be cajoled into doing all sorts of household tasks, but they will not do them the way a woman would. They will bathe the children, but they will not straighten the bath mat and wring out the washcloths; they will drop a toddler off at nursery school, but they won’t spend ten minutes chatting with the teacher and collecting the art projects. They will, in other words, do what men have always done: reduce a job to its simplest essentials and utterly ignore the fillips and niceties that women tend to regard as equally essential.

In that essay I said that women are left with two options: endlessly haranguing their husbands to be more womanly or launching a sex strike. But I realize there is a third option: hiring a female domestic worker who understands the feminine approach and who can be instructed, rather than cajoled, into doing things exactly as the lady of the house prefers. Another dynamic is that mothers are much more concerned and even anxious about the day-to-day realities of their children’s lives than are fathers. So whereas a father can visit a clean, nice, licensed day-care facility and think it’s a fine spot for his baby, a mother will often feel very differently. The institutional row of cribs can be depressing and frightening to her—she would rather have her baby at home with a nanny who reports solely and directly to her and who will come closer to providing the kind of care she herself would.

So, yes, I do think that the widespread use of nannies among the professional class has much more to do with women’s desires than with men’s. In her excellent short story “Coins,” Mona Simpson has her narrator, a nanny, say, “We are the second-oldest profession. That is because we serve the needs of women.” I think that’s brilliant and accurate.

Sara, my open letter to domestic workers was written tongue-in-cheek; it was directed more to employers than to nannies. I want unscrupulous employers to be on notice that even the poor have their rights and that there are penalties for abusing them. I wanted to put the fear of God into these people by describing the process for busting a bad employer. Something you are going to learn about having a nanny is that you are going to get to know lots of other nannies: They will be at your house for play dates; they will recognize your baby when you go out for walks; and they will come over and chat with you. And your nanny will tell you about her nanny friends. And through all these connections, you are going to hear about unfair and mean things that happen to nannies, some of which will be truly shocking. And I want you—and people like you—to know where to get the information you will need to help these nannies.

And don’t lose heart about the possibility of domestic workers organizing! No one had much hope for the Sleeping Car Porter’s Union. No one had much hope for the United Farm Workers. And they both triumphed. The United Domestic Workers—the first labor union to represent domestic workers exclusively—is now part of the American Federation of Federal, State, and Municipal Employees, and it is 62,000 members strong. There is a collective of housecleaners on Long Island who pool job referrals, finances, and transportation resources.

Perhaps, Sara, as you say, editors are uninterested in stories dealing with working poor women. But the essay we’re discussing deals with working poor women. So did Katherine Boo’s superb recent New Yorker piece on women living in an Oklahoma housing project. So did the excerpt of David Shipler’s book on the working poor that ran in the New York Times Magazine recently. So did the essays that became Barbara’s wonderful book Nickel and Dimed. We shouldn’t give up trying—these are important stories, and they need to be told.

Now about the bait and switch. Please highlight and reproduce a single sentence of my essay that talks about the “mistreatment of nannies at very different hands.” The only nanny abuse I discuss in the piece is failure to pay Social Security, something that many professional-class employers do. Ahling Deng, as you yourself note, is a garment worker not a nanny; I cited her to make an entirely different point. When I discussed coarse and unscrupulous employers in my post, it was in response to your post, which included a sweeping—and, in my opinion, inaccurate—statement that all nannies receive good treatment.

Sara: You say there are better places to start the revolution than here in our own homes. But why not make the personal the political? It worked for you and me; maybe it can work for our servants.