Rich people have nannies. I’m not rich. I became rich when A’idah told me that she charged $20 per day to care for my infant son, clean my house, and cook me dinner.
When I was six years old, a cashier at the grocery store paused before taking the food stamps from my mother’s hand. It was only a moment’s pause. In my memory, the young man’s gaze was bold, disrobing my mother in front of my brother and me. I have no idea if this is true or not. What is true, is that my mother was fuming and embarrassed as we left the store, and that she later explained to us why she was upset. I learned that food stamps were not real money.
It took only that moment and perhaps twenty other brushstroke moments, which if compiled in MovieMaker might only play for thirty seconds, for me to become poor, and because we define ourselves in opposition, not rich.
In those years, Mom took out loans to go to college, and we went along to her classes during our summer vacations. Eventually, she and my dad could afford daycare, and happily ever after.When my husband and I had our son 5 months ago, we had more than our parents did when we were born. Our jobs moved us around the world. We have options, though we are not rich.
I quit my job to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is simply to write, and we decided to look into a babysitter for a few hours a day.
Here in Cape Town, the cost of living is cheap compared to the U.S.; 63% cheaper than Seattle, where we were living before we moved abroad. I was still viscerally shocked to discover that we could employ a full-time nanny, who also tidies up and cooks dinner, for $20 USD/day. Child Care Aware of America’s 2013 report on the cost of childcare in the U.S. cites infant care in Washington state as costing about $1000/month, or 85% more than in Cape Town, so $20 per day is even cheaper than you’d expect once you control for the difference in cost of living.
It was too good to be true. I went for it. I quelled a gnawing sense of injustice by rationalizing that if our nanny did a good job I’d research a fair wage and offer her a raise. I also pay for her transportation ($2.50/day) and pay her double when she works evening hours, but it still adds up to peanuts.
Having her in our apartment is surreal. Things niggle at me all day as I sit at my computer and listen to her playing with our son in the living room.
A’idah herself is wonderful. In her mid-forties, she’s the kind but strict mother of two teenage girls, and a practicing Muslim. She’s gentle or stimulating to our son, depending on his mood. I still don’t trust her completely, owing to my separation anxiety and some horror stories I’ve heard about nanny-facilitated house robberies here. I trust her more every day, as we talk over coffee in the mornings and she tells me about her husband’s string of tech contract jobs, about the affirmative action policies in South Africa, about the quickest way to drive to the mall. When she suppressed what I’m sure was terror as I drove us on the left side of the road for the first time, she became a friend.
Even so, there’s something I don’t like about having her here. Of course, there’s the guilt. I already knew that I’m the kind of woman who needs a career outside of her family. That knowledge doesn’t allay the guilt that someone else is, in a sense, and especially if we employ her long-term, raising my child. Big deal, you say. Millions of other families choose or are forced to have someone else look after their children, and even if mothers stay at home, kids are inevitably shaped by their peers and educational institutions as much as by their parents. Beyond this, Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book Lean In represents a new line of thought in feminism and argues that women need to overcome exactly this guilt if they want to reduce the gender disparities in the workplace, so, okay.
There’s a squishier fiber of guilt beneath this surface layer. I’m not used to employing anyone domestically. It’s not what the middle classes of America do, usually.
In college, I was the nanny to a wealthy family in Boston. I kept many thoughts to myself when I joined that family. The adult who is your child’s best friend and who is your confidant, who occasionally cooks dinner, isn’t actually part of your family, no matter how much she may seem to be. She doesn’t make the decisions about how she must interact with your kids. She doesn’t usually set her own hours, and she goes home to other people at night. You’ve hired her to be a human extension of yourself, so she behaves like a member of your family in some ways, but she’ll always belong to the underclass you’ve created for her.
She feels it. While she is earning a respectable living, is doing a job, she also loves your family, and knows her rank within it. If she finds another job, or if on the other hand your children grow too old to need her, there will be hurt and an unspoken feeling of betrayal.
So, I’m uncomfortable. When A’idah offers to make me tea, or unbidden hangs the laundry to dry, I squirm. When she makes a dinner my husband praises or finds a new game that amuses my son, I feel resentment though I chide myself for it. My first world problem is that I feel rich, and I don’t like it. We all consider ourselves underdogs in the U.S. Here, that’s impossible.
While I’m learning quite a bit from A’idah of new cultures religious and regional, I’m not sure I’ll let this go on much further. I might opt for a daycare instead once our son is old enough. We think of day care centers like schools. The environment should be educational or at least communal. There are no foggy boundaries, no mixed roles. You may call the owners Ma and Pa (or maybe my daycare was the only one like that), but Ma and Pa were teachers, firm and benign. We were in their domain during the day, and at night, we left.
Nannies are something entirely different. They’re surrogate parents, which means that our feelings toward them are both grateful and guilty, loving and resentful. More often than not, the nanny you employ is at a socio-economic disadvantage to you, and you confront it every day, feeling frivolous and self-conscious when you buy groceries in front of her, hesitant when you ask her to do something for you. By employing her, I reinforce her under-ness.
No matter that this is the way it seems to work in Cape Town, where childcare is more affordable and nannies therefore more prevalent. I know there are layers of social injustice that contribute to this cheapness that I haven’t even begun to think about.
If I don’t want these ambivalent feelings, I have to take my son to a nursery, and I have to pay dearly for what is, or what I convince myself is, an educational experience I couldn’t provide by myself, one which doesn’t threaten my fragile sense of righteousness, of being not rich.