Nannies—those often anonymous, ever-patient figures rocking napping toddlers in their strollers or settling sandbox squabbles at the playground—have moved into the spotlight in American popular culture. The New York Times named Lila Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny one of the best books of 2018. Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma, the story of a young rural woman working as a nanny in Mexico City, has been nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture. And the most famous nanny of all, Mary Poppins, returns in Rob Marshall’s eponymous film, which is still raking in cash at the global box office. With all the hoopla over these awards (Netflix has reportedly spent close to $30 million promoting Roma), the reality of nannies’ lives is easily forgotten.
The Perfect Nanny, translated from the French Prix Goncourt winner Chanson Douce, is the harrowing tale of the skillful and devoted Louise, who brings joy and order to the troubled household of two overworked Parisian professionals—until she coldly murders their two young children. Insofar as the novel makes clear that this particular woman was insane, it is not suggesting that her behavior is typical of nannies. It does, however, remind us of the recent case of horrific nanny murders in New York City.
Roma, by contrast, idealizes Cleo, a domestic worker who, in effect, foregoes her own motherhood to devote herself to her employer’s children. Director Cuarón’s clear-eyed camerawork exposes the multiple small humiliations Cleo and her fellow servant Adela face daily in a comfortably middle-class household in 1970s Mexico City. Yet, when Cleo becomes pregnant and then is abandoned by her feckless boyfriend, her employer, Sofia, seems willing to help Cleo keep the baby—and her job. Sofia’s generosity is probably motivated by the fact that her own family is falling apart; her husband has just deserted her and her children, leaving them emotionally distraught and financially precarious. In a rather clumsy plot twist, Cleo suffers a miscarriage, freeing her to continue nurturing Sofia’s family, even managing a heart-stopping rescue of the children from a dangerous riptide during a seashore vacation.
Mary Poppins must also rescue her employer’s family from crisis: an unscrupulous lender is threatening to repossess the Bankses’ house. Unlike Cleo, Mary suffers no daily humiliations; in fact, she seems to hold the family in her thrall. But like her Mexican counterpart, she appears to have no personal attachments that would distract her from saving the Bankses. On the contrary, at a critical moment, Mary descends from the sky and uses her magical powers to take the children on marvelous adventures and, along the way, save their home from imminent foreclosure.
The leitmotif connecting all three of these stories is the selflessness of the nannies—or so they appear to their employers. Roma and Perfect Nanny do offer glimpses of the employees when they are not on duty, providing some sense of their inner lives and reactions to their situations, but these insights are presented as the result of omniscient narration, not as knowledge that the employers would have acquired through personal interactions with the nannies themselves. Indeed, when Teresa, the grandmother in Roma, takes Cleo to the hospital at the onset of her miscarriage, Teresa cannot answer an attendant’s basic questions about Cleo’s last name, her birthdate, hometown, or insurance status. It becomes clear that Teresa and the rest of the family view Cleo only through the calculus of their needs, not hers. The same is true of Louise’s employers; they know nothing about her private life and are oblivious to signs of her psychological instability, so they have no reason to doubt that they can trust her with their children, until it is too late.
“Like One of the Family”
Employers frequently refer to nannies and other paid caregivers, such as elder care attendants, as being “like one of the family.” This epithet serves to naturalize or normalize the presence of strangers in their midst; those who come into their households unavoidably disrupt their privacy in order to perform the most intimate of tasks. Despite whatever bonds of affection develop between caregivers and those they care for, however, family membership is tenuous and can be withdrawn as readily as it is granted. In a notable scene in Roma, Cleo is sitting with the entire family watching television, the children nestled comfortably on the couch next to her. The spell is broken when Sofia abruptly asks Cleo to get up and fetch a cup of tea for the father. Cleo is “like one of the family”—except when she isn’t.
The relationship between Louise, the “perfect nanny,” and her employers is equally, if differently, complex. Unlike Cleo, Louise does not “live in”; when the parents return from work, she generally goes home to her shabby apartment in the Paris suburbs. She makes herself indispensable in other ways, cooking and cleaning in addition to caring for the children. But tensions arise when the mother, fearing that the children are growing more attached to their nanny than to their own parents, tries to create some space between Louise and the children. This then leads to a series of events ending in murder, though it is clear well beforehand to the readers that Louise has serious mental problems.
Mary Poppins avoids such entanglements. She literally drops from the sky when she is desperately needed and quietly beams herself back up when her work is done. In this sense, she may, as one writer suggested to me, represent “nostalgia for the way child care used to be”—child care that was clearly delimited, provided by a servant who knew her place and kept her private life, such as it was, “below stairs.”
It is notable that while these three works have found great popularity among American audiences, all of them deal with nannies in foreign settings: London, Paris, and Mexico City. France, of course, has long had an enviable universal public child care system (although the ambitious couple in The Perfect Nanny still feel the need to hire their own nanny in order to manage their hectic lives). England and Mexico lack such systems, but their long traditions of domestic service—much of it performed by rural-urban migrants like Cleo—tend to compensate for the absence of public provisions, at least among the middle and upper classes.
So for Americans, rather than tapping into nostalgia for child care as it has never really existed in this country, these stories may be channeling anxieties about how it is currently being managed in a society where parents must depend on a “patchwork” of public and private services. While poor and low-income families have, at least in theory, access to free or sliding-scale child care centers, those with means must seek places in voluntary or for-profit facilities that are often very expensive and vary widely in quality. Slots are scarce, and competition for them is fierce; some parents apply for admission for children still in utero. Thus it is not surprising that many families, especially those with two or more children, find it both more affordable and more convenient to simply hire a nanny.
Nannies have almost always been female, but nowadays they are increasingly likely to be women of color and/or foreign-born. In 2015, more than 350,000 women were employed as home-based child care workers, with another nearly 1.5 million caring for adults at home. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, while the majority of home-based caregivers in both groups are white and native-born, the proportions of Hispanics, African Americans, and foreign-born in these occupations are growing more rapidly than for whites. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of whites in all caregiving occupations grew by only 9 percent, while the number of Hispanics increased by 48 percent, multi-racial persons by 57 percent, naturalized foreign-born by 140 percent, and non-citizens by 80 percent.
That last figure may well be artificially low due to underreporting of non-citizens working as home-based caregivers, many of whom are likely to be undocumented. Because of the way it is constructed, our immigration system offers such workers limited opportunities to enter the country legally. Despite the growing demand created by an aging population and increased employment among women with care responsibilities, care work is not recognized as an essential occupation worthy of inclusion as a visa category. The result is a system that might be called “demand and denial.”
Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of Caring Across Generations, a national coalition of 200 advocacy organizations, explains why this is the case. “Unfortunately, the current options for becoming legal aren’t available to care workers—temporary work visas are available only for farm workers and science and engineering professionals. And within the current permanent residency application system, only 140,000 permanent employment visas are allowed each year—most are given to the family members of other admitted workers.”
Such restrictions place an additional burden on caregivers who are undocumented. In addition to the usual discomforts of living or working in the midst of a family not their own, they must grapple with the risks inherent in their immigration status. This means not only living with constant fear of deportation—a fear that has only grown under the Trump Administration—but also having little leverage with respect to difficult employers.
At best, carework tends to be low-paid (the average annual salary for a full-time nanny ranges from less than $22,000 to $25,000, or around $10 an hour), physically demanding, and emotionally stressful. Many workers report sexual and racial harassment on the job, and few receive benefits such as paid vacations and health insurance. Caregivers who choose (or are required) to live in are especially vulnerable to poor working conditions, such as long hours with unpaid overtime and no paid time off, inadequate housing, and lack of privacy. Roma’s Cleo and Adela have their own quarters, but as the scene of the family gathered around the TV shows, the line between working time and time off is blurred; Cleo is, in effect, almost always “on duty.”
In addition, undocumented migrants are unable to make provisions for their own old age. Even if they obtain fake social security cards (as have many of the workers at President Trump’s golf courses), they will be unable to claim pensions when they reach retirement age. If they and their employers do make the required contributions to Social Security, they will, of course, be augmenting the OASDI Trust Fund, which will, in turn, use that money to support those who can make valid claims. But the migrants themselves will enjoy no such benefits in retirement.
The Ones They Leave Behind
Women who migrated to the United States in the past tended to be young, single, and without dependents. Many of today’s female migrants have children or other family members relying on them; indeed, they often state that earning money “to give their children a better life” or to help with elders’ medical care is their primary motivation for leaving their home countries, where employment opportunities for women are limited. And for those who seek jobs as nannies, being mothers themselves is their primary qualification.
Ironically, however, when it comes to their own children, mothers’ migration causes as many problems as it solves. Those who intend to work as caregivers generally leave their children behind, both because of immigration restrictions and because they are aware that finding affordable child care in the United States would be difficult and they might end up being unable to work. Instead, they arrange for their children to be cared for at home, usually by other family members, most often maternal grandmothers and older sisters, but sometimes by paid caregivers. Scholars refer to these arrangements as “global care chains.”
Migrants regularly remit as much of their wages as possible, and the money they send back goes far in their countries of origin. But, again because of immigration restrictions as well as financial constraints, few mothers are able to return to visit their children regularly. Instead they rely on techniques that have been dubbed “mothering across borders”—FaceTime, Skype, and frequent cellphone calls. Migration scholar Gabrielle Oliveira describes a situation she observed, in which a Brooklyn-based Mexican nanny sought to limit her teenage son’s activities one evening by closely monitoring his movements via telephoned reports from the grandmother who was caring for him back in their home village.
While some researchers argue that prolonged maternal absence makes children more resilient, others have found evidence of psychological harm. Heather Rae-Espinosa, a human development expert studying migrants’ families in Ecuador, reports on the particularly convoluted case of a seven-year old boy who was living with his grandmother while his mother worked in Italy. According to Rae-Espinosa, “Wilson experienced his mother’s emigration as a loss…. [He] could not view his grandmother as fulfilling the role of a redefined grandmother and his mother as a readjusted mother as other emigrés’ children [did] … because his grandmother declared incessantly that he was not missing anything—she provided him with everything he would need from a mother. To Wilson, these declarations indicated that his mother did not provide for him.” The grandmother told Rae-Espinosa that she had “’given him all her love,’ yet her daughter [could] still decide to take him and all that love away. She told me this would break her heart.” Rae-Espinosa concluded that the grandmother’s concerns “triggered kin confusion” for the boy. “Under pressure to see his mother as not a mother, Wilson learned to hide the emotional indicators of his deep connection to his mother.”
Women’s absence can also have negative effects on their parents and other elderly relatives left behind. The elders welcome the extra cash, as it enables them to seek medical attention, purchase medications, or make home improvements they might otherwise be unable to afford. But in many instances, they end up becoming the primary caregivers for grandchildren, adding to whatever health or financial challenges they may be facing. They also miss absent daughters’ affections and the practical assistance they may have provided in their daily lives. A study of Mexican elders whose adult children had migrated found that they experienced great anxiety about their children’s well-being abroad, especially if they were undocumented. Another study discovered that Chinese elders with migrant children were more likely to be depressed than those whose children were still at home. This situation was, of course, exacerbated by China’s one-child policy as well as the great distances many young Chinese workers travel to find employment in manufacturing hubs.
Concerns for those left behind rarely make it into recent portrayals of nannies in fiction or film. An exception is Mona Simpson’s 2010 novel My Hollywood, which features another highly competent nanny, a Filipina named Lola, who rescues Claire, a composer and new mother who is floundering as both a wife and a mother. But Simpson refuses to fixate solely on Claire and her troubles. Instead, she alternates between Claire’s story and Lola’s anxieties about her family back home. Sadly, when Lola finally has a chance to return and visit her husband and five children, whom she hasn’t seen in years, she discovers that her long absence has taken its toll. The children’s affections have eroded so greatly that mostly what they feel is deep discomfort and alienation from their mother.
Migrating for work in the United States also brings tragic consequences for Gloria, the Filipina nanny in Lukas Moodysson’s 2009 film Mammoth. Like her counterpart in The Perfect Nanny, the mother, Ellen, played by Michelle Williams, envies her daughter Jackie’s increasing closeness to Gloria, though she herself does nothing to reduce the long hours she spends toiling as an emergency surgeon. Gloria, however, has her own problems. As Moodysson shows through intercut scenes, one of the two sons she has left behind with their grandmother cannot cope with her absence and calls frequently, imploring her to come back. Determined to improve her family’s lot, Gloria resists his pleas until the boy falls prey to a pedophile and ends up in a hospital, whereupon she rushes home, leaving Jackie confused and bereft. Neither Simpson nor Moodysson shrinks from dramatizing the complexities of care work and the emotional tax migrant caregivers must pay when they leave their loved ones behind in order to find lucrative work in a globalized economy.
Care for the Caring
Migrant care workers who are mothers, especially nannies, thus face a dual set of issues: one in their home countries, one at their destinations. Most mothers who migrate do so because they cannot find decently-paying employment at home; resolving this dilemma will require major adjustments in the global economy that are unlikely to occur any time soon. The issues in destination countries arise from caregivers’ working conditions, often exacerbated by immigration restrictions. As noted above, U.S. immigration laws make it very difficult for potential care workers to enter the country legally; indeed, in this regard the United States is one of the least hospitable of the wealthy countries. And once in, migrant care workers find they have few protections on the job.
Until recently, U.S. care workers, whether citizens or not, have had little success in improving their working conditions. One reason is that in-home caregiving, regarded as a form of domestic work, is not covered by labor laws in most states and localities and is also omitted from Federal labor and anti-discrimination laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the National Labor Relations Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Ai-Jen Poo reminds us, “for generations, domestic work—traditionally performed mostly by women of color and immigrants—has been overlooked and devalued, even in moments when other workers achieved hard-won gains.”
At the same time, trade unions have shown little interest in modifying their shopfloor organizing techniques in order to reach individual workers scattered by the thousands in private homes. In 2007, a group of domestic workers, realizing that they would have to fight for themselves, founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Their stated goal: to obtain “respect, recognition, and inclusion in labor protections for domestic workers.” Affiliated with more than 60 other advocacy organizations and supporting local chapters in three major cities, NWDA now represents some 20,000 home-based workers, including housekeepers as well as direct-care providers, with a presence in 36 cities and 17 states.
Working with local affiliates, NDWA has succeeded in passing some form of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in eight states and the city of Seattle. With some variations, these laws generally mandate that in-home employees, including nannies, receive the minimum wage (though employers may deduct the cost of food and lodging, with amounts for these items capped), overtime pay, paid sick days and paid vacations. Most bills also stipulate that employers provide workers in advance with clearly defined schedules, including time for meals and rest breaks, and some set standards for housing, food, and other working conditions.
Without Federal legislation, however, hundreds of thousands of domestic workers remain unprotected. Seeking to close this gap, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) have recently announced plans to introduce a Federal domestic workers bill of rights in Congress this session. The two lawmakers, along with NWDA’s Ai-Jen Poo, explained the need for their bill to CNN:
Keeping domestic workers in the shadows isn’t just wrong — it holds back our economy. Roughly 10,000 Americans currently turn 65 each day. At the same time, many of the women who traditionally provided home care are joining the workforce, leaving families to turn to professional caregivers. […] If we don’t make care jobs good jobs, economist Paul Osterman estimates we’ll have a national shortage of 350,000 paid care providers by 2040. That could be 350,000 families who won’t be able to participate fully in the economy because they can’t find the support they need.
The proposed Harris-Jayapal bill would cover many of the same issues addressed in the state and local bills of rights and amend the Federal labor and anti-discrimination laws that currently exclude domestic workers. It would also fund training programs designed to enable domestic workers to improve their skills and, presumably, up their earnings; protect workers against retaliation for reporting violations; guarantee their right to unionize; and establish an Interagency Task Force on Protecting Domestic Workers’ Workplace Rights to ensure enforcement.
Seizing the Moment
Whether or not Roma wins its Oscars (Mary Poppins Returns is also up for four), the films and Slimani’s novel have now brought nannies and other home-based caregivers to the attention of a broad audience. Capitalizing on Roma’s success, the NDWA website currently features a still from the film and proclaims that it “asks us to explore how we can make a difference for the women who care for our families and our homes: the real-life Cleos everywhere.” Similarly, the New York Times op-ed page this week ran a video and an open letter by the NDWA, inspired by Roma, calling on Congress to pass a National Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
Given the President’s current demonization of immigrants, this hardly seems like a propitious moment to push for the kinds of reform that would help migrant care workers enter the country legally. Nor, with Republicans controlling the Senate as well as the White House, does it appear likely that a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights will pass in the current session of Congress. Yet at least one candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, Kamala Harris, has seen fit to place the issue prominently on her domestic policy agenda. Perhaps others in the field will follow suit, and carework will become a topic for serious legislative debate, not just a passing subject for popular culture.
If so, what principles should guide reform? The first step must be recognizing caregiving as a form of work, one that is fundamental to the smooth functioning of our society and our economy, and acknowledging the present and growing shortage of workers in this occupation. This would lead to the inclusion and protection of care workers in our labor, civil rights and immigration laws. Lawmakers should also consider expanding and adequately funding public child care centers, thereby making them more attractive for parents and children, more affordable, and a source of good jobs for native-born workers. Two other senators running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have unveiled proposals to do just that. (Expanding public congregate elder care is more problematic, given strong preferences by both elders and their families for at-home care.)
Second, when anyone, Republican or Democrat, praises “family values,” they—we—need to think about all of the families that are involved when it comes to migrant caregivers. The slogan “America First” makes it too easy to forget the families left behind by those who come here to care for our children and elders. Employers should facilitate continuing contact between migrants and loved ones in their home countries and provide paid vacation time and travel funding to enable caregivers to visit their own families regularly. In all of these ways, our policy toward migrant caregivers can be changed from “demand and denial” to one of “invite and honor.”