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September 25, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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Nannies and mannies: my life as Fran Drescher

Paid childcare isn’t a new occupation. Governesses, and other paid childcare providers, became more common throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as the upper-middle class were able to afford to pay others to look after their children. Governesses were more like in-home teachers than babysitters, often required to teach their charges additional languages, reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography. Older children would also be instructed in drawing, piano, dancing, and etiquette, as well as how to attract an eligible suitor in a crowded marriage market. The term “babysitter” wasn’t coined until 1937 and attracted a meaning distinct from that of the governess. Babysitters are more informal arrangements, with babysitters visiting either occasionally or on a regular basis but not living at the house with the children. For high school students, babysitting the neighbour’s children on an occasional evening was a relatively low-stress way to make good pocket money. Fran Drescher’s eponymous (and fabulously stylish imo) character in the hit 1990s sitcom The Nanny demonstrates that “the nanny,” as a cultural figure, had been embedded in popular psyche and vernacular for some time. I dream of being as well dressed as Franny Drescher.

Nannying jobs vary wildly, depending on the family. I spoke to a number of Wellington nannies who all had variations of this schedule: school pick up, take home (often by car, either the nanny’s or the family’s), prepare afternoon tea, unpack school bags, assist with homework, arrange activities for children to keep them occupied, cook dinner, bath children, and complete household cleaning / laundry / dishes.

Although these are the same tasks that parents or caregivers do for their children normally, nannying adds a different element of stress. There is an expectation that tasks will be done a certain way, and in a timely and appropriate manner. Each family has particular wants and needs: one family, a nanny I talked to worked for, had a young primary school child go through a severe mental health episode which was stressful for the nanny who had to manage that child, as well as other children’s needs, and was in nearly constant contact with the parents to arrange the best way to handle the situation.

Nannies tend to be with the children they look after for at least a few afternoons each week. The sheer time spent in sole custody means guardian relationships with children develop quickly. In the two years I worked for a family I watched one of their children go from nappies to school, helped her learn to read and write, talked with her about kindness and healthy ways to act, among so many other meaningful and menial things. Almost every afternoon she used to run to me from the school gate and grin, hug me and tell me she loved and missed me. She would ask me where I had been in the weekend and why wasn’t I at her house on Saturday reading her stories and giving her cuddles. It was beautiful and heartwarming, but heartbreaking when I remembered that there would come a time when I had to give nannying up and say goodbye to her. She probably won’t remember my name in five years’ time. Nannies are responsible for deciding what the children do and how to manage their behaviour. We are given power to punish (or instructed not to punish even if we feel we ought to), to love, and to care. Children and young people can see when their caregiver is upset, angry, or not giving them attention. We are paid to be smiling, organised, friendly, and loving when we don’t feel like it, even when one of our charges has called us a “stupid B-Word!” and told us they hate us. Clearly these experiences aren’t limited to nannies. Parents have to demonstrate that they love their children dearly even when they frankly can’t be bothered dealing with their shitty nappy or toddler tantrum, but the element of payment for these services adds another layer to the complex situation.

Reconciling a nanny’s childminding style with a guardian’s parenting style is not always simple. Some nannies I spoke to also mentioned that it’s difficult to know how to best deal with troubling behaviour from children as you have to parent the children the way their parents want them to be parented. Parents have expectations about how their children will be cared for, and thus how the nanny will fulfil their employment obligations, that are often extremely specific. It makes sense; parents care about their children and worry about what they’re doing when they are not around to parent them. It creates intense pressure for many nannies though as parents tend to be more invested in nannying outcomes than normal employers are invested about their employment outcome. Your manager at Briscoes probably cares less about you being five minutes late to work than a children’s parent does if they are left outside the school gate (although who knows, customer service managers are often power hungry anyway).

Most nannies are needed to work in the afternoons, after school, or until the parents get home from work. Because of these hours, nannies are either people who work part-time (or multiple part-time jobs as nannying is rarely a full time job) or are studying. The nannies I spoke to had babysitting experience from high school and online advertisements often note that applicants need nannying experience.  

All of these requirements mean that nannying is a popular job for students who can pick and choose classes to fit with their afternoon work. Many have graduated from night-time high school babysitting to a nannying job with more responsibilities.

Nannies I spoke to gave differing reasons for doing their jobs. One said she was attracted to nannying because she “loved children and wanted to be around them… [she] also needed a job while at university so [it was] logical to do something that didn’t feel like too much work.” The same nanny noted that the pay from an individual family was better than pay from organisations that hire students to work at after school programmes, where the pay for standard workers (i.e. not supervisors) is normally minimum wage. Even if individual families do pay minimum wage, it is extremely rare for PAYE / kiwisaver / etc. to come out of the nanny’s pay as most work is done under the table. More formalised childcare employment can be found at approved OSCAR after school care programmes (Out of School Care and Recreation, under the MSD) which receive government funding. However these organisations have to fulfil strict employer obligations and employees are hired under contracts. Two of the nannies I spoke to previously worked for OSCAR programmes and noted how the casual contracts meant that there was no certainty of hours, very little pay or sick leave, and expectations that workers would work any hours assigned to them. Comparatively, nannying for an individual family seems like a dream job. The pay is better (in hand at least), rostered hours are more certain as families need to be able to plan their childcare in advance, and nannies are only dealing with a family’s worth of children rather than a group of 8-10 (per person).

A quick perusal of job websites (Student Job Search, TradeMe) reveals that there are plenty of listings for families wanting nannies. Some listings specify that they want women caregivers, some don’t. What almost all listings mention (particularly those with younger children) is someone who is nurturing / caring / kind / loving; traits typically considered “feminine.”

One of the nannies, who has worked for four years as a nanny or caregiver and has only met one male nanny, said that she thought mostly women worked as nannies because “women are considered to be more nurturing / caring. Caregiving work is seen as a women’s role and we’re socialised to fit these roles so to be honest we probably are better at them.” The only man nanny that was known to this nanny was chosen because the children’s father died recently and the mother (employer) felt that the boys needed a male figure in their lives. I asked the almost nine year old I look after (who has had five nannies, all of whom were women) why he always had women look after him and he said “I don’t know. It’s not because boys aren’t allowed to do it. I think maybe women are nicer to kids. They might have children or maybe they want children.” Then he got bored of talking about gender issues and returned to playing minecraft.

The work that nannies do is often seen as being a “second mum.” When working as a nanny I was often mistaken for the children’s mum and quite often the preschooler I look after would call me Mum by accident—although perhaps this was more due to my prematurely aged face than anything else. Between my experience as a nanny and the experiences of the women I’ve talked to, I’ve heard of two men working as nannies: one was the man referenced above and the other was a man who used to work with a family before I did. He was called a “manny” by the family. A nickname signalling, perhaps, that they recognised it was strange for men to be nannies and thus needed a jaunty portmanteau, or perhaps I’m over analyzing a family joke.

Nannies are often women because they do what society has historically considered “women’s work.” Hopefully this expectation is changing, but this article isn’t clever or broad enough to examine that. Nannying involves not only care for children but also cleaning, cooking, and other household tasks. It’s fascinating [to me] that the rise of nannies in modern homes was necessitated by middle class families needing someone to care for their children as the mother went out to work, but the person who replaced the mother for those hours was almost always a woman.

Nannies I spoke to mentioned how childcare is still not considered valuable work; it’s relatively low paid considering you are literally responsible for the lives of children. Perhaps this is linked to parenting not being considered real work: thus the debates over paid parental leave, continued stigma for stay at home parents, those receiving domestic purposes benefits, etc.

The increase in nannies has been attributed to an increase in women returning to work. One would expect the strides of feminism that resulted in more women working after children would have a flow-on effect of equality in the home, but overseas research suggests that is not the case. Even though women have been re-entering the workforce after having children for decades now, employed mothers are still spending an average of 15 more hours a week performing housework and childcare than husbands, even when women contributed as much or more income to the family than their spouse. A study from the late 1990s noted that: “Husbands with wives in the paid labour force do not do much more at home than those with wives who are homemakers, younger men do not contribute more than their older counterparts, and men who work fewer hours do not do anymore work at home than those working longer hours. Even at higher socioeconomic levels where women are able to purchase domestic services (e.g. child care and cleaning services), they remain responsible for managing the home (e.g. shopping, paying bills, making dentist appointments).”

Arguably it’s also responsible for the relatively low pay that primary teachers receive—their base pay rate is $31,820 and the maximum available is just shy of $75,000. That’s the highest pay available, even to someone with a PhD in teaching or education. A census of teachers in 2015 indicated that almost 74% of primary teachers were women and it would be remiss to not make the conclusion that perhaps gender has something to do with the low pay, although many much cleverer people have already discussed this in literature. The same 2015 census also recorded that there are more principals who are men than women.

In no uncertain terms nannying remains an industry dominated by women. Nannies are low paid jobs with high responsibilities and a high degree of varying job expectations. There is no union for nannies and no collective bargaining powers (that I can find, anyway… if anyone wants to create one get in touch with me). In most situations there is no contract and holiday, sick pay, and annual leave are either nonexistent or limited, not to mention the absence of job protection. It’s a precarious situation for young people who deal daily with cleaning random children’s pooey nappies and calming tantrums, with varying levels of support from the parents. Although nannying requires high degrees of responsibility and care, and pays poorly, many young people still do it. It is undoubtedly rewarding and all of the nannies mentioned their love for children being a driving force in their continued work as a nanny or childcare giver. It is unfortunate that the informality and flexibility of the job, which are two perks for both employer and employee, often lend themselves to allowing an attitude of laissez-faire employment standards and conditions for employees.

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