Wednesday, February 18, 2004


OK. We're talking nannies tonight. Let me just add a disclaimer before I go on. I'm still working out what I think about all this stuff. Maybe by the time I get to the end of this post, I'll have some more concrete ideas. Maybe not. I'm going to sum up some of the arguments made on both sides and answer some of them.

Now, full disclosure. I have a babysitter who is employed for 9 hours a week. I call her a babysitter rather than a nanny, because she's only 20, she's very inexperienced, she's PT, and she's going to college next semester. She's paid $10 an hour. I've also used daycare in someone's home for around 20 hours a week. And Jonah's pre-school is basically a daycare. So, I've sampled all of the childcare options.

Let's move on to the Caitlin Flanagan article. Let me just say that I don't think that this article was one of Flanagan's best. She doesn't seem to have one unifying argument throughout the article. It starts off with her feeling so superior to the working moms, because she's home with the kids. Then she tells us that she has a nanny. (Instant turn off. Sorry, but no one feels sorry for an at-home mom with a nanny.) She has a literature review, which bypasses subtleties in favor of jokes (I can relate to that). Then she ends weakly by stating that you're not exploiting a nanny if you pay her fairly and pay her social security and understand the pain of poor working women even as you take advantage of them.

I'm not going to review the Flanagan article, but use it as a jumping off point for a larger discussion. Do look at her list of books if you are really interested in reading more about this stuff.

First of all, nannies are different from day care workers. Nannies work in your home. They are not in their own homes or in a neutral daycare center. This gives them a lot less control over their work environment. Their work is micro-managed to a much greater degree than a daycare worker. It is also weird for the employer. The nanny knows that the family hasn't washed their towels in a week or that they've eaten nothing but Chinese food. Nobody has any privacy. Especially if the employer has installed nanny-cams.

The pay. It seems to vary greatly. I've gotten a number of e-mails from readers who tell me that they pay their nannies generously. $10-$14 an hour. The Mosle letter in Salon said that she pays her nanny $500 a week. That's about $24,000 a year.

$24,000 a year is better than working in a McDonald's or in a shop. Before she started babysitting, my babysitter worked in a basement of a clothing shop doing inventory making minimum wage. She's making more money now and is happier.

Many nannies prefer to be paid under the table and forgo their social security. If you're getting $14 an hour tax-free, you're doing quite well, though you're not getting social security.

On the other hand, Steve said that a trader he works with pays his nanny $350 a month. The trader rationalized it by saying that the nanny gets free room and board and goes with them on all their vacations. He described the situation to Steve as "a necessity." Most nannies are not receiving paid vacations or health insurance.

To be able to afford to pay a nanny well, you have to be in a seriously high tax bracket, especially if you have more than one child. I'm sorry, but I'm left with a series of questions. Is it worth it? Could one parent work less hours, make less money, and have less childcare? In some cases, perhaps not. If both parents are truly unhappy at home or there is only one parent around, then maybe there are no other choices.

Oh, yeah, one more question. Why am I spending all this time worrying about the moral dilemnas of the few who can afford this option?

If a nanny is paid well, is she still exploited? Flanagan and Sara Mosle would say no. My friend, Toni, who is a nanny would say no. Joan Tronto who wrote "The 'Nanny' Question in Feminism" would said yes. Tronto said the "weirdness" I described earlier of having a stranger in your home invites problems. Some women become jealous of the nannies and routinely fire them if they become too close with their children. The children treat them with disrespect. The nannies often have their own children is sub-standard day care settings. The lack of control over their environment is damaging. I strongly disagreed with Tronto the first time I read her, but I am not so sure now.

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