Children and families can benefit immensely from the presence of a caring, attentive nanny. Childcare is also an essential component of any functional society—it makes all other work possible, after all. But taking care of another person’s kid can be emotionally, mentally, and financially taxing, particularly for women of color who often are disproportionately affected by health risks on the job. The work of nannies and childcare workers is still largely undervalued, creating conditions that can take a toll on those who do it.
In many ways, my own stint as a nanny saved my life. I was still new to LA, severely depressed, and struggling to make ends meet when I met a family through an online nanny search service. Having a six-year-old waiting to be picked up and driven to tennis lessons gave me a reason to get out of bed. I was able to pay my rent and continue writing at night. It was easy money—until it wasn’t. Whining, sneaking cookies, and the occasional protest of “you’re not my mom!” are par for the course when dealing with young kids, but looking after a child who had worsening separation anxiety, plus anger and resentment about her previous nanny having been abruptly let go, began to negatively affect my own mental and physical health.
Though I could pass for white, I couldn’t shake the feeling that being a woman and a Latina made me different in this child’s eyes (as well as her parents’) because of the disparity in privilege between us. Diffusing her tantrums, chasing her down the block when she tried to run away, and cleaning up her toys when she refused because it “wasn’t her job” was all deeply emotional work that left me burned out. I feared that if I ever caved and let her have the cookies or couldn’t get her in bed on time I would be let go immediately, and there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it. When I eventually left two years later, I’d hit full-on compassion fatigue that had morphed into apathy. And I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t have the energy to feel any more.
There are several factors that can put in-home childcare workers of color at risk, starting with the nature of the job itself, says Kathleen Gerson, professor of sociology at NYU. Without an official human resources department, corporate headquarters, or regulation by an outside nanny agency, wage infractions, abuse, and mistreatment on the job can go unregulated. For many workers of color, in-home childcare work, Gerson says, is part of an “underground economy” and “subject to all sorts of opportunities for exploitation and mistreatment.”
Because workers are often paid under the table in cash, Gerson says, “There are no official ways to, for example, provide unemployment insurance, contribute to social security, [or] all the other government programs that are set up to provide more economic stability to workers.” The “unofficial” nature of such a position can also influence how much or how little value employers attach to the job.
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She adds that it’s also possible you wouldn’t get paid at all. Citing the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, Gerson explains domestic workers have historically been excluded from government protections. “It’s an occupation that is ripe for mistreatment. It also means there’s likely a great deal of variation among both the employers and the workers who do that kind of work because so much is left to employer discretion.” Though many employers may form close bonds with their childcare workers, pay them fairly and treat them with respect, some don’t, Gerson says. “There’s no regulation to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that automatically puts people in an insecure situation.”
Though Gerson adds that much of the job insecurity in childcare work is being experienced in other fields as a symptom of our economy, this instability “is something that has historically been a problem for domestic work in someone’s home.” A national study of domestic workers conducted by the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance back in 2012 (the first of its kind) showed that 54 percent of workers were women of color, and 46 percent were immigrants. The same study revealed Latinx workers generally earned a median wage of $8.57 per hour, while white domestic workers earned an average of $12.55 per hour, putting women of color in the field at greater risk for experiencing job insecurity and financial instability.
Maria Zamora, a career nanny from Los Angeles, describes some of the misconceptions she’s encountered about her job, and herself. “I get judged a lot. People ask me ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ I feel that we are not taken seriously in our industry all the time,” she says. Zamora tells me that balancing her physical health with the stress of her job can be a challenge, because “when you work with kids, you have to be physically healthy.” Last year, Zamora worked for a Hollywood film producer who she says wanted to pay her as a freelancer rather than a full-time employee with opportunity for overtime (which she sometimes worked). “He wanted to use a 1099. It’s illegal,” she says. “He said he was afraid of the legal repercussions he could face[...]He didn’t want to use a contract [even though] he works with contracts all the time.”
Zamora adds that her bosses are generally good people, but she doesn’t defend their behavior. “It’s not uncommon for people to try to find loopholes to avoid paying taxes.” However, she says, “I was very educated in what is legal and isn’t. In an industry where we have no HR [department] to stand up for us, we must be our own voices.” Despite the setbacks, nannying is Zamora’s chosen career, and it’s one she finds fulfilling. “I have such an important role,” she says. “Raising children is my passion, and even though there are bad days, the good days outweigh them.”
Issues of gender and ideas about childcare as “women’s work” can also have financial and social ramifications for immigrant women. “Due to the historical association of women and childrearing, childcare today remains a low-paid, feminized occupation,” says Rene Almeling, associate professor of Sociology at Yale University. “Especially in the US, care work has been and continues to be devalued, both economically and socially, and the two are quite connected.”
For workers who’ve experienced abuse or unfair working conditions, immigration status can be a barrier to seeking legal assistance. “There are few formal protections for these vulnerable workers,” Almeling says. “Because the work is conducted behind closed doors in private homes, those who are being exploited or abused have little recourse.” Deana Rohlinger, professor of sociology at Florida State University, adds that workers may also experience racism on the job, and an unscrupulous employer might “use their immigrant status—particularly if they are undocumented—to secure their silence.” Zamora is in the US legally; navigating her situation would be infinitely more precarious if she were undocumented.
Job instability, a lack of value attached to the work itself, and even a language barrier can all add undue stress to an already emotionally taxing job. “Caring for and socializing other people’s children is emotionally and physically exhausting work,” Rohlinger says. “Burnout, particularly in residential childcare, is pretty high.” The high-level emotional work of suppressing one’s feelings in favor of a child’s, comforting a crying baby, and de-escalating tantrums are all part of raising children. When the children are someone else’s, and workers might have children of their own at home to provide for, compassion fatigue can set in.
“The stresses on these kinds of workers has to do with the lack of respect and value that the work itself is accorded, not to mention the lack of regulations that make their working conditions suboptimal,” Gerson says. She emphasizes, however, that immigrant women working as nannies shouldn’t be pathologized or stigmatized, and that emotional work isn’t necessarily linked to mental health problems. Those who find fulfilling employment as an in-home childcare worker are often incredibly compassionate individuals who are highly skilled in emotional intelligence and the ability to manage others’ emotions while working in their homes—an intimate, highly personal and often precarious workplace.
The work of caring for children is, as Gerson says, “among the most important jobs that can be performed to keep a society healthy and thriving, growing, and progressing.” Progress, however, can only truly take place when the rights of those who raise children aren’t undermined.
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