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Ethnic Nannies For Every Age

Posted by Francie Latour  November 15, 2011 09:11 PM

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In the mid-1990s and early 2000's, Cameron MacDonald spent a lot of time combing the playgrounds of Metrowest enclaves from Brookline to Weston to Sudbury. A sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, MacDonald was looking for nannies and the typically high-earning mothers for whom they worked. Not surprisingly, she found them in droves. But she also found them in almost every conceivable cultural combination -- white CEOs with undocumented immigrants, black doctors with white mid-Western au pairs, Latina professionals with nannies carefully selected from some Spanish-speaking countries, but not others, to make sure their kids didn't pick up an undesirable Spanish accent.

Ultimately, MacDonald interviewed 30 working mothers and 50 nannies in the course of her research. Her new book, Shadow Mothers, offers surprising and layered insights into the Boston iteration of a modern mommy phenomenon played out every day from coast to coast: guilty mothers who are deeply conflicted about such an intimate outsourcing of childcare, and nannies caught in the double bind of their unwritten job description -- to be an extension of a working mother on demand, a shadow mother who can appear and then instantly disappear. And in the Boston version of that drama, race, ethnicity and class matter in very unexpected ways. 

This week MacDonald is back in her nanny stomping grounds; tonight, she will give a talk about her book at Wellesley College. MacDonald said she chose Boston because so far, the vast majority of research on nannies has focused on New York and Los Angeles, and almost exclusively on Caribbean and Latina nannies. "What I saw from my work in Boston was a much more mixed an complicated picture of who was doing nanny work and what factors were driving mothers to choose which nannies."  

Thumbnail image for 9780520266971.jpgYou might think MacDonald is just another academic staking out her own ground in the endlessly hyped mommy wars. But you'd be wrong. For one thing, MacDonald worked as a full-time live-in nanny, minding three kids under 5 for a couple at a lake house in Maine when she was 16. It was all going blissfully well, as she tells it  -- bonding with the kids in the wild, cooking meals with her boss over a wood stove -- until the day baby Lily stumbled and fell. When Lily's mother could not console her, and she had to hand her over to the young MacDonald, everything changed. "We made the three-day drive home from Maine in steely silence," MacDonald recalls in her preface. "They paid me my summer's wages, and I never heard from them again. I was devastated."

Maybe it's that personal experience that helps to set her scholarship apart. With a clear analytical eye but also with deep empathy, MacDonald spends one of the most intriguing chapters of her book exploring what she calls "ethnic logics."  That is, a widely shared, nanny-specific system of stereotyping that the working mothers she studied  -- white, black, Latina and Asian -- all took part in in the name of their childrens' well-being.

The system of ethnic logics, MacDonald writes, has nothing to do with conventional discrimination, like paying nannies differently based on race. It has to do with a set of shorthands mothers seemed to cling to and act on, convinced that different ethnic nannies were ideally matched to different stages of their kids' development. For example, valuing Caribbean nannies when their children are newborns, because "all Caribbean nannies are nurturing." And then devaluing them as their kids entered the toddler years, believing their kids needed a fresh-faced mid-Western au pair to stimulate their minds -- and to socialize them into the middle-class existence their mothers want to pass on to them. In the system of nanny ethnic logics, MacDonald found, whiteness itself came to symbolize "middle class-ness."

"It's fascinating how these ideas about race and class would just get reinforced through the process of choosing nannies, or letting go one nanny for another nanny," MacDonald said. "There was this very conscious thought process and question of, how am I going to transmit security and comfort when they're an infant? How am I going to transmit all the development stuff the experts say is important for toddlers? How am I going to transmit my middle-class values when they're ready for preschool?"

The anxiety can make for strange choices and even stranger rationales: At the beginning of the chapter, we meet Joyce, a black oncologist in a tony suburb who yearns to find her son a black nanny. Despite that stated wish, Joyce ends up hiring a white Nebraska teenager, sight unseen. Later on, we meet a white physician, Naomi, who decided her Jamaican nanny was the perfect fit after she came for an interview and the baby quickly fell asleep on her lap. Naomi described her nanny's ease with kids as "Jamaican voodoo."

For a while now, academics and the mommy blogosphere have been keyed in to the so-called ideology of intensive mothering -- the overwhelming social pressure working women feel to also be ideal mothers at home. Ironically, it's a pressure that keeps ratcheting up as more and more mothers have entered the work force. What MacDonald found is that for mothers with nannies, that pressure leads to an intense desire to micromanage each developmental stage of their little ones' lives. And that, in turn, translates into an unforgiving calculus, one that reduces nannies to one or two brushstrokes of racially or ethnically rooted talents. Unlike actual parents, nannies can't be caregivers whose abilities around children evolve. What they become instead, MacDonald argues, are interchangeable tools in a childrearing strategy that is constantly being assessed, improved and refined.    

"Typically, people say that mothers just hire the cheapest immigrant they can find, or that they hire the people who look the most like them," MacDonald said. "But actually it turns out neither is true. The decisions moms make turn on a lot of complex questions about who conveys what kind of social class, what kind of nannies will allow your kids to socialize with the kids of stay-at-home moms on playdates, what you think it says about you if your nanny is Irish or Brazilian or an au pair from the Netherlands."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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