Wednesday, November 09, 2011

On nannies

Nannies are very much a part of the family landscape here in the UAE, more so than anywhere else I've lived. I grew up in the United States, where nannies (at least in the socioeconomic circles I ran in) were almost unheard of. Where they existed, they were for the very rich, or it was just a precious term for the 13-year-old who came over on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to help with the kids.

So it was quite an adjustment to move here and have to reorient myself around an entirely new nanny paradigm. Here, nannies are the norm. They are almost exclusively live-in nannies - in fact, many (if not most) of the larger apartments and villas have a designated maid/nanny room built in to the floorplan. This room is at worst as small as a closet and at best a real bedroom. I heard that some regulation has decreed that all such rooms are supposed to have their own bathroom. Ours does, though I've heard of some that don't (and of the occasional apartment/villa that has no such room at all).
Our "nanny room" when we first moved in. It's a bit more jazzed up now.

There is no universal standard on the nationality of nannies, though they tend to come from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, or Ethiopia. There is also quite a range of salaries. Most of the nannies I know are probably paid around 1000 - 2000 dirhams ($270 - $540) per month. If they are here legally on their employer's visa, the employer pays additional (and substantial) fees to the UAE government for the privilege. I'm sure these fees vary widely as well, but I've heard they can be thousands of dollars a year. Housing is obviously an included benefit for nannies. Other benefits vary, but could include things like certain regular days off, transportation to somewhere else (a cousin's house, a friend's house) on their day off, a plane ticket to their home country each year, a clothing allowance, a cell phone, etc.

Even with all these differences in nanny situations, I have to say that the greatest variable I see is how these nannies are treated. Some of them are like members of the family, not just out of necessity because hello, they live there and they see everything, but because the mom and dad of the family value them as such. One of Miriam's KG2 classmates last year was brought to school every day by his nanny, and she came to all the school functions and participated in the role of a parent. She carried herself confidently and looked you in the eye and generally seemed to be her own real person independent of her job as a nanny.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Some nannies here seem to be very oppressed. They wear ridiculous maid-like scrub uniforms, even out in public, and shuffle along with their heads down at all times, a good ten paces behind their employers. If you see one of these nannies at the park with their charges, don't count on having your presence acknowledged. They usually avoid eye contact and are hypervigilant about avoiding anything going wrong with the kid(s) they're in charge of. It makes me sad, and I can only hope that the situation they're in now is better than the one they left to come work here.

Some families elevate nanny-ing to the next level and employ a different nanny for each of their children. Really! At Miriam's ballet class, there is hardly ever a place for me to sit down because there are so many nannies there with the kids. Even without multiple nannies, I often find that I am the only mother at the park with my kids, or at swimming lessons with my kids, or at the grocery store with my kids. And I often get sympathetic looks from passers-by, who seem to say, "Why doesn't she get a nanny?" In fact, I've been approached at the park by nannies who ask if I'm looking for a nanny for my kids. It's just that weird that I would be at the park with them myself.

Now, before we get all judgy - as I would have been tempted to do before I moved here - let me say that I wholeheartedly support the institution of nanny-ing, at least when it's done properly. Here's the thing, people: having a nanny is like having a wife for the wife. Think about it. A nanny is someone who is paid to take care of the kids while mom is out or at work. Someone who can run the kids to the park for some fresh air and fun while mom is working on a project or organizing the filing cabinet. Someone who can help make dinner, and then help get it on the table, and then help clean it up. A nanny is someone who will put the kids to bed if you ask her to, and who will be at home, watching over the children if you decide to go out at the last minute with your husband. A nanny is someone who will make you her special tea when you're sick (this literally just happened to a friend of mine) and make sure you don't strain yourself with the housework. Don't worry, mom, the nanny's got it under control.

So what were all those negative things we were going to say about nannies? The only nanny employers I judge these days are the ones who seem to treat their employees abominably. Otherwise, I see healthy, functioning, happy families who make the nanny paradigm work for them. You don't even have to be a working mom to have a nanny, did you know? I didn't, not before I moved here. SAHMs have nannies, too.

You may be wondering why Jeremy and I don't have a nanny. Believe me, we have thought of it. And it's not beyond the realm of possibility that someday we could employ one. But for now, we're managing just fine. Honestly, I think we're too introverted to have a nanny. Just the thought of someone else being in our house all the time (even if she does have her own room with a bathroom) makes me feel all shy and awkward and less inclined to walk around in dishabille.

And that puts me in a certain minority. I was at a neighborhood playgroup the other day and while the moms, not the nannies, were in attendance with their kids, I was the only one without a nanny at home. The thing is, these women didn't hire nannies to replace themselves, or to get out of raising their own kids. In fact, they think it's strange that the traditional American construct has us putting our kids in crowded daycare programs to avoid the cardinal sin of outsourcing periodic parenting to a one-on-one, loving caregiver. They have a point.

I've definitely seen a revolution in the way I think about nannies ever since moving to the UAE. Do you have any anti-nanny attitudes? Where do you think we pick up those attitudes, and has this post turned any of them around for you?


Crys said...

I've told Jason before if we ended up in the middle east full time I want live in help... Not because I don't want to take care of my kids but because I personally would be exceptionally obviously my requirements would be must speak some English and be the kind of person who would fit in as a member of the family... But I have seen the slave like nanny and it makes me sad :(

Susanne said...

I don't think I'd like someone living in my house all the time. Otherwise you make some good pro-nanny points.

As for a wife for the wife, I thought this was one of the benefits of polygyny. You know, all the sister wives could help out with your children. That is when they all live together in one big happy family and husband doesn't have his wives in separate houses because in some cases, they don't know about each other.

So if it were going to be plural wives or one wife plus a nanny for the wife's sanity, give me the nanny!

I need to ask my mom about Africa. I'm not sure the "houseboys" (excuse the term) actually lived with them or just came every day, but I know from time to time, my grandparents left their kids with the Africans when they were out visiting and working.

Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing about this topic. I think if anything, I'd have a nanny kind of like I'd hire a babysitter to take my kids to the park or ballet lessons or watch them while I went on a date. It would take getting used to having someone at my house all the time. I like my privacy too much for that.

Christi and Clifton said...

Nannies are kind of normal here in PA. I am weird for not having one, but here they just come everyday-they don't live in your house. At first I thought it was an excuse not to put up with your kids all day. But now that I've been here and been doing everything alone (Clifton is gone from 8am-10pm). I think it wouldn't be so bad to have your kids be around someone who is kind and patient instead of their frazzled mother(me)at the end of the day who is trying to juggle everything alone. I think my kids might be happier. But here, we can't afford it so my kids are stuck with me. :)

Liz Johnson said...

We had a live-in maid at our house, but she performed functions much like a nanny (except that her primary responsibilities were housework, being present for when the gas/water/garbage/etc. people showed up unannounced at random times, etc.). But she was very much a member of the family, invited to family affairs and functions with the kids. She had the weekends off, and more than once my sister would go with her to her house over the weekend (by invitation, just because they were bestest friends). Anyways, it was obviously awesome to have somebody clean the house and take care of details like that, but it was also awesome to have another member of the family, even if the relationship wasn't a traditional family member one.

I agree with you - as long as employers treat their nannies with respect and pay them fairly, I have no problem with it. I would also caution against the outsourcing of all mothering to the nanny... I knew several people who were basically raised by their maid, and had a warm, loving relationship with her, but a cold & formal relationship with their mother. I think part of the bond between mother/child happens during the bathing/feeding/drudgery of the day, but there is certainly no harm in outsourcing some of it!

JosephJ said...

Echo the sentiment of Christi.

The Boston area has as fair share of nannies. The tipping point is based on the number of kids. One kid in daycare? Pay $1500-2500 a month for preschool. Two kids in daycare? Hire a nanny! This is particularly abundant for two-income families with children not yet enrolled in public {or private} school.

Last year I was having lunch with my supervisor, and he was pontificating that he didn't know how families can survive a) the costs of childcare, or b) on one income where one spouse is a full-time parent.

And that, my friends, is indicative of why family sizes and single income families are on the decline in this area ($$).

Eevi said...

It would be very hard for me to relax if there was someone at my house, BUT it would be nice to have someone here once or twice a week, so I could take care of errands, doctor's appointments, or sleep after working the night.

Isn't it interesting that we are judgmental about other people's parenting and their choices of child care/working? I just read an article that talked about how moms are over-investing in motherhood and therefore they are more judgmental, stressed and exhausted. And I am not sure that I disagree with that author that much...

Eevi said...

Oh and I loved this post! I love when you enlighten my day and bring different perspective to things!

Amanda said...

Since I started working, I've said multiple times that I need a wife. It's not that Tyler hasn't stepped it up with the kids/housework, but it's just not the same. He can't braid Lillian's hair, he doesn't have the patience to iron the clothes the way I want them, or have the time to make Nora oatmeal every morning for breakfast because she doesn't like instant oatmeal (and who does really, that stuff is gross).

I didn't want to put my kids in a daycare with so many snotty noses and lack of one-on-one time, so I have a neighbor watch them. So, if we could afford a nanny, I would totally do it.

Sarah Familia said...

In the Philippines, the one-to-one ratio of nannies to kids is the norm for well-off families. There was a family in our ward who came to church every week and filled up a row with their three kids and three nannies.

When we lived in San Diego and I took my kids to the park, I would encounter pretty much exclusively nannies during the day. They were scandalized by how high I let my kids climb on the play equipment.

Like you, my biggest obstacle to having a nanny would probably be that we like our private family space. Also, I would rather sub out all the housecleaning responsibilities before subbing out taking care of my kids.

Problems I've seen with nannies:

1. Social marginalizing. I just hate seeing people treating someone like she's not a person just because they perceive her to be below them socially.

2. More serious mistreatment, like employing them illegally so they can't go home to their families for fear of not being able to come back, or even physical/sexual abuse.

3. Kids being an authority figure over the nanny. No, I don't think it's good for a three-year-old to have an adult who is his own personal property to boss around all day.

4. Some of the nannies I've seen are not the confident, articulate, positive people I want as role models for my children.

That said, I think nannies are a great solution for many families. I probably would only consider part-time live-out, though.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I agree w/ Eevi. Having occasional help would be helpful. A live in--not so much.

Rob and Sara said...

I don't know how I would feel having a stranger move in (although they wouldn't be a stranger for long, I guess!) but one of my younger sisters moved in with us over the summer. She wanted to move out from my parents' and couldn't afford an apartment and we needed someone to watch Anya in the mornings while I was at work. We had an extra bedroom and so in exchange for rent, she watches Anya. It has worked out fabulously. She doesn't clean for me (dang it!) but knowing Anya is with Aunt Shannon - who loves her and teaches her new things everyday - has been wonderful!

Nemesis said...

Well. You've sold me on the idea! :-)

I personally would love to have someone who could stay home with my baby sometimes because I hate having to haul him up (sometimes from a nap) to take him along on stupid errands like the doctors office or the auto shop or the grocery store. I wouldn't need a full-timer for that, but maybe one day a week for me to go run all my errands efficiently? Heaven.

I know someone who has very difficult pregnancies, and she says she will not get pregnant again unless they can hire someone to play with and help take care of her older kids while she is sick in bed for months. People look at her like she is crazy for saying it, but it will probably make everyone's lives a bit better.


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