The nanny wars

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Meera Bowman Johnson, originally published at Our Kind of Parenting

nannies don't want to work for black familiesIt was ninety-six degrees in the shade but I was way past the point of feeling cute in that Liz Lange swimsuit at our local pool (some maternity clothes just aren’t designed for the third trimester). So while my oldest was at daycamp, I parked my pregnant self on the couch with my laptop propped upon my belly, ate watermelon – thanks to my doctor’s suggestion that it reduced water retention – and browsed Craigs List for a nanny. I didn’t need permanent live-in help, nor could I afford it, just someone who could help me survive the first weeks of life with our impending twins and our three year old. I needed a helper who could relate to our family both culturally and emotionally.

I hoped to find a caregiver who was experienced, reliable and if she happened to look like she could be a family member, that was all the better. I wanted someone who wouldn’t make assumptions about us based on race and already knew how to do J-Jo’s hair, especially when my hands were too full to make a straight part. And then I saw her: Westchester Baby Nurse. She had the kind of eyes that made her appear wiser than her presumably 50+ years. I looked at her sitting there in her white uniform, holding twins and I imagined what she’d look like holding mine. Perfect. Westchester Baby Nurse’s credentials looked impressive, she had extensive amounts of experience caring for multiples and all of the things that came with it, so I decided to give her a call.

Over the phone, she seemed every bit as professional as she appeared on her website. The conversation was pleasant and cheerful as we tried to get an accurate impression of one another. We spoke two or three times at length within the next few days before setting up an afternoon to meet in person at a central location in New York City. She told me I could recognize her by her grey trenchcoat and that her hair would be in a bun. But I never got to tell her what color Mimi Maternity tank top I’d be wearing, because as soon as I began describing myself as black, she screamed “FIRE!” and hung up the phone. Okay, not exactly “FIRE!” But she hung up quickly and never called me back. Several weeks later, the nanny I thought was mine left a message on my voice mail saying she was busy with another family, and that if I still needed help, to give her agency a call. I’d been dissed by Jamaican Mary Poppins.

In the end, we went with Julie, a local, white American homemaker who was actually a concert violinist, but cared for post-partum mothers on the side. She came highly reccomended by a mommy friend of mine. Everything was fine with Julie until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and I spent the first two days cradling babies and watching CNN, worried sick for the people who were stuck there as they screamed at the cameras for help. Julie’s response: “Oh, I’m sure they’ll be fine.” (in a tone that said, “our good President knows exactly what he’s doing.”). And the next day, she tried to reprimand us for letting J-Jo watch parts of the coverage on tv.

One of the reasons I wanted a nanny of color in the first place was because I didn’t want to have to deal with the politics of race under my own roof. Especially not right after delivering twins by cesarean and instantly expanding my family from three to five. I gave Julie a few more days, but the tension was too real. Rather than echoing Kanye West’s famous words that befuddled Mike Myers, Mr. J and I decided to make a change: Julie didn’t have to go home, but she couldn’t stay here.

In the weeks that followed, we braved caring for our newborn tag team alone. Sometimes we’d wonder how we were supposed to survive. Of course we were still in love with eachother and profoundly in love with our new babies, but the bootcamp they put us through was nothing short of brutal. The only thing that kept us from strangling one another on those late nights, was the fear that one of us would be left alone and outnumbered by the tiny creatures. In the wee hours of the night, between tandem feedings and unrelenting diaper changes, I couldn’t help but wonder how things would be different if Westchester Baby Nurse had looked past skin color long enough to call me back.

Eventually, the fog lifted and those early days of twinfancy finally came to a halt. Maybe it was selective memory, but I never gave any further thought to it once that period ended, until a friend of mine sent me this article about the difficulty many black families have finding nannies for their children. I found the story fascinating, especially considering African American women’s history as domestic workers, particularly nannies, in this country. Families retold experiences of interviewing black nannies who refused to work for them because they were African American.

According to the New York Times, black nannies complained to their placement agencies that African American families expected more from them while paying less. Several families from areas such as Prince George’s County, Maryland, were refused service by well-respected Washington DC-based nanny agencies on the grounds that the agencies do not serve their predominantly black (and affluent) area. By and large, the story provides a very revealing snapshot of race, class, gender and the modern dilemmas of raising children today.

Like some of the parents interviewed, my family does not have extended relatives who are able to help us (or even live close enough) to help us out with our childcare needs. In those early weeks after the babies were born, we were fortunate to have loving friends and family members who were willing to travel here and help us out for a few weekends in a row. Emotionally, they offered us more than a paid helper ever could have. There’s no adequate wage for someone who unconditionally loves your older child whose life has just been derailed because mommy and daddy just brought two new kids home from the hospital.

You can’t adequately compensate another person outside of family and close friends to adore your children because love just doesn’t work that way. When all was said and done, our loved ones went back to their own lives, leaving us here in our rightful place as sole care providers for our offspring. As well they should have – but in the middle of another sleepless night, I would have gladly paid for an extra pair of hands. Twice as much for a compassionate soul who could relate to where we’re coming from.

Meera Bowman Johnson is a freelance writer and full time mom who is also the former Associate Art Director of Essence Magazine. Her work has been featured in HealthQuest: The Publication of Black Wellness, Code: The Style Magazine for Men of Color, Black Issues Book Review, Mommy Too! Magazine and Honey. She lives with her husband, Mat Johnson, and their three children in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Her online alter ego, Mrs. J, blogs about race, pop-culture and parenting.

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