A Little Help, Please?

[Over the next week, Love Isn't Enough will explore the issue of childcare and its intersection with race, class, etc. We are still accepting submissions. If you have something to say, submit it for consideration to team@antiracistparent.com.]

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Deesha Philyaw; originally published two years ago at LiteraryMama in the monthly column, “The Girl is Mine.”

Recently, while setting the table for a dinner of Chinese takeout, eight-year-old Taylor suggested we put our soy sauce in the little white ceramic bowls we reserve for special occasions. “Which babysitter gave us these?” she asked.

“Casey,” I answered.

“We’ve had a lot of babysitters,” Taylor said.

And she’s right. Over the three years-plus since Peyton was born, I’ve hired seven women to provide childcare in my home during the day. They came from one to five days a week as money allowed and as my schedule demanded, with freelancing, starting and running a custom writing business, and handling my mother’s affairs after her death.

I’m happy to report that my high turnover rate is not due to poor work conditions, low pay, or unruly children. As I explained to Taylor, I’ve always been lucky to find sitters who have many talents and all sorts of work they want to do, but this means they can’t be our babysitters for very long.

“That’s right! We have had talented babysitters,” Taylor replied. “Which one was it that made Sponge Bob out of Floam?”

Well, there was that. But also among the seven former sitters, there is an aspiring writer, an English Literature PhD candidate, two teachers, a future environmental scientist, and an architect.

And they’ve all been white.

According to a New York Times article, I’m luckier than I realized. Upper-middle-class black parents in major U.S. cities are having a hard time finding nannies to care for their children. Interviews with dozens of nannies and agencies revealed many nannies who avoided black families for a variety of reasons. Having your employer look down her nose at you is an occupational hazard the nanny must face, but hazard apparently becomes horror when that nose is African-American.

Some of the nannies interviewed shun black families because they buy into the stereotype that all black people live in dangerous neighborhoods, or, in the case of immigrant nannies, they take the negative media portrayals of blacks as gospel truth. Even some African-American nannies and those of Caribbean descent fear black employers will be “uppity and demanding” and pay less. Tanisha Jackson, a black mother who searched off and on for five years before hiring a nanny, called this treatment “a slap in the face.”

Not only is it a slap in the face, but, as the article points out, when black working parents cannot find childcare, they may be at a professional disadvantage compared to their white counterparts. They must spend less time at work or rely on daycare, undocumented workers, non-English speakers, or less credentialed, less experienced caregivers. Knowing this, I’m more thankful than ever that for my family, I’ve found excellent in-home childcare, primarily by word of mouth. That all our babysitters have been white is coincidental; when I put the word out among friends, neighbors, and college students that I needed childcare, these are the women who responded.

So it is with gratitude that I offer a brief tribute to the brave white women who, with no concern for their own safety and social standing, dared to enter my quiet little borough and care for my children (though to protect their privacy I have changed their names):

Chelsea lived right across the street from us, had lifeguard and CPR-training, and was pursuing her Master’s degree in early childhood education. In short, Chelsea dropped from heaven into our family room to be Peyton’s very first babysitter. As a bonus, she became my personal shopper. On my very first “formal” date with a man (post-separation), Chelsea lent me a dress (I had nothing!), and advised me on shoes, jewelry, and handbag. My date’s eyes bulged when he saw me, he declared me “devastating!”, and Chelsea became a friend and trusted confidante. Oh, and she was a really good sitter too!

Stevie had been an assistant teacher at Taylor’s Spanish immersion preschool. Given a choice between working at a local shoe store and being our babysitter for seven months, bilingual Stevie chose us. Unfortunately, we were just a pit-stop before she went off to direct Americorp programs in the Northeast.

But before Stevie left town, she introduced us to her best friend, Victoria, who went on to win my girls’ heart with her sweet spirit and impressive Floam creations. A self-professed “OCD person”, she won my heart with her insistence on keeping the dishwasher loaded, the counters clean, and my pantry shelves perfectly organized.

After my mother’s death, I returned home to chaos. I had more responsibilities than ever, and no childcare. Victoria’s class load at a local university rendered her unavailable, and I was overwhelmed by the mere thought of looking for childcare. Before, sitters had just…appeared in our lives. But it seemed my sitter mojo was gone.

Enter my friend Pam. Sensing my pending nervous breakdown, Pam told me: “I’ll take care of it.” Pam lived 3,000 miles away in L.A., but in my fragile state, I didn’t question her. Pam did what I never would have done. She placed an ad on Craigslist, interviewed and background checked potential sitters, and found . . .

Erin, a professional nanny and one of the nicest, kid-friendliest people you ever want to meet. Erin became family. The names of her fiancé and her dogs were among Peyton’s first words. When she made the decision to get a full-time job, Erin searched for, interviewed and background checked her own replacement.

Casey was also a professional nanny . . . but it turns out, what I actually needed all this time was a mother’s helper. I spent a good amount of the day at home, and I liked being with Peyton whenever I could, so I really didn’t need a “nanny.” I needed a mother’s helper with It — that Magic, that Stuff that made my children indifferent toward me long enough for me to get some writing done. I needed peace and quiet, with an option to have lunch with Peyton or read a story together, if time allowed. With the other sitters, this process worked pretty fluidly. Casey was nice and came highly recommended, but she did not have It. Peyton was clingy and cried whenever I left the room, and I felt guilty. There was also tension in the house between Casey and me, both of us frustrated and unsure of her role. The day I told Casey it wasn’t going to work out was the first time I ever really felt like someone’s employer, and it sucked. For the time she was here, I know Casey cared deeply for my kids.

We knew from Day One that Crystal’s days with us were numbered. Crystal (Stevie’s former roommate) had just returned from teaching in Japan and needed a full-time job with health benefits. But for a few months, she handled Peyton’s Terrible Two’s like a pro.

Betsy is the ultimate refutation of racial stereotypes. She not only cooks African food better than I do (in her sleep!), she lives in a neighborhood rougher than mine, and is married to a white guy who has been known to drink malt liquor. She’s also one of the kindest, brainiest women I know. I try not to feel jealous when my children block the front door and wail, “Noooooo, don’t go!” every time Betsy leaves.

With the exception of Casey and Erin (who now lives in Arizona), the sitters still watch the girls for me on occasional weekends and evenings. I send out a single email request to them all, and just wait to see who bites first. They attend my girls’ birthday parties and sometimes come over and see us, just because. Chelsea is still my personal shopper; I never get dressed up without her.

Though my experience has been quite the opposite of the families interviewed for the NYT article, I did have one nanny agency interaction last fall that left me scratching my head. I’d left a message, but no one from the agency ever returned my call. Was my “ethnic” sounding name a turn off? The desperation in my voice? Or some other reason unrelated to race? I’ll never know.

I sympathize with the parents in the Times article and others who face this predicament. I am reminded of how extraordinarily blessed my family has been in this regard. I appreciate the help I’ve received and would be lost without it.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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