In a fantastic essay and video for the Wall Street Journal, Charlotte Alter says that “Hiring a male babysitter is one of the most feminist things a parent can do.” I couldn’t agree more. Add in “viewing and compensating nannies fairly” and you’ve touched on the two most important, and rarely discussed, feminist issues in child care.
The bias against male babysitters is rarely addressed, but when examined, it’s easy to see that the prejudice parallels the same problematic dichotomy between motherhood and fatherhood. Alter aptly addresses the many issues caused by the gender-imbalance – when men aren’t babysitters, they aren’t educated about being fathers – and therefore not expected to do their share of child care. Likewise, future generations of children are taught that child care just isn’t a man’s ‘natural’ duty.
Viewing child care as the biological duty and natural gift of women also accounts for the unfair, yet commonly accepted, practices when it comes to wages and paying on the books.
Every time a new babysitter or nanny joins the SmartSitting agency, I tell each candidate to expect the job to be paid on the books. I always further clarify that payment will work like any other job; the rate you are hired at is actually higher than your take home rate. Although many of the nannies we interview react positively to this information, the majority are surprised. Likewise, it can be a struggle to get families to pay on the books and guarantee a salary and paid vacation and sick days. Important benefits like health insurance are still, unfortunately, largely unheard of for nannies in NYC.
On one hand, as Sheryl Sandberg notes in Lean In, it’s hard to blame most parents for fighting against providing hefty salaries and benefits. Child care is extremely expensive and America is still far behind many European companies when it comes to fair practices for maternity and paternity leave. It’s financially and emotionally draining for a working mother to have to forgo most, if not all, of her salary to pay her nanny. But when it comes to setting a child care budget, I would urge parents to think about their child care budget as more than just that – a budget. A nanny’s salary is a multi-faceted issue – it affects the dedication and quality of care the nanny provides, the long-term commitment she/he can make to the family, and often, the nanny’s ability to support his or her own family. And as Sandberg points out, paying for child care is more than just a simple expense parents incur – by hiring a nanny, a working mom (or dad) is investing in her or his own career as well.
Last year, I was on the phone with a prospective client who shouted indignantly at me when I told her that the nannies in our agency generally charge salaries of $40,000 – $52,000 per year. Our nanny agency accepts only 7% of applicants and refers the most experienced, reliable and emotionally intelligent nannies – those rightfully commanding the higher salaries. While it’s certainly understandable for parents to be frustrated by the unfair situation many working moms find themselves in when it comes to affording quality childcare (especially in cities such as New York), it is equally frustrating when parents don’t see the value in a nanny’s full-time work and salary. For the top 10% of well experienced and educated workers in many other industries, a range of $40,000 – $52,000 would be viewed as low – so why should it be different when it comes to child care?
In a society that is faced with so many chicken-or-the-egg battles when it comes to undoing long-held, patriarchal customs, it is important to unravel and address the real causes behind common practices such as nanny hires. We need to teach the next generation differently, and it starts in the home. So when you hire your next nanny, think twice about the salary you offer her – or him.