Let’s Redefine Nanny Advocacy

A friend sent me the link to an article, A Nanny Is Not a Housekeeper.  (I don’t personally know the author of the article and while I’m referencing it, my intention is not to single it out.  There are many articles like it out there.)  I’m sure this friend wanted to share this piece in solidarity to the idea, thinking that I’d be on the bandwagon right next to the author.  In theory, I am right there however, in practice, I know it’s not as simple as that catchy headline wants us to believe.  The nanny care industry has very few black and white issues outside of taxes and household employment law. Its very nature is simultaneously personal and professional and the work takes place in the most intimate of spaces; a private home.  The result is most nanny care issues live in the grey: there’s the generally accepted guideline and then there are all the buts, excepts, and not exactlys.  So yes, nannies aren’t housekeepers, however nannies often do some non-child-related household tasks and that can be an appropriate and fair extension of the basic job description depending on the nanny and situation.  But that lack of distinction isn’t what’s bothering me about this article or the many other articles and social media posts I see like it.    

For me, and for so many others I talk to, the problem is that underneath the nannies aren’t housekeepers and other “advocacy” assertions, there’s a broader, negative undercurrent that’s sending the message that nannies and employers are adversaries.  That employers are out to take advantage whenever and wherever they can either because they can’t see past their own needs or because they’re simply callous.  That the only way nannies can safeguard themselves and ensure they’ll be treated fairly is to be rigid and unyielding in all areas of the employment relationship, including the job description.  I understand where this sentiment comes from.  Many nannies (including myself) have been taken advantage of in their positions.  Even those that haven’t experienced it first-hand have heard the horror stores and are afraid they too will fall victim to unscrupulous employers.  I get it, the danger is a real one, especially in our industry.  However adopting the attitude that all employers will go to the dark side unless you stay vigilant is damaging personally and professionally.  Staying in a protective state of on guard keeps you in a constant state of low grade anger and stress and stops you from embracing the characteristics that most employers want in a long-term employee like flexibility, the willingness to pitch in, the ability to see things from their perspective, and a team “we’re going to help each other get this done” attitude.  There’s a huge difference between having strong, professional boundaries and being a “I will not do anything I’m not contractually obligated to do regardless of my employer’s needs or the situation.” type of nanny.  We have far too many caregivers in the latter category and the attitude is harming our industry and many of the nannies that buy into it.

Let me be clear: I do not believe a nanny should be doing the job of a nanny and housekeeper.  I agree, those are two separate jobs.  However, doing the work of a dedicated housekeeper (someone hired to fully clean and keep the home organized) is not the same thing as doing some tasks within the housekeeping bucket.  The article says “it’s inappropriate to require a Nanny to organize the pantry, vacuum the floors, clean a shelf in the fridge; or do the whole family’s laundry.”  I disagree.  Each of those individual tasks can be appropriate to ask a nanny to do, it all depends on the overall job description, the nanny’s compensation package, and the individual nanny’s personal preferences.  It’s not a given that every nanny will accept those tasks in their job description.  Some will say yes and some will say no.  However chastising parents for wanting to include those tasks is misguided and seeds the faulty message that parents asking for those things are trying to take advantage of a nanny when instead, they’re just trying to find a solution to the overwhelm they face. 

The article goes on to say, “Anything that happens before or after a Nanny is on duty, should be the parent’s responsibility. Yep, there I said it.”  Sounds empowering, doesn’t it?  The problem is it’s not true and read from the parent’s perspective, it’s condescending, shaming, and disrespectful.  (I don’t think that was the author’s intention however it’s impact on parents reading is the same.)  There are plenty of nannies that make bottles for the parents’ time, restock the diaper station for the weekend, pack for travel, make a reservation for a Saturday morning Gymboree class, on and on. 

Rather than make blanket statements that don’t take into account the nuances of an issue and only inflame and expand the divide between nannies and parents, let’s have an honest conversation about the real challenges we face so we can develop real solutions.

Let’s talk about how nannies can interview in ways that pinpoint the jobs that suit their particular needs and stop demonizing parents that are looking for a few non-child-related tasks to be done by their nanny. 

Let’s talk about how nannies can set appropriate boundaries without the scorched earth attitude.

Let’s talk about how families can structure a nanny’s job description and pay so they’re paid for all the work they do at a competitive rate and still get plenty of downtime to rest and relax during the day.

Let’s talk about the real struggle families face in trying to find great child care for their kids while keeping their household running. 

Let’s talk about how to identify and block the truly bad employers who regularly victimize their caregivers. 

This us vs. them negative messaging doesn’t just happen around the housekeeping issue.  It happens around pay, benefits, traditional nanny responsibilities (e.g. play dates, packing for travel), and a plethora of other issues.  The common thread is nannies being rigid and unyielding in their demands and their promotion of the idea that without that attitude, parents would undoubtably take advantage of them. 

For those thinking “But we must advocate for ourselves!”, I completely agree.  The attitude I’m talking about isn’t true advocacy.  It appears that way on the surface, however when you peel back the layers, you realize it’s too stuck in the blame game to make a real difference.  It’s unwilling to acknowledge or empathize with a different perspective, keeping it blinded from shared solutions.  It refuses to engage the other side in respectful, inquisitive conversation, leaving it impotent to make real change. 

We need advocacy that sets clear and realistic standards for parents while allowing for the nuances of individual situations.  That encourages conversations that lead to understanding and shared solutions.  All in an environment where we give each other the benefit of the doubt and navigate the grey areas in good faith.  We can be smart, strong advocates with professional boundaries while also having a positive, supportive view of employers, their motivations, and their actions.  We have to learn to trust ourselves to step out from under the unscrupulous employers without painting the whole collective as bad.

I know right now some nannies are angrily shouting at me that the attitude I’m talking about is just them standing up for their rights and I should be ashamed at failing to support that.  That isn’t the case.  I’m all about nannies standing up for their rights.  I’ve spent years teaching how to have those conversations.  Let me say it again; the advocacy isn’t the problem.  The way the message is presented by some is the problem.  I’ve seen countless nannies not get the interview or the job because they come across as “entitled” based on how they were asking (or demanding), not because of what they were asking for.  I’ve seen it tear apart what otherwise was a solid employment relationship, leaving the nanny angry and confused about why “advocating” for themselves got them fired.  I’ve seen it posted all over social media, giving caregivers new to nannying an inaccurate picture of how things really work with agencies and families.  I’m all about advocating in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily alienate the other side and that truly empowers nannies. 

Let me close with one of my favorite quotes that sums it all up.  “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

This topic has been a hard one to write about in a way that accurately conveys my thoughts.  I’ve started and stopped it at least 100 times before.  But I feel we need to have this conversation as an industry so this is my attempt at providing the spark.  Let’s be respectful and gracious with each other.


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