In Britain’s classed workforce, the care economy has historically provided an opportunity for working-class women to engage in meaningful, albeit meagrely compensated, work. While entry into paid work is largely reliant on tertiary qualifications that require economic capital, nannying, as the least regulated sector of the childcare industry, has served as a vital route to gainful employment for those with relatively little capital to trade. Unlike nursery workers, nannies do not require accredited qualifications in order to carry out their work. Caring in a professional context is reliant on acquired skills, but in the context of nanny-work, these skills do not necessarily need to be obtained through traditional education. Nannies, unlike childminders, are not required to register with Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, responsible for the inspection and regulation of early years’ settings) thereby also serving as a relatively safe means of income for those of insecure immigration status. In addition, the work of caring is seen to be noble, connoting respectability and virtue . Nannying, while it is the least regulated and least supported sector of the childcare industry, provides a vocation that is accessible to working-class and migrant women, without possessing the negative connotations that can often come with low-paid work.
‘Find a nanny for less’
At the same time, the cultural status of care-work as selfless and care providers as necessarily self-sacrificial binds nannies to the rhetoric of martyrdom. This is no different during the Coronavirus pandemic. The lack of formal accreditation that characterizes the nanny sector, in a society that gives little worth to ‘soft skills’, has left nannies without a framework to advocate for respect, recognition and pay for their economic contribution. Under lockdown, parents—many of whom are losing their jobs—have been placed under huge pressure to find affordable in-home childcare quickly and with little government support. In a time of crisis, with their selfless professional values and without ‘proper’ qualifications, why shouldn’t nannies be working for free? Media coverage has focused on how parents can ‘find a nanny for less’. This notion of nanny employment as a ‘free or cheap solution’ works to denigrate by commodifying the service that nannies have been conditioned to view as an embodiment of moral worth. Nannies achieve respectability through gendered performances of self-denial, while the status of nannying as a form of professionalised altruism gives value to its workers, who would otherwise be seen as carrying out menial work. On the other hand, Thatcherite animosity towards the ‘greedy’ working-class has contributed to the notion of ‘unskilled’ nannies ‘expecting handouts’. Nannies may be heralded as heroes, but in order to live up to their own core subjective values of empathy and service, they are forced to not only contend with, but to actively advocate for, the depreciation of their own market value.
Nannies in the Media
Under lockdown, debates around whether or not nannies and cleaners should be allowed to go to work have abounded. As a result, I have read countless opinion pieces from the perspective of parents, performatively wringing their hands while lamenting the cost of furloughing their nannies.And it’s true: 84% of the childcare industry is privatised.Even if a family paid their nanny only minimum wage, for a full-time nanny that’s still £18,000 per year out of pocket. Childcare is expensive, and those expenses are falling almost entirely on the shoulders of families. Yet, what is important to note here is that these parents, when contending with the injustices of the British childcare system, have the education and cultural capital required to be orators to their own suffering. Nannies, generally speaking, do not. If middle-class parents want to discuss their experiences of childcare under coronavirus, they are usually able to access the necessary platforms. Indeed we have been categorically over-run with think pieces on what lockdown means for “families”, but have seen few equivalent pieces from the perspective of domestic workers.
Some articles also take on a paternalistic tone, insisting that employers must ‘talk to [their nannies] about how the infection spreads and how they can reduce risk by washing their hands, using hand sanitizer and not touching their face’. Articles like this, which assume that childcare workers fail to understand the risks involved in working during a pandemic, or do not even know what coronavirus is, frame nannies as teachable subjects. In fact, many nannies are actively campaigning to stay out of work precisely because they understand these matters very well indeed.
While there are some outlets covering nannies’ experiences, in most articles, such as The Cut’s ‘Nannies Tell The Truth About Working During Coronavirus’, nannies are framed as objects, not subjects or the story-teller (it might also be noted that The Cut defines itself as a ‘destination for women’ and, as one of the only platforms to cover nanny/employer relationships during coronavirus, affirms notions of women’s work as something to be organised and managed by mothers). Working-class voices in the media are rather positioned as supplementary evidence to larger stories, or else as sensationalist entertainment for a voyeuristic middle-class. In tabloids, stories that highlight the exploitation of working-class and migrant workers are not intended to provide genuine platforms to their voices, as they might for their middle-class employers, but rather frame their exploitation for public entertainment. Exploration of their experiences in this way represses working-class voices, mobilizes the systemic inequalities that bind them as an emotional outlet, and prevents their being framed in broader societal context.The nannies who ‘tell the truth’ in the above article may be articulating the exploitation they face in their work, but they are not permitted to speak about how unjust social mores have confined them to this exploitative work. The pain and abuse these nannies are facing is privatized and depoliticized.
The ‘Nanny Diaries’ trope
This kind of media coverage also demonises mothers. By focusing specifically on stories about the richest and most exploitative bosses, as opposed tostories of ‘ordinary’ middle-class families, they perpetuate what I call the ‘Nanny Diaries trope’, based on the novel (and later film) of the same name. ‘The Nanny Diaries’ tells the story of Annie, a virtuous young nanny to the mega-rich Mrs. X, a ‘self-centered and not a very good mother’ who ‘spends most of her time in seclusion or spending money’—the villain to Annie’s hero. The suggestion is that all mothers who outsource their childcare are inherently cold, detached from their children, mean-spirited, and offensively wealthy. As one nanny states in The Cut’s article, ‘[t]here’s a sports coach for the kids, and he goes to other people’s houses and works with their kids, too. And then they have the chef that goes to the grocery store every day. There’s people who come in to do hair blow-dries a few days a week, a manicurist, a personal trainer’. This depiction of mothers is similar to that of nannies in its inflammatory intentions. The ‘Nanny Diaries trope’ is designed to invoke outrage, not to actually grapple with the nuances of mother-work: I have never seen this caricature levelled at my male employers, perhaps because their female counterparts are almost always forced to manage the delegation of care-work. Care-work is women’s work, and the delegation of it is seen to be a failure of the mother.
Another function of what I call the “Nanny Diaries” trope is that it serves to conceptually distance middle-class employers from exploitative working practices. In this framework, rich employers are demonised for the exploitation being carried out, as opposed to the class system that allows for the exploitation to take place. When the super-rich pay nannies poorly, it’s because they’re repugnant. But when middle-class families do the same, it’s cast as a question of affordability. Especially for employers who sit on the progressive left, this caricature of a bad nanny-employer helps them misrecognize the social structures that benefiting them, alleviating their so-called ‘middle-class guilt’. Class structures provide both the employers’ ability to access their nannies (through possession of economic capital), while simultaneously contributing to their systemic oppression (through the subjugation of working-class women into low-paid, feminised work), as well as provide the subjectivity of entitlement among middle-class nanny-employers, who consider tell their friends with pride that their nanny to be is “part of the family” (despite the total imbalance of power between them).
At the best of times nannies are railroaded into what Cameron Lynne Macdonald terms the ‘vocabulary of virtue’, which ‘prioritizes altruism and self-sacrifice, but in doing so risks the economic devaluation of care work.’ Now, during the Coronavirus crisis, nannies attempting to advocate for themselves through requests for hazard pay, or indeed just a continuation of their usual rates, are being cast as selfish by the middle-class families that employ them, and risk losing the respect and respectability they have been able to earn through their work. Many nannies have had to halve or third their hourly rates in order to keep working, with this in turn being framed as a coup for middle-class families, as opposed to gendered class violence. For the nannies refusing to work at all in an effort to safeguard their health, media coverage frames them in an especially unfavourable light: by advocating for their self-preservation, nannies are seen as abandoning their own ‘inherent’ caregiving values. Meanwhile, the Coronavirus crisis coupled with years of racialised Brexit discourse, targeting migrant workers for ‘stealing British jobs’, has served to demonise the informal economy. This systemic ‘othering’ has affected a huge proportion of the largely informal nanny sector, and has served to condemn its workers. Pandemic-induced nationalism has now further alienated nannies from public sympathy.
In one summary of a certain public perception, the comment thread below one Financial Times article reads: ‘[n]annies in London cost a fortune – why an unqualified 22 year old should earn more than a junior doctor is beyond me.’. Nannies are here seen as unskilled, and their requests for fair remuneration as unearned and uncouth. Childcare skills are cast as natural maternalism—not acquired ability—while nannies are unable to advocate for themselves as skilled service providers. While other, more regulated forms of care-work such as nursing, nursery work, and elderly-care work are congratulated (the weekly ‘clap for the NHS’ is a great example of this), the lack of accreditation in the nanny sector, and the racialised denigration of informal economy workers, have denied nannies similar recognition.
Yet, despite their perceived lack of value, during the Coronavirus pandemic nannies are being framed as an essential and urgent service. If these nannies and their ‘unskilled’ labour are an economic necessity, perhaps fair remuneration for hazardous work shouldn’t be off the table.
Veronica Deutsch is a writer and researcher based in London, focusing on care-work, feminist theory, and class inequalities. She is the co-founder of the Nanny Solidarity Network, a non-profit organisation that provides information, support, and space for collective action for nannies, by nannies. She is also the co-founder of the Childcare Workers’ Hardship Fund, which has provided grants to childcare workers in financial hardship during the Coronavirus crisis. She is currently working to establish a formal union for nannies, the first of its kind in the U.K.. Veronica has worked as a full-time nanny for seven years. Twitter: @verondeu1 Nanny Solidarity Network (NSN): @nannysolidarity