Shelly’s* employer provided a glowing reference: “hard-working, good with the kids and extremely loyal.” Shelly, the family’s nanny of almost three years, was less complimentary about her boss, whom she privately called a bitch and “The Beast.” Although the going wage for a live-out nanny in Toronto is $12″“15 an hour, her employer paid her just $8 to help care for four kids, clean the house, do the laundry and mow the lawn. Nevertheless, Shelly, a striking woman with a cultured Caribbean accent and an unflappable manner, felt she could not quit. She’d come to Canada on a student visa that permitted only part-time work, and her employer made a point of breezily mentioning her contacts at Citizenship and Immigration Canada; the fact that “The Beast” was violating labour laws by neglecting to pay Shelly’s Employment Insurance (EI) and Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) contributions, to say nothing of overtime or vacation pay, was simply “the irony of my situation,” as Shelly saw it.
There were other “ironies.” The employer would not pay cab fare or offer a ride at the end of a late night of babysitting. Sick days were out of the question. The kids, she says, were a handful, particularly the eldest, who would kick her, then fix Shelly with a triumphant look; they both knew she couldn’t do a thing about it. “I wasn’t allowed to discipline them,” says Shelly.
Worst of all was being treated like “a lower class of human” by her employer, yet also a confidante who had no choice but to listen. Shelly knew her employer inside out: which brand of underwear she favoured (and exactly how it was to be laundered), which “friends” she despised, and the exact number of minutes she wept bitterly when her husband nixed the idea of private school.
When her employer announced one day that, since the children were all in school, she would no longer require Shelly’s services, the nanny’s eyes filled with tears. “She thought I was heartbroken but they were tears of happiness,” says Shelly, who has since completed her studies and landed an excellent office job, laughing heartily. “I don’t think she had any idea that I hated her.”
Nannies, even the least observant, know what we think of them. They know if we value their work or suspect them of idleness. And they know whether we’re jealous of their relationship with our kids, thankful for it, or, more commonly, a mixture of both.
But many nannies say their employers do not know them at all. “They don’t want to know about our lives; it would make them feel guilty,” Shelly shrugs. “So many of the problems nannies face boil down to low pay and bad working conditions.” Others, like Irene, a Filipina nanny in the Maritimes, reckon their role is service-oriented, even therapeutic. “I’m paid to absorb the employers’ problems without adding to them.” Some are even more blunt. “A lot of them look down on you. And some don’t really care what you think,” says Rosa, a South American nanny in Toronto.
For both women in the house, there’s potential for guilt, resentment and jealousy. Both parties may feel uncomfortably entangled and indebted, and each may harbour suspicions that she’s being exploited. But if talking about all this is difficult for employers, it’s nearly impossible for nannies, many of whom live a hand-to-mouth existence and feel they can’t afford to speak up — there are likely people back home depending on their paycheque.
Given the chronic shortage of high-quality, affordable daycare, having a nanny is no longer a status symbol, but, increasingly, a middle-class necessity, especially for dual-income families. Some parents prefer to employ a nanny. They believe it’s better for kids to be cared for in their own homes. Others feel they have no choice, as a nanny can be cheaper than daycare for families with more than one child. In Ontario, for example, the median monthly daycare-centre fee for one child under 18 months, according to the most recent data from the Toronto-based Childcare Resource and Research Unit, is $783, but can be as high as $1,600 a month in Toronto. In contrast, a live-in nanny costs a family $1,200 to $1,600, no matter how many children, and is certainly more accommodating for parents who have to work late or travel for business.
But because so few Canadians are willing to do the job on a live-in basis, many nannies come to Canada for that purpose. The need for live-ins is so great that in 1992 a special federal program was introduced: immigrants willing to spend two years as live-in caregivers can apply for permanent resident status and sponsor family members to join them in Canada.
Every year, the number of immigrants admitted under the Live-in Caregiver Program increases significantly; in 2005, 6,403 temporary foreign workers were admitted, up from 3,659 in 2001. Of the 23,389 live-ins who arrived between 2001 and 2005, 87 percent were from the Philippines alone.
Most nannies find their way to Canadian homes through professional agencies. “It can be difficult to navigate the whole process otherwise,” explains Audrey Guth, director of Diamond Personnel, a Toronto-based agency that places caregivers with families across Canada. Despite the efforts that go into achieving a good match, occasionally placements do not work out, says Guth. “You can have the perfect nanny, but an unreasonable employer.”
One of the unique aspects of working as a nanny is the working conditions, say the caregivers in this story — try to picture yourself living in your boss’s house, hearing her flush the toilet and squabble with her mate. “There’s no privacy, and if you’re asked to do something, you feel you can’t say no. You don’t want the employers to feel angry with you, because this is your home as well as your workplace,” says Irene. Consequently, she works 11 hours most days, six days a week, despite the existence of labour laws that entitle her to minimum wage, vacation time with pay and statutory holidays.
Even more stressful than exhaustion, however, are the frosty silences between the parents she works for, because “you feel drawn into their stress and unhappiness.” Ruby, whose first nanny job was in Nunavut, would’ve been happy with silence: she worked for a couple of screamers who were forever “shouting and calling each other names. They argued about the kids, money, who was working longer hours — everything. I don’t think children should hear this, and I don’t want to hear it either.”
Now she has “an excellent employer” in Toronto — “a single mom, so no arguing, and just one kid!” — but nevertheless, Ruby, who has a young son of her own whom she hasn’t seen since leaving the Philippines three years ago, rents a cheap apartment with her cousins, also live-ins, where they go on weekends for a respite from their employers.
Getting away wasn’t an option in Nunavut, where she was employed for two years. “I thought I was going to the countryside and there would be farms,” Ruby says, laughing at her own naÃ¯veté. “The first day I got there, it started snowing. It was exciting, the first time I ever saw snow.” But cabin fever soon set in. “There were no shopping malls, really nowhere to go at all. I watched a lot of TV.”
Rare is the nanny who relishes working outside a major urban centre; the job is isolating enough, they say. Rosa once worked in the hinterlands of Ontario, where her room was in the basement with the family’s dogs. They slept on her bed — and peed on her things if she didn’t wake to let them out at night. Her employer forbade her to eat anything except leftovers, and told her kids, both under the age of 10, to call her at work “if the nanny causes any problems.”
For some immigrant caregivers, the biggest culture shock is being “the lowest person in the household,” says Rosa, a teacher and musician from a middle-class family. The first time an employer asked her to clean the house top to bottom — despite initially assuring her the job involved only light housekeeping — Rosa confessed that she didn’t really know how. “In my home country, it’s normal to have a cleaning lady six days a week, and you pay her around $200 a month.” Her new boss was “furious, and called me a princess.” It turns out her agency had told the family that Rosa would clean, but told Rosa that she was simply an au pair. Shelly, a teacher before she came to Canada, muses, “It’s funny that many Canadians automatically assume a Caribbean woman knows how to clean.” Ruby also wonders why, if children are the first priority, we ask caregivers to focus on cleaning. “If you’re really looking after a child, you don’t have time to polish the silver.” Rosa adds, “It seems that most employers are looking for housekeepers, not nannies.”
Although employers frequently wax eloquent — or envious — of their nanny’s close bonds with their children, only one of the nannies interviewed for this story mentioned, unprompted, anything at all about the children she was caring for beyond their gender and age.
“It’s important to understand that this is a job, and these women are here to make a living and support their own families. They do fall in love with your children, but it’s easy for them to change jobs,” explains Guth. Nevertheless, some mothers are so concerned about their kids becoming too attached to the caregiver that they micro-manage her to death, Guth continues. “You have to really be willing to disengage and empower the nanny to make decisions and follow through, to be able to say, “She’s in charge,” she says. “When that doesn’t happen, you can wind up with a situation where the kids don’t listen to the nanny.”
Although many employers and nannies agree that a caregiver should be part of the family, the employer may be thinking of a family member who is distant, nearly mute and a clean freak, while the nanny is usually picturing the role of the cherished aunt. In some cases, everyone’s on the same page. Rosa says she worked for one “amazing family” whom she adored, “not because I didn’t clean their house but because they understood my role in the home.” Now, when her former employer visits Toronto, their daughter often stays in Rosa’s apartment. Rebecca Sison, a nanny in Oakville, Ont. — and the only caregiver interviewed for this article who would allow her real name to be printed — is crazy about her employers, who, when Rebecca’s favourite singer came to town, not only bought her and a friend tickets to the concert, but sent them off in a limo with a nice bottle of wine.
Keeping a nanny happy doesn’t require elaborate gestures; simple praise and thanks go a long way. Lucy, a nanny from St. Lucia, doesn’t take her measure as a human being by scrubbing the kitchen floor. “But if they don’t even acknowledge that you did it, and did a good job, it’s more demeaning.”
Raises and holiday-season bonuses don’t hurt, either. Irene, like many other Filipina caregivers, sends up to $1,000 home each month because “I have many relatives to feed.” She earns $7.60 an hour and has only $19 in the bank. There’s no money to socialize with friends, much less buy a warmer coat — hardships that rankle all the more because her employers are rich. “I make $244 a week, and haven’t had a raise though I’ve been here more than a year. Many of my friends who have only been here a few months and work fewer hours make $300.”
Recently, after much practice, Irene got up the nerve to ask for a raise and now receives a little extra each week, “but not much,” she admits. “In our culture we are raised to be content with what we have. I feel I should not ask for more, that my employer should recognize I deserve it and give it freely.” Her employers likely have no clue that she
is miserable, because, she says, “They don’t ask me how I’m doing or talk to me much.”
Ultimately, open communication and a modicum of respect are more important than money to a lot of nannies. One nanny we spoke with, who didn’t want to divulge any identifying details, netted $550 a week with her last employer, but was forbidden to come downstairs when they had company, or even to eat with the family. When, after a weekend alone with the kids suffering from stomach flu, she forgot to take out the garbage, the man of the family blew up. ““You need to revise your concept of working for my family,’ he said. “I’m not paying you to do nothing!’ I should’ve said, “Dude, I took care of your kids all weekend while you were travelling, and it was a nightmare, diarrhea everywhere. And I taught your oldest one to use a fork and got her out of a high chair and into a booster seat and I’ve been toilet-training her.”
But instead of saying all that, she started looking for different work and came to the conclusion most nannies come to sooner or later. “I’m not really a nanny,” she says now, having started a white-collar office job. For many nannies, even the ones who have nothing but good things to say about their employers, the job is a ticket, not a destination.
But most view the journey as a learning experience, at least. “I know now that I’d never hire a nanny,” says Lucy, who currently works at a hotel, watching her toddler zoom around her tidy Toronto living room. “You’d have to really know that person, really trust her totally. I think I was a good nanny, but I’m amazed that people left their kids with me without really knowing me at all.” Her own son attends a daycare centre.
Kate Fillion, editor at large for Maclean’s, lives in Toronto with her two sons and a nanny she swears is the best in the world.
*names have been changed