The Nanny Diaries 19th Century Style

black nannies

One of my best friends was  a nanny. Minding the children was the easy part. Living in the family’s basement (though it was a nice basement) with no car, no legal rights (she over stayed her visa) and no windows was kind of bleak. Thank God she had me to take her drinking in Hoboken every Friday night. I remember how attached the children got to her and how upset they were when she left. My friend always grew to resent the parents of these children–annoyed that they had so little time for their own kids.8679708b43595b144c4a073d9f95e458 She worked in a very prosperous part of New Jersey and the parents felt my friend was lucky to have the opportunity to mingle with  the cultural elite. I enjoyed it, but I could leave at any time.

I wonder what these women thought. Some of them may have been slaves but others definitely were hired on. Some photos are from the US, but some were taken in other parts of the world. Obviously no one thought there was anything shameful about having a nanny or a nurse as they were usually called in the 19th century. If you look carefully at the first picture it appears that this nanny (with the nicest eyes I’ve seen in a long time) was married. Men sometimes make you smile like she does–or maybe her employers loved her and she loved them.

Playing horsey in Brazil.
Playing horsey in Brazil.

Now sometimes when parenting or minding children we find ourselves in weird positions we wouldn’t like to share with the world but seem fun at the time. If this was just a snapshot it might not seem so odd but . . .

A relative of mine adopted a Korean child and pretty much treated her like a house servant. I wonder how my relatives rationalized it. The girl had a brief rebellion, took a job at a fast food joint and if I remember correctly started dating bad boys for a while. What blurred lines there are in life!

My mother’s friend had a 98-year-old mother who needed home care assistance (the old lady disagreed and would often get up extra early to do her own bath and fix her hair before the lady from Trinidad arrived. The helper soon became a dear friend to everyone in the family and remains so long after the feisty old woman’s death.

What do we make of imaginary boundaries? What should we make of color boundaries? If we saw white nannies in these pictures would we think it quaint? Home health care aides do the work none of us want to do, but work that is so very important to the poor person too sick or weak to do for themselves.5140655625_2604153e48

I love the girl in this picture. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying her job. She looks like a very modern teenager. She’s probably already annoyed with changing diapers. The mother’s body language almost suggests a tug of war for baby though the teenager could care less.

My mother who pretty much raised herself often wondered why people had children if they didn’t want to raise them. My grandmother liked men and sex, but I’m not so sure she loved the responsibilities of child-rearing. I wonder if these women sometimes felt as my friend did–a mix of sadness and possessiveness towards the children being raised by hired help.


22 responses to “The Nanny Diaries 19th Century Style”

    • I’m having a hard time thinking what to say here. The pain you must have gone through at such an important age breaks my heart as well. I hope you found other people to get you through that. 12 is such an emotional age. How did you find the strength to get through it?

      I’m sending you virtual hugs, Audrey,



  1. Your post often are in sync with my life, lol, tomorrow I have an interview with a family that I hope will hire me to be their nanny. Some would say I have taken a step down from my university faculty position: I’m totally looking forward to it! Mary Poppins


    • That’s funny! I never think working with kids is a step down. There’s so much room to make a difference with young people. Giving love is a fantastic job–but as always with love comes attachment and sometimes sadness–such is life!

      My wordpress sometimes screws up who I’m following so here I am re-following you. Good luck on your interview!


      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m curious, what were your mother and grandmother doing while the nannies were with you? I read yesterday that some nannies really hated their jobs–but then some teachers hate their jobs . . .


      • My friend was that sort of nanny. I used to laugh at how firm she sometimes acted since I knew a different side to her on Friday nights! haha.

        Divorce is such a sad thing, having been through one myself. I suppose picking the wrong person in the first place is even sadder. I read your recent personal posts and thought of all the different reasons young women fall into traps . . . Thank God for nannies. My mother ended up with a drunken couple for a while, but eventually my grandmother took her 4 daughters back after marrying a man who was less than stellar.

        It’s as old as time. families are a mess!


      • So true. I divorced twice and about the time I was resigned to remaining single, I met my husband. We married after I had been single for 14 years and he’s the best ever. I am glad I did not settle.

        Our nannies were as close as family members. Closer in many ways because they were there when family wasn’t.


      • My experience with nannies is very very limited–the I’ll Fly Away series and Gone with the Wind–haha. Two extremes to be sure.

        I never thought I’d be the type to get divorced 😦 but I hope that having gone through such a miserable thing gives me more compassion towards others who’ve made mistakes.

        When I think of the person I was back during my first engagement I cringe–married for all the wrong reasons–a cliche, but true 🙂


  2. One of my fav posts here, Adrienne. Oh, the stories from the book of history! Amazing, what that fam did to the Korean girl. And yes, helpers like that home care assistant become dear because they end up involved in the most intimate areas of your day-to-day and you have to work so closely together. Very thoughtful questions you raise.


      • My grandmother was in the hospital and my oldest aunt was 8, so the story got confused. It started out as him climbing out the hospital window to see his first son; after piecing it together 50 years later they came up with smoke inhalation from helping out at a neighbor’s fire. One incident can change your family’s course real fast. Your mother did windows; my father did laundry.


      • I forgot to say they thought the romanticized climb out the window turned pneumonia into double pneumonia. Their little imaginations must have preferred the desire to see a son over saving some furniture.


    • Did she ever say what she thought of the job? In ways I think it would be fun and then in other ways not so much. I wouldn’t mind having a nanny to put my teenaged kids in their place 🙂


      • She mentioned it a couple of times as I was growing up but, as often happens in life, I thought she would be there forever so that I could check details with her. From memory, and this was a long time ago, she enjoyed the experience. In the end I think she got home sick [she was very young and was in another state, separated from her family]. My mum was a bit of a snob so I’m betting that she enjoyed living in a big house surrounded by important people. She was an awesome mum so I’m betting that she would have been an excellent nanny. She had a bit of the Mary Poppins magic about her. I dropped out of kindergarten so I could spend more time with her…. yes, that’s right, I’m a kindergarten drop out!


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