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.

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