Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Question of Nannies

Child care arrangements are one of the areas in life where there is much disagreement. In ancient and prehistoric times, mothers carried their own babies on their backs while they went about their business, including all the work of hunting and gathering that went into keeping themselves and their children alive.

With the social stratification that necessarily accompanies the invention of agriculture and food storage away from the source, many women were freed from the burden of that baby on their back, while other women, from a lower social caste, took up the task.

Sometimes a mother dies, and then somebody other than the mother must step in and care for the child. In the case of Jean Laffite, that somebody else was his grandmother, Zora Nadrimal. The upbringing that Jean Laffite received from his grandmother in fact determined the entire course of his life. His personal values derived from his earliest experiences. Even the first language Jean Laffite ever spoke, which was Spanish and not the French which was the mother tongue of his father, was determined by his grandmother. He learned to hate Spain and to plot revenge against it from the woman whose husband fell victim to the Inquisition.

The importance of the nanny, whether she be a granny or a hireling, a slave or a mistress,  should not be underestimated. We pick up our values with our mother's milk or whatever formula  serves as a handy substitute.

Some of the very first nannies were actually grannies, and in English the words "nanny" and "granny" are known to be related.  But when Jean Laffite's first wife, Christina Levine, died after giving birth to his daughter Denise, it was a black servant woman who had accompanied the family from Saint Domingue,  who took care of Denise.

Is that exploitation? I tend to think that unless Jean Laffite completely trusted and respected the woman to whom he entrusted his child, he would not have entrusted his only daughter to her care. But today, more and more children are being taken care of by the nanny state, rather than by actual nannies. And when they see a picture of a black nanny, a white baby and white mother from the 1950s, many are scandalized.

Is it a shameful thing for a white woman to employ a black woman as a nanny? Is it exploitation? Or is it actually a way for people from different backgrounds to know each other better?

Today, in America, many wealthy blacks hire nannies, and usually their nannies are not black. This is not the choice of the employers. Black nannies prefer to work for employers who are not black.

While the nanny is not always from a visibly different race than the child's mother, it is quite normal for her to come from a different socio-economic class, and often the nanny speaks a different language, and in some cases a different dialect of the same language, from the home language of the parents of the child, You can view this as exploitation, or you can view it as being exposed to a different culture in early childhood.

For instance, my father had Polish nannies who spoke Polish to him, and one of them even learned a little Hebrew in the process.
My father Amnon Katz with his first Polish nanny Manya
Of course, the nanny is going to be less wealthy than the family employing her, otherwise they could not afford to pay her what seems like a worthwhile wage. But the fact of the income inequality does not need to be a source of bitterness. It can be an opportunity to learn from one another.

When I was looking to employ a nanny for my own daughter in Taiwan, I wanted to find someone who was not only a good caretaker, but also spoke excellent Chinese.

Unfortunately, there were undercurrents of mutual distrust among the people in Taiwan that had something to do with the Japanese occupation of the Island many decades earlier, and I was dissuaded from choosing the nanny with the most prestigious dialect of Chinese.

Today, in many western countries, the practice of hiring a nanny is frowned upon. There are a lot fewer nannies found in middle class homes than there used to be, and this is partly due to the fact that the minimum wage has gone up -- or even that there is such a thing as a minimum wage and employee benefits that most people can't afford to pay. Only the very wealthy have nannies. When people work they usually send their children to day care. Some people think day care should be free, which is another way of saying that it should be provided by the state, through coerced taxation. The nanny then becomes, rather than a servant of the parent, a public servant who often stands over the parent. In some countries, they are even making child care after the age of three mandatory -- or at least seriously considering it.,7340,L-4622401,00.html

While the most natural arrangement may be for a mother to carry her own child on her back all day long, the best thing for the child is to have a dedicated caretaker chosen by the parents. Coercion in the choice of child care means loss of family unity and also a lack of choice in cultural and moral values. Make no doubt about it, Jean Laffite would not have been the same man if not for the things that he learned at his grandmother's knee.


  1. I like how you tied in your own story about looking for a nanny in Taiwan. That was an interesting story to read.

    1. Thanks, Julia. That incident with the would be nanny is something that I think about every now and then, as I don't fully understand what happened, and maybe I never will.