Yesterday, I mentioned the case of an article by a Brazilian mother offering counsel to other mothers on how to handle taking nannies on family trips.
I’d like to delve further into the topic, as it has caused an uproar in Brazil. Now, I’d like to first start by qualifying that the intention behind dissecting the article is not to suggest that all domestic servants are abused or that all Brazilians think the way this one mother does. Nor is it to suggest that having babysitters, cleaning ladies, gardeners, day care and the like is unjust. Far from it. Babysitters, cleaning ladies and gardeners are not what we’re talking about here. I’m talking about a very specific type of employee, a full-time domestic servant within the context of Brazilian society. The modern practice of having domestic servants is a legacy of slavery in Brazil and is a reflection of the ingrained classist and racist tendencies of the country.
This time, I’d like to include a few more passages (translated) from the original text, followed by my thoughts and explanations.
I encourage everyone to participate in this debate, for in reality, this issue is not exclusive to Brazil, but is rather a common practice throughout the world.
From the original text:
“Fifth piece of advice: always bring cookies, chocolate for the nanny, too because this helps a lot at night. You’ll have to bring something for your child anyway, so just bring something for her, too. Whenever I go out at night, I ask if she wants me to bring her something back, like a sandwich or a snack.”
My reaction: What is really alarming here is the sense that the nanny – the person she has entrusted her child’s well-being to – is as much a child as her own child – sometimes even more so! The nanny is treated like an unwanted niece or nephew who tags along and must be entertained, rather than as a person with autonomy with their own tastes and desires distinct from those of the child (and family) she serves.
“Fourth piece of advice: [in regards to when a family stays in a hotel during their vacation] At breakfast, I ask her to go downstairs first and eat everything she wants from the buffet. I even mention that she should eat a lot because it’s included and lunch will be late, so that she won’t get hungry too early. So, when I woke up, Gustavo [her husband] and I stayed with Guto [their son] in the room, she went downstairs and then we met her in the breakfast room and she fed Guto some papaya or yogurt while Gustavo and I had breakfast. Note: There is something I can’t stand to see and that I see all the time is the mom killing herself running behind the child, turning the restaurant upside down while madame nanny is sitting there, eating calmly, and chatting with the husband. My husband doesn’t like this and neither do I, thus she eats first or later, never together because children don’t stay put looking at the time. They want to walk around and they need to eat something for breakfast.”
My reaction: My first thought, besides the common thread of intentional segregation of the nanny from the family, is that it honestly seems to be a lot more work to bring the nanny along than to just take care of the kid yourself. But then again – children can’t sit still right? Of course a parent can’t tell their child to sit and behave! Of course a child isn’t allowed to be bored! Imagine that. Nope. The child wants to do whatever it wants so you have to make sure that you, as a mother, never actually have to do the job of mother and keep your eye on your child while you engage in another activity, e.g. breakfast. The purpose of a nanny is so that the mother (and father) never have to multi-task. Parenting is reserved for certain hours and all of the other tasks, mundane or not, must be delegated to a nanny so as to not overwhelm the parents.
Let’s take a look at one more passage:
“In Rio de Janeiro [where the family was vacationing], I thought that the nanny’s presence was very useful. First, so that she kept watch over Luiz Gustavo [Guto, her son] in the sand, because he likes to see things, so I could sit, read a magazine and watch him come and go along the water’s edge. Another thing is making sand castles. My nanny is very young, I think this is essential because children like to play and for me, a nanny who doesn’t play, who doesn’t sit in the sand and build a castle is useless and sometimes I don’t like to get all dirty in the sand. During the afternoon when he slept for three hours I didn’t need to stay inside the room and I stayed at the pool with Gustavo [husband], looking at the view and at night, she was essential because Guto doesn’t sleep well in the stroller, he wakes up every 30 minutes or so, thus we could go out peacefully and they stayed in the hotel.”
My reaction: You can’t be serious. A nanny’s purpose then, besides taking care of your house and your child, is to also be your child’s playmate. Again, God forbid a child has to learn how to play on their own or be bored! God forbid the parent actually has to get up off of their beach chair and interact with their child. Can you please remind me again why the child was brought along on this vacation?
Another sour point, which relates to something I saw recently: I was volunteering at IPREDE, an NGO that focuses on children with nutritional deficiencies and maternal health, serving low-income families in the greater Fortaleza area. One of the services they offer are classes that teach mothers how to play and develop a bond with their children. I sat in on one of these classes with a group of mothers and their infants, all aged 2 years and younger. One of the mothers barely interacted with her son, instead playing a little on her own and then lying down on the ground, merely watching him play by himself.
Afterwards, the psychologist leading the class mentioned her (highly warranted) frustration in seeing such behavior. The connection between this story and the topic at hand is that I often hear criticism of domestic servants, particularly against female domestic servants (they do make up the vast majority), that they don’t know anything – they don’t know how to take care of their own or others’ kids, they don’t know how to follow or impose rules, they don’t know this or that. But stories like the one about the mom on vacation show that this is pure prejudice – wealthy women often act the same! They don’t know how to interact with their own children and only do so in limited doses because, after all, that’s the nanny’s job to handle the “messy” work. And when the nanny doesn’t do things exactly as the mother would like, the mother complains about how incompetent or brazen the nanny is – when she is often uneducated, poor and is doing this job because it’s the best she can find and is only acting in the way she has been taught to act.
It’s horribly depressing and hypocritical the types of critiques that are levied against nannies when a lot of the same behaviors are performed by those in higher social spheres – except that it’s more acceptable when you’re rich. It’s your privilege to delegate parenting when you want to.
Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Let me offer a personal anecdote. I was speaking to a woman, let’s call her Cristina, whose daughter, let’s call her Ana, was soon to have a baby. I asked her if she was excited about becoming a grandma. Her face lit up and she said she couldn’t wait and proceeded to explain how the baby would live with her for the first few months because she wanted to provide her absolute support and the nurse would stay in the maid’s room.
Did you catch that?
The baby isn’t even born yet but plans are already being made to have a nanny for the baby. Grandma wants to offer her full support – but that means having a domestic servant at her disposal when the baby becomes annoying. Makes you feel like you’re on a Victorian movie set, right?