In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Cameron MacDonald spent a lot of time combing the playgrounds of neighborhoods from Brookline to Weston to Sudbury. A sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin, MacDonald was looking for nannies, and the typically high-earning mothers for whom they worked. Not surprisingly, she found them in droves.
But she also found them in almost every conceivable cultural combination - white CEOs with undocumented immigrants, black doctors with white au pairs from the Midwest, Latina professionals with nannies carefully selected from only certain Spanish-speaking countries, to make sure their children didn’t pick up an undesirable Spanish accent.
Ultimately, MacDonald interviewed 30 working mothers and 50 nannies in the course of her research. Her new book, “Shadow Mothers,’’ offers surprising and layered insights into a modern phenomenon played out every day from coast to coast: guilty mothers who are deeply conflicted about such an intimate outsourcing of child care, and nannies caught in the double bind of their unwritten job description - to be an extension of a working mother on demand, and a shadow mother who can appear and then instantly disappear.
A complicated picture
MacDonald said she chose Boston and its suburbs because the vast majority of previous research on nannies had focused on New York and Los Angeles, and almost exclusively on Caribbean and Latina nannies. In the suburban Boston version of the mommy-nanny drama, she said, race, ethnicity, and class matter in very unexpected ways.
“What I saw from my work in Boston was a much more mixed and complicated picture of who was doing nanny work, and what factors were driving mothers to choose which nannies,’’ she said in an interview.
That complicated picture, MacDonald found, is driven in part by enormous pressures that mothers feel to focus on and cater to every developmental stage of infancy and toddlerhood - and to hire nannies based on a series of racialized traits they believe best suit each stage. Again and again, MacDonald said, she observed mothers engaging in what she calls “ethnic logics’’ - a series of stereotypical skill sets the moms believed suited their children during one, and only one, particular phase of development.
In one example, MacDonald interviewed a 36-year-old mother named Naomi who described the reasoning behind her decision to hire Yvonne, her Jamaican nanny. (To protect the privacy of mothers and nannies, MacDonald did not use their last names, or identify the towns where the families lived.) Naomi, a physician, said Yvonne’s automatic ease with her infant could only be explained by what Naomi described bluntly as “Jamaican voodoo,’’ an instinct that she believed all Caribbean women must have with babies.
“I think I knew pretty soon after she came that she was the right person for us, because she seemed so comfortable with the baby,’’ Naomi said of Yvonne. “She just picked her right up, bounced her, and the kid was asleep.’’
A nanny herself at 16
You might think MacDonald is just another academic staking out her own ground in the endlessly hyped mommy wars. But you’d be wrong. For one thing, MacDonald worked as a full-time live-in nanny, minding three children under age 5 for a couple at a lake house in Maine when she was 16.
It was all going blissfully well, as she tells it - bonding with the children in the wild, cooking meals with her boss over a wood stove - until the day that baby Lily stumbled and fell. When Lily’s mother could not console her, and she had to hand the child over to the young nanny, everything changed.
“We made the three-hour drive home from Maine in steely silence,’’ MacDonald recalls in the preface to her book. “They paid me my summer’s wages, and I never heard from them again. I was devastated.’’
In a scenario that plays out routinely between working mothers and the nannies who often spend far more face time with their children, MacDonald had crossed an invisible line. Was Lily’s mom angry? Jealous? Insecure? MacDonald wasn’t sure, but she felt that she was somehow to blame for being good at her job.
Maybe it’s that personal experience that helps to set her scholarship apart. With a clear analytical eye but also with deep empathy, MacDonald spends one of the most intriguing chapters of her book exploring the complicated terrain of ethnic logics, and the unseen impact for nannies, children, and working mothers that results from engaging in them.
In this nanny-specific system of racial and ethnic shorthands, the author found, many of the mothers she studied cling to the belief that they are choosing nannies ideally matched to their offspring’s evolving development.
For example, MacDonald found these mothers highly value Caribbean nannies when their children are newborns, believing all Caribbean nannies are nurturing. Later, those nannies become devalued as the children enter the toddler years and the mothers begin to seek out young, white nannies. Especially popular are Midwestern au pairs, who the mothers believe are intellectually equipped to stimulate their children’s minds, and culturally equipped to socialize them into the middle-class existence that the mothers want to pass on to them.
In the system of ethnic logics, MacDonald found, whiteness itself came to symbolize “middle-class-ness.’’
“It’s fascinating how these ideas about race and class would just get reinforced through the process of choosing nannies, or letting go one nanny for another nanny,’’ MacDonald said. “There was this very conscious thought process and question of, how am I going to transmit security and comfort when they’re an infant? How am I going to transmit all the development stuff the experts say is important for toddlers? How am I going to transmit my middle-class values when they’re ready for preschool?’’
The anxiety can make for strange choices and even stranger rationales: At the beginning of the chapter, we meet Joyce, a black oncologist in a tony suburb who yearns to find her son a black nanny. Still, Joyce ends up hiring a white Nebraska teenager, sight unseen.
Later on, we meet Suzanne, a 30-year-old vice president of a dot-com start-up and first-time mother, whose deep anxiety about measuring up to her stay-at-home mother is threaded throughout the book. When her daughter Lindsay was born, Suzanne hired a Caribbean nanny, Violet, a woman she saw as nurturing and trustworthy because of her ethnicity as well as her religious beliefs.
As her daughter got older, Suzanne was torn between her daughter’s attachment to Violet and finding a replacement who would better suit her daughter’s presumed developmental needs.
“I don’t know what the right answer is,’’ she told MacDonald. “Like when Lindsay starts . . . going ‘Why why why?’ I don’t know how Violet is going to respond. If she’s going to give answers that I like? If she will able to provide the sort of breadth and depth of experiences’’ for Lindsay. “Will she take Lindsay to, like, the children’s museum?’’
For a while now, academics and the mommy blogosphere have been keyed in to the so-called ideology of intensive mothering - the overwhelming social pressure that working women feel to also be ideal mothers at home. It’s a pressure, scholars say, that has only intensified as more and more mothers have entered the workforce.
What MacDonald found is that for mothers with nannies, the intense desire to approximate their own mothering translates into an unforgiving calculus, one that reduces nannies to one or two brush strokes of racially or ethnically rooted talents.
Unlike actual parents, MacDonald found, nannies can’t be caregivers whose abilities around children evolve. What they become instead, MacDonald says, are interchangeable tools in a child-rearing strategy that is constantly being assessed, improved, and refined.
“Typically, people say that mothers just hire the cheapest immigrant they can find, or that they hire the people who look the most like them,’’ MacDonald said. “But actually it turns out neither is true. The decisions moms make turn on a lot of complex questions about who conveys what kind of social class, what kind of nannies will allow your kids to socialize with the kids of stay-at-home moms on play dates, what you think it says about you if your nanny is Irish or Brazilian, or an au pair from the Netherlands.’’