Being Indian, I am organically brown and proud of it! My son on the other hand is very light skinned – a beautiful shade of light beige bordering on white and can in fact, be easily considered white just like his father, depending on the time of the year. I have wondered at times, if the, ‘Are you the nanny?’ question would ever be asked of me because I am a woman of color hanging out with a little white boy. Though not exactly black, Baby J’s hair is a darker shade of auburn and he also has dark black eyes (I like to believe he got that from me :)). Due to these characteristics, with a little observation, it can be rightly concluded that the woman accompanying him, me, is indeed his mother. Yet, for unfathomable reasons, I have wondered about the question.
This morning, I took J to a neighborhood park and just as we were entering the park, I saw a woman, who for all practical purposes could pass for white, talking on her phone whilst walking a stroller. Because she was coming toward our direction and the road forked, I put Baby J down on the other side of the fork (I was carrying him) so she could stroll on. Instead, she paused right next to us, ended her call, and asked (in Spanish) if I spoke Spanish. Now, for the longest time, I have been really interested in being able to legitimately answer this question affirmatively. Unfortunately, at this time, I am not yet there so I had to say ‘no’. Her next question, pointing toward J was, ‘you care?’ It took me a second to fathom what she was trying to say and just as I realized that she was asking me if I was J’s nanny, she asked, “you mom?” to which I said, “yes”.
Turns out she was from Venezuela and a nanny for the boy she was strolling. She gave me some info about the family for whom she worked. I asked her what she fed the kid (the kid was brown and because she had also asked me if I spoke Urdu, I presumed the parents are either Pakistani or of Pakistani origin) and before long, she, very enterprisingly, offered me her services on days she did not work for the family. She said she worked three days and was looking for work for the other days. I asked how much she charged and when she said $16, I already made a mental note that given how expensive she was, the likelihood of my calling here was near impossible. Anyway, it was good to have an option.
I did a quick Google search on other instances of mothers being mistaken for nannies. It appears that this typically happens in cross-racial situations where the child and mother are of visibly different races. Depending on whether the question asked is, ‘Are you the mother/nanny?’ or “Is he/she yours?”, women are either angered or dismissive of people’s motivations for inquiring. I was rather amused and not offended in the least but that could also have been because of the demeanor of the person asking. She clearly did not mean the question maliciously or as an insult. She looked like she was trying to get that part of the conversation out of the way so she could decide whether or not to promote her services.
I can see how the question may be considered somewhat of an insult for a mother to be assumed to be the nanny. On the other hand, why should it be insulting?
If a nanny is loving, nurturing, caring of her/his care, feeds, bathes, showers the child with love and attention, and does everything a parent might do in the hours the parent is unable to do the same, it is still work, dignified work, and work that should be considered respectful and an honest day’s living. Just because someone’s job title is ‘nanny’ does not in any way diminish the care she or he extends to her/his care. Likewise, just because someone is the mother, does not mean the love, care, and attention she gives her children has to necessarily ALWAYS be better than the nanny’s.
This is not a mom vs. nanny battle. This should be about a conversation regarding work, its ethic, one’s place in it, work-life interface, corporate accountability with regard to childcare, sociocultural perceptions about the outsourcing of care, and others of this nature. More importantly, if the question about whether one is the mother (parent) or nanny bothers us, then we should turn the gaze inward and have a larger societal dialog about why that is the case in addition to an honest self-reflective conversation with ourselves dealing with topics like self-esteem, personal sense of self, where we derive our primary identity from, what it means to embody a certain identity and what it represents to us and so on. Happy thinking 🙂