When I first arrived in New York City’s Upper Westside this summer, one of my first thoughts was, “Wow, it’s true what they’re saying about the US—interracial couples are on the rise.” A couple of days later when I saw women with strollers rolling into the “mommy and me classes” next door, I remember thinking, “Huh, everything they taught us in high school biology isn’t that true—white people’s genes, like that gene for blue eyes, are not that recessive. You can’t even tell these babies have Latino, Asian or African American moms.” The next hour, when one of these stroller pushers asked me for the time with a particular broken English I had become so familiar with in Abu Dhabi, I got it. These women weren’t moms, they were nannies—nannies just like most moms in Abu Dhabi have, but just a different way of doing the nanny thing.
First off, you’d never confuse a nanny for a mom in Abu Dhabi because you’d never see one walking down the street with the baby all by herself. In Abu Dhabi, nannies are there to assist the mother, who is somewhere in the vicinity, usually visible, but busy shopping, getting her hair done or socializing. In New York, for the most part, the nanny is filling in for the mother while the mother goes to work. (Same as in Los Angeles, but in LA you don’t see the nannies or the moms or the babies, as people aren’t colliding into each other on crowded streets).
There are other differences, too. For example, New York nannies do not wear uniforms, if you can call the pajama-like outfits in Abu Dhabi uniforms. The age range in Abu Dhabi is much narrower, with nannies being for the most part in their twenties and early thirties, like the majority of female domestics in the country. In New York, many are old enough to be a child’s young grandmother. The nationality range is narrower in Abu Dhabi, too, with most nannies being from the Philippines or Indonesia at the moment. While the country of origin preferred by Abu Dhabi mothers goes in and out of fashion with the times, it is nearly always some place in South East Asia. And in Abu Dhabi, they’re not called nannies, but rather maids. Even if there is one maid in the house responsible for cleaning only and one responsible only for the children, the title is still maid.
Then there are the ways in which childcare givers come to be in the city. Nannies in New York might be native born, illegal aliens or recent immigrants. In Abu Dhabi, they can only get into the country with two-year sponsorships and it would be very hard to be an illegal as the legal risk would be too high for the family. Nor do they don’t come to Abu Dhabi with any hopes of citizenship. The UAE does not offer citizenship to foreigners no matter how long they live there.
Nannies in New York interview for their positions, but nannies in the UAE get blind job assignments based on agency matches that are matter of calendar date logistics. Then they arrive by airplane into the home of a family they have never met, who is probably just as nervous about meeting her, with a two-year commitment, which, on the upside, is still a far less daunting commitment than being a mail order bride.
In both places, nannies are mainly foreigners, more often than not of a different race. To be honest, I don’t hear too many nannies who are native born Americans in New York, unless they are the rare college student. No one born in the UAE would ever become a nanny because it is considered a very lowly position. Maybe that’s the universal truth about nannies: being a nanny is not a job anyone would aspire to but it is a job women in developing countries will take to support their own kids, even when that means leaving them behind for another country to be raised by relatives. Not that the nannies are complaining much—there are a lot worse jobs out there than helping a child have a good day, and it is still more than they would make where they came from.
The America I grew up in, a small town outside St. Paul, Minnesota, nannies were cute yet exotic British ladies on TV reruns. Real babies got watched by the neighbor lady who didn’t work and had her own houseful of children to watch, and kids got sort of taken care of by surly teenage babysitters and the occasional boyfriend they might sneak in. If I were kid, I’d prefer today’s nanny option—someone whose day is dedicated to me, the learning of a second language perhaps, and the chance to get out and do things that wouldn’t be possible if I had to just depend on my mom. When I look at the faces of nannies in Abu Dhabi, I see fatigue and listlessness–you could call it a general ennui. When I look at the nannies hustling along the streets of the Upper Westside with their strollers, I see harried women trying juggle the kid and the rest of her life, kind of like any mom. I’d choose the latter– I’d like my days as a nanny be fast-paced rather than slow. And then again, I’m lucky to have the choice.