191. "Don't look for a nanny among immigrant day mothers" The Miami Herald, (August 19, 1989).


One of the few remaining taboo subjects in our society is the use of cheap, often-illegal, labor as in-house “day mothers.” Respected social-policy journals readily explore child abuse, AIDS, and even incest, but not the quality of such hired hands and the consequences of using them for child care.

Hundreds of thousands of day mothers work in homes of single parents or where both parents are employed. Yet there are reliable statistics on the number, background, or training of “day mothers,” nor have congressional hearings covered the subject.

One reason for the silence is that as far as we can ascertain from informal sociological surveys, many “day mothers” are illegal immigrants. Indeed, some are practically enslaved by the families who “sponsor” them: In exchange for help in legalizing their status, these women work long hours and weekends, with no overtime pay or sick leave. Some sponsoring families, eager to keep “their day mothers,” have even delayed the slow process deliberately.

Another reason that the subject remains taboo: “day mothers” - even when American - are often employed illegally, without Social Security withholding, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation. Finally, the subject halts conversation in country clubs, commuter trains, and executive lounges because there is a tremendous shortage of “day mothers.” (They are typically employed by the well off. Only they can afford such full-time help, an dit is they, with their long, irregular hours and travel demands, who must often rely on “day mothers” rather than child-care centers.) No family wants to endanger its catch by even letting on that it has one, let alone introduce her to its often-desperate colleagues.

Aside from its sub rosa nature, using an illegal “day mother” is often a major source of guilt. Unlike a traditional nanny, familiar to Americans from British movies or tales about the old South, most of them are neither qualified to educate the young nor are integrated into the family. Thus they do not share its values and perspectives.

They often come from other cultures (whether from Jamaica or Utah), from lower classes, and have either relatively authoritarian or very permissive child-care practices. Many do not speak, read, or write fluent English. And they come and go in bewildering succession, often departing on very short notice, if any. It takes a very dense parent not to be concerned with the effects of child-rearing by such hired hands.

The “day mothers” may well love the children entrusted in their care, and vice versa. Still, such relationships are often troublesome and guilt-producing, a point driven home to me during a visit with a major Boston agency. We were to meet after work, so Mrs. James (not her real name) suggested that we stop by her apartment - “so I can see my daughter” - before going to dinner.

The apartment door was opened by a young Thai woman. Mrs. James’ 3-year-old daughter was holding her hand, and reluctantly received a kiss from her mother. She refused all invitations to sit in her mother’s lap, to “tell me what you did today,” or to show the guest her doll. She soon disappeared into the kitchen, from which we heard her giggling happily with the Thai woman.

In a similar situation, a female colleague told me, after repeated warnings to her “nanny” not to play mother, she finally fired her and took a part-time job to be able to spend more time with her daughter. It still took her months to reestablish fully her relationship with her child. Likewise, a neighbor in suburban Bethesda, Md., explained that her son becomes extremely disturbed because “Maria,” who lived with them since his infancy, had suddenly “disappeared” when she suddenly chose to return to El Salvador. And so it goes.

In short, hired hands, especially illegal alines and those illegally employed, are unlikely to provide qualified, continuous supplementary parenting - and working these women so hard constitutes bald-faced exploitation. Curtailing the practice would benefit the American family and serve social justice. American parents ought to draw on more-qualified, higher-paid, legally employed help.

We can begin reform by increasing the penalties on those who employ illegals and on those who employ illegally. As with so many of our laws, more enforcement is urgently needed. However, heavier penalties and enhanced enforcement will, by themselves, do little to improve child care.

An essential companion measure is more training and credentialing of “day mothers” through a large-scale return to and expansion of the “nanny” profession. True, money is a major hindrance. These domestics are very poorly paid (under $100 a week on average). They do get room and board, but given the long hours and lack of privacy, the occupation will never evolve unless wages are significantly increased.

Parents must recognize that what they already know about their appliances and duties holds for their children: Your best “buy” is rarely the cleverest, and almost never what you buy on the sly.

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