News / USA

    Photos Explore Life of Immigrant Nannies

    Ellen Jacob examines 'Substitutes' role of caregivers

    Photographer Ellen Jacob (left) explores the complex relationships between immigrant nannies, their young charges and the parents who hire them.
    Photographer Ellen Jacob (left) explores the complex relationships between immigrant nannies, their young charges and the parents who hire them.

    Multimedia

    Audio

    Immigrant nannies. Stroll through any residential Manhattan neighborhood and you’ll see these private child-care providers walking hand in hand with their young charges, feeding them, comforting them, taking them to the park.

    What is life like for these women? New York photographer Ellen Jacob wanted to find out.

    Substitutes

    It’s mid-afternoon in Jacob’s sunny Manhattan apartment, and the photographer is poring through thousands of photographs for her “Substitutes” project.

    All of the images are of New York’s immigrant nannies - many from West Africa or the Caribbean, some from East Asia or the Philippines. In the photos, they are tending to their young charges in Central Park, along avenue sidewalks and inside neighboring homes.  The pictures make us wonder - as  Jacob did - who these women are.  

    “It’s probably the only job that I can think of where there is an expectation that you love the people that you work with, in this case the children,” Jacob says, “and I wondered  how the nannies felt. Would they be part of the family and then when the child gets to a certain age and they are no longer needed, they are no longer part of the family?”

    For Jacob, who was raised by a black West Indian nanny named Martha, “Substitutes" is also a way to explore her own childhood. She loved Martha. In one powerful girlhood memory, she recalls sitting on her lap and being consoled by her when her beloved grandfather died.

    Martha, from the West Indies, was photographer Ellen Jacob's nanny.
    Martha, from the West Indies, was photographer Ellen Jacob's nanny.

    “My memory is of her telling me it was okay to cry and that my grandpa loved me very much and that she loved me very much.” Jacob clearly gets emotional when recalling the scene “It was such a loving gesture from a woman who, quite frankly, was at work when she did that.”  
    Hence the term “Substitutes” for her project.

    “For a few years,  nannies are, in a sense, substitute parents,” she says. “They are with the children during the day, playing with them, taking care of them when they have a fight with a friend, when they have a stomach ache.”

    And then all of a sudden, usually when the child reaches school age, they’re not. For Jacob, it is this contradictory double role - nurturer at the emotional heart of a child’s life and expendable wage earner who can be dismissed at any time - that defines the nanny’s household role.

    Paradox

    One woman from Trinidad spoke to Jacob about having to leave her four-year-old daughter at home in Trinidad “And that’s why she became a nanny. So she could take care of a child and feel as if she were taking care of her own child.”

    Another woman confided that she felt left out at birthday celebrations. “The mother takes a photo of the birthday boy and gets a picture of herself being photographed and forgets to take a picture of the nanny with the child," says Jacob, "and yet the nanny feels motherly towards this child.”

    Another nanny decided to keep some emotional distance from the children in her charge because she knew that they would grow up and her employment in the household - and thus her ongoing relationship with the children - would end.

    “So the women felt very attached to the children, but they also understand on some level that they were not the parent.”

    However, nannies so sometimes feel obliged to take on a parental role in the child’s emotional development. One nanny told Jacob about how the girl she took care of would hide behind her in fear as her parents viciously yelled at each other. Eventually the mother took to drink and the father stopped coming home at all. The nanny had to try to help this four-year-old girl stop acting out with other children, which the nanny assumed was in response to the upheaval in the household.

    “The nanny felt somewhat equipped to do this but not completely. She also felt that she didn’t have the authority to really make the decisions she felt needed to be made.” Jacob relates how after some “gut-wrenching” soul searching, that nanny decided to find another family to work for.

    Daily life

    Jacob says that there are often deep differences between a nanny’s culture of origin and the Manhattan milieu in which they find themselves, especially in relation to childrearing, but these are usually dealt with during the interview and hiring process.

    Differences in economic status can be more difficult to reconcile, however. Most client families are far wealthier and enjoy greater material comfort and security than the nannies that work for them.

    “The nannies work very long hours," says Jacob. "They are often very tired, they work often 12 hour days, and then have long commutes to their own homes far from high-rent Manhattan, and must often struggle for the time to have some sort of family life themselves." 

    Some nannies wished for health care benefits and a retirement plan. “One of the nannies told me she was feeling she was getting old and that she would be, in a sense, ‘discarded’ from the family and she’d have nothing in her old age to show for her years of work.”

    The complex relationship between mothers and nannies is also a theme in Jacob’s  “Substitutes.” While it seems to Jacob that some mothers are jealous of the bonds of love between their children and the nanny, many mothers treat nannies as skilled professionals.

    One mom, a high-powered investment banker, who expressed deep gratitude that her nanny, a mother and grandmother many times over, knew far more about children than she did.

     

    ELLEN JACOB EXTENDED INTERVIEW

    You May Like

    Post-White House, Obamas to Rent Washington Mansion

    Nine-bedroom home is 3 kilometers from Oval Office, near capital's Embassy Row; rent estimated at around $22,000 a month

    Red Planet? Not so much!

    New research suggest that Mars is in a warm period between cyclical ice ages, and that during Ice Age Maximum over 500,000 years ago, the red planet was decidedly ice, and much whiter to the naked eye.

    Taj Mahal Battles New Threat from Insects

    Swarms of insects are proliferating in the heavily contaminated waters of the Yamuna River, which flows behind the 17th century monument

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora