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.



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.


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.


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.



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