Bird’s EyeSurveillance Culture Comes for Nannies

an Asian child peers through the end of a wooden bed

Photo credit: bady qb/Unsplash

Years ago, a few months before a good friend of mine had her first child, she, a close friend of hers, and I discussed her childcare plans over dinner. I’d been working as a nanny of infants and toddlers for years, so as my friends started having children, I was eager to be in conversation with them about their babies. I commiserated with my friend: I knew it would be incredibly difficult for her to separate from her infant for the first time and leave her in the hands of a virtual stranger. The other woman at our table asked, “Well, are you getting a Nest? Will you be watching?” The Google Nest camera is perhaps the best-known example of the modern nanny cam, though these small home surveillance cameras are common enough now that nannies may no longer be their primary targets. (The Amazon Ring camera, another well-known home surveillance device, films the space outside of one’s front door.)

I’ve worked in multiple homes with a camera perched at a high point in the room, a tiny blue light indicating that the camera is rolling. Nest connects to an app on its user’s phone or tablet, through which a live feed is constantly available and which, in its most recent iterations, alerts the user when someone has entered the room being filmed. While a caregiver is in their employer’s home, their employer can, in theory, oversee their every move. The cameras in the homes I’ve worked in have viscerally interrupted necessary feelings of goodwill and care. Many times over, as I’ve put plates of food down in front of the toddlers in my care, completed a Magna-Tile tower, or put away toys, I’ve remembered the camera overhead and felt momentarily sick and ashamed, even as I did everything “right.” The camera represents mistrust. I have no idea how many times, if ever, the families I’ve worked for have watched me with their children; we have never discussed it.

My friend’s concerns and the suggestion of surveillance as a remedy for her anxiety represents, on a small scale, the complex emotional stakes of private childcare arrangements for both parents and caregivers. In a 2001 article for Social Justice/Global Options, Cindi Katz, an environmental psychologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who studies modern childhood, parenting, and its sociopolitical implications, proposes that the influx of middle-class women into the workforce over the past several decades, with no parallel support from either the state or corporations to provide stable and affordable childcare, has put these same women in a position of increasing anxiety and guilt about the quality of their own private childcare solutions. Katz’s compelling premise is that the responsibilities that once fell to the state or the collective, such as providing a social safety net through education, healthcare, and other public services, have been foisted onto individual families.

This trend can be traced, in part, to the proliferation of devices aimed at ensuring child safety—from nanny cams to geolocator wristbands—evidence of what Katz refers to as the “child protection industry.” “The delegation of all manner of responsibility for social reproduction to the household has produced mini states (of siege),” she writes. This description is eerily accurate to my experience of nannying in the modern, affluent, urban family home. I empathize with families who see the protection of their children as resting entirely on their shoulders, without the support of public services and often without the proximity of extended family networks who might otherwise provide supplemental care. These parents must navigate the endlessly tricky experience of employing a stranger to love and care for their children when they aren’t there.

Having worked with such families for nearly a decade, I can’t fault them for buying into the promise of greater security that tech companies purport. However, these companies’ exploitation of parents’ fear is dwarfed by the potential and indeed frequent exploitation of caregivers who are surveilled, often without their knowledge, in their workplaces. According to Katz, 70 percent of families who used nanny cams in 2001 ended up firing their nannies—a total that can only have increased as this technology has become more widely available. As Katz put it when we spoke, “As they [surveillance technologies] become cheaper, they’re irresistible.” Nanny cams most often reveal instances of what Katz calls “benign neglect,” such as allowing children to watch television or talking on the phone while caring for children.

Individual families may have wildly differing views on what is a fireable offense in a caregiver, and this is precisely the point: Families are held only to their own standards of conduct in the relationship; the majority of domestic workers don’t work with labor contracts of any kind and are vulnerable to the whims of their employers in multiple ways. As if being filmed inside the home weren’t enough, I learned relatively recently of another type of surveillance of nannies. Shortly after I began working for an affluent family living in Manhattan, New York, a richer neighborhood than the ones I’d worked in before, my new employer told me that she often saw nannies yelling at children in the park or at the playground. She told me that it bothered her, but that she wouldn’t go so far as to post a picture of the nanny, as many women did in the Facebook group she belonged to for moms in her neighborhood.

Women would post the pictures, she told me, with captions like, “Is this your nanny?” and detail what they’d seen or overheard. These crowdsourced appraisals of what constitutes good and bad care work occur behind “closed doors,” online: The group is private and exclusive to neighborhood moms and doesn’t include the perspectives of caregivers. Yelling at a child, though regrettable and certainly not ideal practice, is hardly uncommon, as I’m sure most parents can attest from their own experience. Imagine being a nanny who ends up yelling at a child on the playground, captured at their worst by a surreptitious iPhone camera. There are so many factors to consider in these scenarios: How many hours has this nanny been working and for how little pay? How much support does she have both from her employers and her own social networks? How much experience does she have, and where did she learn her caregiving techniques?

Many of us aren’t professionally trained as caregivers; instead, many nannies do what parents do: We repeat what we saw in our own families and our own cultures, and we don’t change our practices if we’re not encouraged to or supported in doing so. When working with very young children, nannies must be able to set limits, say no, and navigate conflict, in order to ensure both the physical safety and emotional security of the child. Anyone who has known a 3-year-old knows that conflict is an ever-present, generative, important part of the relationship. If you’re a nanny, you set limits in whatever way is native to you: your traumas, your family, your culture, your inner life. I don’t say this to excuse mistreatment but to deepen an understanding of what might cause mistreatment. This distinction between good and bad practice in caregiving work is an important one, but it’s complicated by the nature of the work and, in the larger public discourse, erased because of the invisibility of the work.

As community-based researcher Lynet Uttal and anthropology and sociology professor Mary Tuominen discuss in their 1999 article, “Tenuous Relationships: Exploitation, Emotion, and Racial Ethnic Significance in Paid Child Care Work,” parents (specifically, mothers) are often conflicted in their attitudes toward the work done by caregivers. On one hand, mothers expect that nannies will create an emotional attachment to their children and even to the rest of the family, often referring to these employees as “part of the family” and expecting them to care for their children as the mothers would care for them themselves. On the other, they want to continue to distinguish between the primacy of their relationships with their children and the temporary, secondary nature of the attachment that exists between caregiver and child. This ambivalence is understandable, especially considering the way that contemporary (and male) Western theorists of parenting and attachment like John Bowlby and D.W. Winnicott unnecessarily centered mothers as the sole, default primary attachment for young children, contributing mightily to a culture that pressures women to take on full responsibility for this role.

However, mothers’ conflicting attitudes toward caregivers lead to a confusing emotional landscape for the caregivers themselves, who must draw sharp boundaries around the attachments they form with children while at the same time navigating feelings of emotional obligation to the people who pay their salaries. It doesn’t feel good to be surveilled, primarily because caregivers of children need, by definition, to care for the families they work with and develop a strong, sustaining relationship with a child and their parents. In any case, emotional attachment is necessary and inevitable between children and caregivers. Uttal and Tuominen distinguish childcare work from other forms of work that require emotional labor, such as the work of restaurant servers or flight attendants, by noting that those service workers must only display outward signs of emotion and care in the moment, whereas childcare workers are paid to love children.

In The Emotional Life of the Toddler (1993), Alicia Lieberman, a prominent psychotherapist who focuses on attachments between young children and their caregivers, notes that the average parent-toddler relationship consists of three major conflicts per hour. Those conflicts are experienced and managed by childcare workers as well as parents, and depending on cultural practices and personal history, a caregiver’s approach may be unacceptable or seem harsh to her employer. Although care work is a growing and essential component of our economy, and though it is, as the founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), labor activist Ai-jen Poo, has put it, “the work that makes all other work possible,” it’s also work that has historically been done by women, unpaid. The devaluation of this work is part of the legacy of both the forced labor of enslaved women and the historical oppression of all women.

Katz describes how the mobility of cheap labor has created an influx of women from the developing world to do domestic work in the United States, where they are paid very low wages. A 2012 study by the NDWA cited a survey’s finding that 95 percent of domestic workers are women and 54 percent are nonwhite. Seventy percent of domestic workers are paid less than $13 an hour. We typically work off the books and often without a formal contract. Cultural differences between employers and caregivers are commonplace, and yet individual employers largely have total authority over what they deem acceptable practice and how they enforce those standards, including with the use of surveillance cameras. The power imbalance here is also drawn sharply along existing hierarchies of class and race, placing families of means in a position of undue authority.

Surveillance only adds to the confusing mix of emotions that nannies experience in our work.

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Being in an exhausting, dead-end job in which your performance is rarely evaluated, raises aren’t given, and pay scale isn’t adjusted according to experience, can cause anger, resentment, and burnout. Surveillance only adds to the confusing mix of emotions that nannies experience in our work. Most nannies work without adult company, beyond our relationships with our employers. We’re solely responsible for advocating for ourselves with our employers, and these discussions are not easy to have, particularly because children are often present. As I’ve said, it is nigh impossible for nannies not to develop intimate, loving relationships with the children in our care. “What is being exploited in these instances is not just the domestic worker’s labor and skills, but her sense of interpersonal responsibility, her capacity for love,” Barbara Ehrenreich, labor scholar and famed advocate for low-wage American workers, wrote in a forward for the 2012 NDWA study.

As a result of the intimacy of the job, I’ve felt both intensely devoted and attached to the families I’ve worked for as a nanny, and I’ve also felt that this attachment prevented me from being able to clearly communicate my needs and rights as an employee. The primary policy goal of the NDWA, beyond providing a venue for domestic workers (including not just nannies but house cleaners and home health aides) to organize outside the isolating environments in which they work, is to lobby for legislation that includes those workers in basic labor protections. (The labor legislation of the 1930s that protects most working Americans originally excluded two groups—domestic workers and agricultural workers—and the NDWA seeks to correct this historic imbalance, which has disproportionately affected workers of color).

Domestic workers’ bills of rights have been established in several states and major cities, but they don’t address surveillance cameras, beyond provisions stating that nannies living in their employers’ homes can’t be filmed in their private spaces, including bathrooms and bedrooms. Additionally, Poo acknowledged in a 2018 PBS article that there are serious difficulties in enforcing these protections, particularly for undocumented immigrant workers, who may fear retaliation from their employers if they attempt to speak up for their rights and who often rely heavily on what employment they can find. (The 2012 NDWA study reported that 85 percent of undocumented workers who encountered problems with their working conditions didn’t speak up because they feared their immigration status would be used against them.)

a screenshot of a Facebook post that details a nanny allegedly abusing a child in a store

Photo credit: Facebook

Surveillance of nannies, including the recording of their voices, is completely legal and doesn’t rank high on the agenda of advocacy groups like the NDWA. (No spokesperson for the NDWA could be reached for comment for this piece.) To me, this speaks to a pervasiveness of fear and mistrust and the entitlement many Americans feel to protect ourselves and our immediate families at any cost, even if ultimately corrosive to the larger social fabric. Companies have flooded the market with technologies that monopolize on the hope that fear is extinguishable through surveillance. The domestic sphere is no exception. The Facebook group that shares images of “bad nannies” mirrors the way that private surveillance has seeped into modern policing: Police departments often encourage households with home surveillance cameras to register with the police so that private footage can be used in investigations.

There’s a new and alarming discussion arising around the inherent racial bias in facial-recognition technologies and their use, particularly of those developed by Amazon, by police during recent protests. The nefarious potential of surveillance in powerful hands plays out in the privacy of homes, too: Homes that are workplaces for childcare workers. These “mini states,” to use Katz’s useful term, use the protection of children as a broad justification for this surveillance, but this justification needs to be questioned. As Nikole Hannah-Jones’s seminal work on school segregation has shown, white families of means often use the impulse to do “what is best for my child” as a rationale for taking their children out of majority Black and brown schools. These seemingly personal choices made to protect individual privileged children have serious consequences for the social collective. Unlike suspicion and mistrust, trust is not easily built. Once built, it may experience ruptures and need frequent repairs. It requires risk, vulnerability, and an imaginative leap. It requires the repeated, consistent efforts of multiple parties to be transparent and communicative and to have faith that the other parties are doing their best, even when they make mistakes.

Many people are not in the habit of being in a trusting, open frame of mind when it comes to the protection of their children. But it’s not impossible. Since conceiving of and writing this piece, I have constantly had in my thoughts the families I once worked for, several of whom have surveilled me. I’ve had the nagging feeling that in publicly acknowledging how nannies are mistreated and disempowered in their workplaces, I am betraying my former employers, whose children I was employed to love and to whom I feel deep connection and loyalty. I do love the families I work for, but I also recognize the immense and undersold contributions of the people who care for other people’s children. My compassion for both nannies and their employers leads me to hope for a more just and balanced way of structuring childcare work that engenders trust and mutual responsibility among the members of the modern “villages” that continue to raise our children.