Sara Eldén (left) and Terese Anving (right)

Does the practice of hiring nannies and au pairs challenge inequalities in and between families, or does it reproduce them? Sara Eldén and Terese Anving, the authors of the first book in the Sociology of Children and Families series, Nanny Families: Practices of Care by Nannies, Au Pairs, Parents and Children in Sweden, answer this question.

Paying privately for childcare is a growing phenomenon in middle and upper-class families worldwide, and so also in Sweden. This requires a new focus in family research, on the ways in which paid domestic workers, such as nannies and au pairs, become part of the ‘doing of family’. In Nanny Families, we show how the emergence of paid domestic care work creates new types of inequalities between and within families, and how ‘good care’ is hard to accomplish without acknowledging the demanding emotional activities of care situations.

Transforming the Swedish welfare state

For many decades Swedish parents have delegated care to actors outside of the family as most Swedish children are enrolled in publicly funded daycare institutions. Since the 1960s, and following social democratic ideals of social and gender equality, all Swedish children were offered affordable quality care in day care centres, and care work in the private sphere was to be shared equally by mothers and fathers. This made the existence of nannies, au pairs and other paid domestic workers a very rare phenomenon in Swedish families, up until recently.

In 2007, the liberal/right-wing government introduced a tax deduction on household services in the home, including care for children. This led to the expansion of a huge market for cleaning services in private homes, and the emergence of a smaller but completely new private, formal and also state-supported market for domestic care services, including nannies. This formal market is paralleled by another growing market: the much more informal practice of hiring au pairs.

What impact do nannies and au pairs have on families

When more and more families have the opportunity to, and choose to, hire cleaners, nannies and au pairs, everyday life changes. Families are what families do, as David Morgan’s (1996) concept of family practices taught us. However, the ‘doings’ of paid domestic workers in family settings has largely been missing in family studies. The scientific analysis of their situation has largely been assigned to global care chains research, which has contributed exceptionally important studies of the precarious working conditions of migrant domestic workers.

But maids, nannies, au pairs and cleaners ‘do’ family, and need to be attended to by family researchers.  They carry out practices that could be done by family members, such as serving a child an afternoon snack or cleaning up in the kitchen after dinner, and they do so in the setting of private homes.

When a nanny or au pair becomes responsible for preparing and serving that afternoon snack, this affects both adult and child family members’ everyday lives. It allows the adult to be absent for longer periods of time, and it relieves him or her (though it is, according to statistics, mostly her) of some of the feeding work that family life entails. For the child, it means the presence of a new and often quite important person in everyday life. For the nanny or au pair, it means engaging in a practice that puts her in a ‘family like’ position, especially in the eyes of the children, that makes her form strong emotional bonds – both positive and negative – to different family members.

How nanny families reproduce inequalities

In Nanny families, all three categories of actors involved in the practice of ‘doing nanny/au pair care’ are heard and listened to: the parents hiring nannies and au pairs; the nannies and au pairs themselves; and, finally, the children who are taken care of by nannies and au pairs. Woven together, their narratives provide new understandings of paid domestic care in general, and nanny and au pair care in particular. While the practice may challenge gender inequalities, through enabling mothers more equal opportunities at work, our research show that it significantly reproduces other social inequalities.

Firstly, and most obviously, it reproduces inequalities between families: between those who can afford to ‘buy time’ to ‘solve the jigsaw puzzle of life’ and realise a more gender equal working life, and also, to fulfil new ideals of ‘good qualitative parenting’. Through this, the practice of hiring paid domestic workers is shifting the content of the Swedish hallmark of gender equality: from dual earner/dual carer, to dual earner/privately outsourced care.

What makes good care?

Secondly, it reproduces inequalities in and through everyday caring activities.

The children’s and the nannies’/au pairs’ narratives in the book give testimony to the sentient activity (Mason, 1996) of the everyday care situation: for care to be ‘good’, it has to entail reciprocal, emotional doings that requires situational skills, evoked in the moment, but also building the foundation for close relationships. Nannies and au pairs tell about ‘simple’ routines, such as taking a child to school, turning out to be enmeshed with complex and emotionally demanding activities, requiring skills of being closely attuned to and able to interpret the needs, moods, individuality and relationships of the particular child, and also to the parents; to think through, organise, and orchestrate the relationship between themselves and the parents, and, in addition, the relationships between the children and the parents (Mason, 1996: 27). The children, in turn, talk about the difference between good and bad nannies and au pairs: the good ones ‘see’ them, know what they like, and treat them as ‘special’. The bad ones only do the chores their mothers and fathers have asked them to do, and make the children feel like they are ‘just a job’.

Regardless of whether they are good or bad, they all leave one day, and are often replaced by new young girls. Accounts of endings and new beginnings are full of strong emotions in the narratives of both the children and the nannies and au pairs in our study.

These sentient activities of care, experienced as necessary by the nannies and au pairs, and expected by the children, are missing from the ideals and understandings of nanny and au pair work as ‘simple’ and ‘easy’, reproduced by parents and in cultural discourse. It is, in fact, often also a discourse initially reproduced by nannies and au pairs themselves, when entering into the profession. It is this discourse that sometimes makes them blame themselves: ‘this job was supposed to be so easy, why am I then feeling exhausted at the end of the day, I must be doing something wrong?’

When welfare states such as Sweden decide to promote and encourage private markets for domestic care services, they reproduce the idea that care is ‘simple’: an activity that can easily be divided up and delegated, preferably to young girls (especially those with few other options, and here is of course where the global inequalities of care chains appear: migrant girls, especially from the South/East, are increasingly seeking placements in Nordic countries, see, e.g., Widdig Isaksen, 2010). This increases the invisibility of the actual complex and emotionally demanding activity that these girls are engaged in, in care situations with children.

The nanny or the au pair becomes the invisible glue that keeps the jigsaw puzzle of life from falling apart. But her part in this ‘doing family’ will stay invisible – and precarious – unless all of her complex doings of care are acknowledged. As long as this is not happening, there are strong reasons to believe that ‘good care’ – that is, a care situation that recognises the needs and conditions of all parties involved – is difficult to realise in nanny families. If the nanny and au pair markets continue to grow, it is thus likely that inequalities will increase in and between families, in the midst of everyday family practices.

Nanny Families, by Sara Eldén and Terese Anving is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £60.00 or get the EPUB for £19.99.

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