Children and their caregivers—race, class, and wealth in America

A few months ago I picked up my ten-year-old granddaughter after school in New York. The school (public) is surrounded by a double fence. As I approached the gate  I saw a large group of people (almost entirely women) gathered to collect the kids. The interesting thing about this group of at least sixty women was that half—if not more— were not of the same skin color as the white kids they were collecting. It was a diverse mix of Black, mixed race, Asian, South American, and so on.

My conclusion was easy to reach: the women whose skin color did not match that of the children were paid caregivers—nannies, babysitters, possibly some maids. In New York City it is especially easy to witness this phenomenon because any child under age eleven must be accompanied to and from school by a responsible adult.  Other large cities  probably have a similar, but less visible, demographic.

In America white children have been cared for—and often raised—by women of color for centuries. In the South, before the end of the Civil War, the children of slaveholders were largely raised by slave women—even nursed by them.

In 1999 I wrote a book for The Inheritance Project, now out of print, called Like a Second Mother: Nannies and Housekeepers in the Lives of Wealthy Children. I interviewed wealthy adults who had  been raised by caregivers; I interviewed nannies, babysitters, maids; I even interviewed a few mothers who spoke frankly about their relationships with their children’s caregivers.

What I learned was astonishing, moving, and sometimes disturbing. Although it is hard to generalize too much, many of the caregivers—living or dead—were Black women. (At that time most of them were American-born. That pattern has changed significantly.) When a caregiver comes into a child’s life at an early age, the child may not be aware of racial differences; what they know—and what they care about most— is who loves them. Because many children spend more of their waking hours with their caregivers than with their own mothers, if the caregivers are warm and nurturing, and if their mothers a) aren’t home much; b) are distracted by their careers or their social life; c) are not particularly interested in spending much time with their children, the kids end up bonding with the caregivers.

Bonding with a paid caregiver—particularly a caregiver who is not white—can have profound consequences for a child. One man I interviewed referred to the Black maid who was a constant in his family for many years, “my Black mama.” He told me:

I got a lot of my mothering from Josephine because my mother is aloof and unemotional. She wasn’t a hugger, so I’d go to the kitchen to get my hugs. I think my mother realized intuitively that Josephine was giving us something she couldn’t give. One of my earliest memories is of falling down and scraping my knee. Josephine was coming around the corner, and I jumped into her her arms. Josephine was the one who consoled me, not my mother. . . . In some ways I think she was more advanced than my mom and dad. She was better able to connect with me at a soul level. I felt kind of conflicted because there were so  many qualities I saw in her that I felt were lacking in my parents.

I recently read the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett—now also a movie. I couldn’t put the book down, partly because I rediscovered what I  had already learned when I talked to the people who are in my book: Black women raising white children, and loving them (though not always), white children being more attached to their Black caregivers than to their own mothers, and white children observing how their parents treated ”the help” in ways that were demeaning. If you haven’t yet read this wonderful book, please do.