Nanny may not know best, but she's cheap

It takes a case like the New York au pair tragedy to remind us of the value of good child care. But are we prepared to pay for it?

Share
Related Topics
No one needs special qualifications to become a parent yet following the death of a nine-month-old American baby at the hands of British au pair Louise Woodward, everyone is asking who is properly qualified to care for children.

This story is a tragedy for all concerned. An inexperienced 18-year-old loses her patience with a crying baby in her care and shakes him. He dies as a result of a "intracranial haemorrhage" and she now faces a murder charge. Her father flies out to Boston and fails to raise the $100,000 bail money, while her traumatised mother sits in shock, telling reporters "I can't imagine how his parents must feel. I have already lost my daughter - but I have at least got the hope of getting her back."

How could this have happened? Everyone who has left a child in the care of a child-minder, au pair, or baby-sitter - that is, most of us - will sleep less easily. Everyone is relating stories of dodgy nannies and irresponsible au pairs, of young women like Louise Woodward who we can see in retrospect were ill-equipped to care for infants. Checklists have been provided for prospective employees so that we might ask the right questions, get the right references, make sure they have the right qualifications before we leave them in sole charge of our off spring.

Au pairs are often employed on the basis of a letter alone. No meeting takes place until they turn up with their rucksack. I once asked a prospective au pair if she liked children. She replied "No". When I asked her if there was anything that she wanted to ask me, she said: "Can you get me a boyfriend?"

All this advice however, may help relieve our anxiety but it won't change the basic reality - that we want those who look after our children to be highly skilled, yet we don't want to pay them much money to do it. Our children may be precious but we leave them in the care of those who get paid far less than any proposed minimum wage. This is a catch-22: if child care became more expensive, many women could simply not afford to work in the first place. It is working women, who as we know are already under attack from all sides, whose guilt and fear will be played upon by the Louise Woodward story.

Yet the couple who employed this girl were high earners. Sunil Eappen is an anaesthesiologist, his wife Deborah an ophthalmologist. For all their "ologies", like many in their situation they must have decided to spend only a small proportion of their income on child care. This is not unusual but it reflects our contradictory expectations about what it takes and what it costs to look after small children.

The assumption is that young women will be able to look after babies merely on the grounds of their gender. Their experience may be limited to baby-sitting, which often involves sitting in a house after the children have already gone to bed. We assume that girls will have had experience of looking after babies when clearly most have not. This may have been the case in the days of the extended family but not any more.

The first baby I ever held was my own. We had been prepared for this at antenatal classes by bathing dolls but this was about as much use as our preparation for childbirth, which involved a midwife pushing a tennis ball through a pretend uterus that was knitted out of navy blue wool. "Sorry," she said at the time, "I ran out of pink".

The idea that one can be fully prepared for parenthood may be a myth but we are on the whole deeply ambivalent about what caring for children is about. On the one hand it is entirely natural: anyone (except, it seems, men) can do it, and, as it is common sense, it not given much status. Girls who do not achieve much academically are siphoned off as nursery nurses. On the other hand, all social classes are bombarded with instructions on how to improve their parenting skills.

Books are being published at a furious rate on how to produce "emotionally intelligent children", on how to make them cleverer, more creative, more socially accomplished. Parenting is recognised as an arduous and complex task. One sees hordes of exhausted parents trying to cram all their parenting skills into half an hour at the end of a long day.

Things had obviously gone wrong in the family that Woodward was working for. The child who died also had a broken arm that had been left untreated. None of the three adults caring for him appears to have noticed. Hayward's friends and family have rallied to her support with tales of her kindness. As sad as this case is, we should be grateful that there are not more like it. Most child-minders and au pairs do a very good job for not much money and little thanks. The rise of the domestic class means that many young women are involved in what sometimes amounts to slave labour.

Child care, like so much else, has become almost entirely privatised. Each mother struggles to find someone suitable to look after her children that she can afford to pay, then worries that they are not good enough, and is never sure what goes on when she is not there. In nurseries at least there are other adults around. If one worker becomes frustrated there are others to take a turn. Good day-care is good for children, but even so we regard it with suspicion.

A Scandinavian friend of mine, who did her child-care training in Denmark, was encouraged to believe that she was preparing for one of the most important professions - helping to bring up the next generation. In Britain she was stunned to find that working with children was considered a menial job with bad pay. The care of small children is still a predominantly female profession, underwritten by the idea that because women are looking after children it's not actually a real job at all.

It takes something going wrong to remind us how valuable a job it is. And we have to decide whether we want to pay the price. The prioritising of education is meaningless without decent and subsidised nursery provision and that provision must start way before the age of four. Many women will continue to manage as they do now by swapping child care with friends and family. This costs nothing and is often preferable to a deregulated market which dictates that child care can be done on the cheap. We can't be surprised that sometimes you get what you pay for.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions