Breaking Their Silence

Profiles of a Hidden Workforce

Her relative success may be due as much to her easygoing nature as to her qualifications. "I made it my business to be as flexible as possible," she says. In her line of work, "there's never a regular day." She can afford to be spontaneous without a family of her own. "I've seen other nannies bring their own kids along with [their employers'] children," she says. "That must be difficult.

"I'm not really hard up, because I don't have to support anyone else. But I want my own children. That's when I'm going to get concerned about my future, really. I imagine I'll still have to work. But I don't want to.

"Even with the trained girls, there's still exploitation. Ultimately, you don't have a lot of job security and benefits. With any other job, you do. You're relying on your employer's sympathy. And you just can't rely on that.

Ann-Marie Thornhill
Photographs by Michael Kamber
Ann-Marie Thornhill

"You'll never be rich being a nanny, no matter how trained you are. Typically, you don't get a pension. I don't worry about the future. I'm sticking with this for now, because I'm enjoying it. I'm not the type of person who worries. But maybe I should."

Talking About a Revolution

"I can relate to Sidney Poitier," says Ann-Marie Thornhill, a proud, reserved woman whose scattered smiles are like sunbursts. "He said he didn't know he was a black man until he got here," after a youth lived in the Bahamas.

Since 1990, Thornhill, 55, who lives in Flatbush, has worked as a domestic in New York to support four children and an elderly father who live in Trinidad. Early on, she says, "I tried living in. It was my worst experience. I slept on a pullout couch and worked 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Every night before I went to bed, I had to go down on the floor and mop with a cloth, because she [the employer] said a mop just pushed the dirt around. I did it for two weeks, and then I told her slavery was over and done with 200 years ago.

"Then I worked as a baby nurse for this family on Ocean Parkway. The father had a grown son, who was away. But he didn't want me to sleep in his son's room, dirtying his son's bed. He walked around in his underwear in front of me. No respect. That was the meanest man. He would curse his wife in front of me."

All told, Thornhill has worked for about 12 families, several with more than one child. Since her early trials, she has developed one absolute rule: "We must be equals in the sense that we're human together. The only one above me is God.

"I've never had handouts. I've had hand-me-downs. But I've always known what it is to work to achieve. By age 21, my mom had six kids. She just couldn't take it, and she left us with our father. He couldn't raise us, so my grandmother, the product of a white overseer and an African woman, raised us. She planted a lot of what we ate. She sewed our clothes with her hands. I helped. That is what shaped me.

"To this day, I don't mind if I have to wear a skirt the whole week, as long as it's clean. I like good music. I like good books. I can't afford to buy paintings, but I go admire them. When it gets warmer, you'll find me in Prospect Park with a blanket and a book. I like nice things, but I don't really spend. I economize so that not having money doesn't stifle who I am. I got my children swimming lessons, music lessons, and they all had birthday parties until they were 10."

Her children are all now 18 or older. After a decade of seeing them only in their brief visits from Trinidad, she says, "I feel so guilty. It is hard on a daily basis. But you don't dwell on it. I can't do the things I want without working in this country, like send my children through university. You can work here for $300 a week, which in my country can be $1800 or more. You can send a barrel of foodstuffs every few months."

She is proud that all four children have either finished or are headed for college. "I was fortunate enough to hear my daughter say one day to her husband that she doesn't know what hard times is. It's true, they've always had three square meals, two uniforms for school, which is more than I had.

"When my grandmother passed, my mother took us. She was a domestic worker for this white, corporate family that lived on the island. She had two weekends off a month. She worked for these people for 17 years, but when they let her go, they didn't give her one penny of severance pay. That's one of the things that drives me.

"Change must come about for domestic workers. It must. But change must come about with us. Some of us still get on as if we're in bondage. I'll say to someone, 'You don't have to put up with that.' She will say, 'Well, I have to pay my rent.' I say, nobody should tell you what your labor is worth; you should know that when you walk in the door. I'm not afraid to say, I'm outta here."

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