''You have to really like kids,'' says nanny Patsy Ryan.
Sandra-Lee Phipps

"Need a great babysitter? Our wonderful babysitter, Betty*, is available for full- or part-time work. . . . She has been with us for three years and has become an indispensable part of our family. . . . "

The flyers are everywhere in Park Slope— and so are the nannies.

The most visible daytime population of this community, the black women— white toddlers in tow— gather on park benches, at playgrounds, and on line at the supermarkets. They are the most telling sign that this neighborhood, once populated by young artists too poor to swing Manhattan rents, has radically upscaled.

Now, those artists have become "artist-types." Painters have been promoted into account managers at ad agencies; one-bedrooms had for $750 in 1990 go for $1200 today; and young, once-earnest liberals casually employ undocumented workers without offering health insurance, pension, or benefits. At $8.50 an hour, West Indian nannies are the adored and relied-on underclass, the lynchpins of an underground economy propping up thousands of white, upper-middle-class families here who've come to depend on the labor undocumented workers provide.

It appears to be a perfect solution. There is a paucity of legal, licensed day care; there is an abundance of undocumented immigrants looking for under-the-table pay.

But the "solution" is fraught with problems.

"This is probably the line of work most readily available to a woman from the Caribbean," says Patsy Ryan, an immigrant from the Grenadines who's been in New York for two and a half years. Ryan, who declined to reveal her immigration status, is one of half-a-dozen West Indian nannies at Prospect Park's Ninth Street playground on a cool autumn morning. She is pushing twin 13-month-old boys in the swing with either hand. "You get this kind of work through word of mouth, everybody does," she explains, tossing a look over her shoulder at the group of nannies on a nearby bench. With a deft double-swipe of a tissue, she gets two runny noses then restarts the swings and the conversation. "You have to really like kids, but if you do, it's a good job. I've worked for very nice people and haven't ever had any problems." With 10 sick days and two weeks' paid vacation, Ryan is satisfied with her off-the-books pay. "It doesn't bother me about the health insurance and pension. These jobs are not pensionable, so what's the use of worrying?" It's inevitable, Ryan shrugs. "Pensions are for long-term jobs and a nanny is not long-term. Children grow up and you become expendable."

Meanwhile, as Ryan tends the twins, relatives in the Carribean look after her own two children, a typical arrangment which reflects both an ambivalence about the quality— and safety— of New York schools and an intention to return to the Islands.

Ryan's is a common story.

Today, there are 600,000 Caribbean Americans in New York City, most of them in Brooklyn, and thousands more who are undocumented. Legal work means getting papers, but the backlog at the city's Immigration and Naturalization Service has over 280,000 immigrants in line to become citizens— at least a two-year wait. Meanwhile, 111,625 New York City immigrants are waiting for green cards. To qualify for such "legal resident" status, applicants must persuade the INS that no Americans are qualified for the work they're pursuing— no mean feat when that work is unskilled labor. Recognizing that their chances of getting work papers are slim, especially without an employer sponsoring them, West Indian immigrant women do what immigrant women have always done: domestic work.

For Park Slope's West Indian nannies, working without papers and being paid off the books, the implications are profound. If they have children or family in the Islands, they cannot return for visits. Nor can they legally bring family to the U.S. They can't qualify for most government benefits, get loans from banks, or build 401(k)'s. Without a social security number, the women can't open a bank account, get a driver's license, or buy a house. They rarely have health insurance.

For many West Indian women, it is not simply the practical difficulties of getting a green card for themselves and getting their children over here that prevents them from applying, it is also the belief that New York is just a way station. "What do I need a pension for, I'll not be here when I'm old," explains Sandra, a nanny minding two toddlers in Prospect Park, while her own two kids live with her mother in Barbados."I'm not making this my home. I'm going back to Barbados one day."

Sadly, plans like Sandra's rarely pan out. "It's not unusual for immigrants— particularly those who are in close proximity to the U.S.— to hold out hope that they will return or retire back home," says Margie McCue, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition. "But once they start putting down roots here, it rarely happens." Most grow old right here. What that means is that there are rarely plans, or money in place, for retirement. Women, who may have relied on a husband's pension, are most often the losers: Twice as many women as men retire poor (15 percent vs. 7 percent). Among minorities the figures are even worse, with 29 percent of black women and 28 percent of Hispanic women dropping below the poverty line when they retire.  

On Saturdays and Sundays, when the Prospect Park playgrounds are populated by moms and dads instead of nannies, the usual chitchat— "Have you seen that new Tinkle Toonz potty?" "Sand is for castles, not for throwing, Sophie!"— is laced with references to nannies, who genuinely are an integral part of these families' lives. The voice of experience, nannies offer practical advice to first-time parents who are far from the relatives that might have played that advisory role in the past. Nannies not only tend children, but coach parents through the milestones, encouraging first solids and words and steps. Given the liberal leanings of most locals, the talk never degenerates into "good help is hard to find." Instead, it tends to be self-congratulatory. Most mothers believe their nannies are wonderful. And they see themselves as the kindest of bosses.

"I work harder to keep my baby-sitter happy than my husband," claims Amy*, a magazine editor, "because she makes my life work, she makes it possible." A long-time Slope resident, Amy recently moved to New Jersey and, to her delight, nanny Tina* made the move with her. "I think I treat her very well and that's why she came with us," Amy says, explaining that she pays Tina $350 for a four-day week. "I treat her like an employee— but we're friends."

Amy says she does feel kind of bad about not paying social security and health insurance for Tina, who moved here from St. Lucia seven years ago and is still undocumented. "But I allay my guilt a little bit by saying there's a whole community of West Indians, a network of people who support each other, doctors who'll treat them for less, et cetera."

Others, like Meg, who works in social service, say the decision to hire a nanny was easy— "All the mothers I knew were using nannies." And right— "She likes our son as much as we do, all the funny things he does, and she's just as interested in him as we are." Meg pays her nanny $8.50 an hour, the standard rate in the neighborhood, and says, "I've grown to love her."

But love only goes so far. "She has two children in Barbados and she hasn't been able to see them in seven years, because she doesn't have a green card," Meg says, describing one of their disagreements. Meg gives her nanny two weeks paid vacation, but she is supposed to take it when the family has their annual vacation in August. When her nanny finally got a green card last year, she suddenly announced she was going to Barbados. Meg was put out: "I said, 'Look, when I hired you, I said you're going to take vacation when we do. I understand you haven't seen your kids for seven years, but in the future, please tell me when you're going away. And I want it to be when we go away.' "

Once in a great while (only one out of 20 interviews this reporter conducted, for example), you'll hear about somebody who pays her nanny legally, by the book. Beth*, an editor at a parenting magazine and long-time Slope resident, made the switch as soon as her Barbados-born nanny, Cheryl, got a green card. "It's definitely more expensive for us and it was hard for her. Her net income went down and our gross output went up," Beth says, explaining that it cost them approximately $4000 more a year to go on the books, plus $200 for an accountant to deal with the complex paperwork. "It felt at first like it was lose-lose all the way around, but it wasn't. Really, it was doing the right thing, not to say the legal thing." Beth, who described both of the nannies she's had working for her as "the two greatest people in the world," says that she doesn't think she's simply been lucky. "We've treated our employees very well," she says, explaining that they get an annual raise, two weeks paid vacation, nine paid holidays, a handsome Christmas bonus, personal days, sick days (as needed), and aren't required to do housework. "It goes back to the question of how much you're willing to spend on what."

But even the "cheap" solutions are not all that cheap. According to a 1998 study of urban child care costs by the Children's Defense Fund, day care for a four-year-old exceeded the cost of public college tuition in every state but Vermont. Worse, those figures are based on an average cost of $5612 for a four-year-old, for a two-year-old or infant, it's generally twice that. (Full-time day care for a baby runs about $50 a day, or $10,000 a year in the Slope.)  

And ultimately, when it comes to deciding whether to hire a nanny or send your baby to a child care center, parents here don't have a lot of choices. For Park Slope parents, indeed for all New York City parents, the plight— what to do about day care for an infant or toddler— is genuine. New York City Agency for Child Development's referral service lists nine licensed centers in Park Slope, a neighborhood teeming with small children. Of these, only one accepts infants or toddlers. There are just two licensed family day care sites (where a woman— and they almost always are women— takes care of a group of kids in her home), which translates to just four infant/toddler slots for all of Park Slope.

The city, as a whole, doesn't fare much better. While statistics on the unmet demand for private day care are not tracked by any city agencies, child care advocacy groups insist the lack of good, affordable care cuts across class lines. Among poor New Yorkers, there are 28,000 families on the waiting list for public day care. (By 2002, with welfare reform pushing more parents into the workplace, these numbers are expected to soar to more than 135,000.) The Citizen's Committee for Children of New York, Inc. puts the numbers even higher, estimating that 326,686 children who qualify for public day care aren't being served. In Park Slope, the parents can generally afford the $50 a day fees child care centers charge; for working-class or low-income families, the situation is much more dire.

But the two groups could share a like agenda. "If you look at infant-toddler care in France, the wealthiest and the poorest families send their kids to the same day care centers," says Matthew Melmed, executive director of the children's advocacy group Zero to Three. Indeed, almost every other developed country in the world, from Belgium to Brazil, has established government-subsidized crèches where all working parents send their tots.

Without faulting parents who can afford to solve their child care problems with nannies, Melmed suggests that our country's child care crisis transcends class and race and region and needs a collective solution. "The reality is that the scope of need is so large the only way to address this is through a public venue," he says, asserting that the government needs to assume more financial responsibility for educating infants and toddlers and that the public needs to insist on it. "We have public school for kids over five and while there may be debates about the quality, there are no debates about whether or not we should be doing it. Here we have children at the critical developmental point— between zero and three— and there needs to be a similar public commitment to education."

Instead, what has evolved in Park Slope, and similar affluent communities, is a stop-gap solution. Parents replicate, as best they can, the traditional family— only nanny serves as stay-at-home substitute. Melmed laments our individualistic response to a nationwide problem. "Our approach to family policy in the U.S. tends to be that of the Wild West: Every child and parent is on their own to solve the problem."

While nannies "solve" the child care problem for only 5 percent of American families, their significance should not be underestimated. When upper- and upper-middle-class parents choose to hire nannies, they set a tone that says, "If you can afford it, this is the best solution." Instead of leading the fight for quality day care centers, they— the power elite— remove themselves from it.

"The wonderful thing about these baby-sitters is that they're living the life our mothers did in the '50s," Amy, a Park Slope parent explained. "The nannies hang out together over coffee, fill in for each other, are friends with each other, and have the kids play together." She draws comfort from that.

But Melmed subjects this rosy scenario to scrutiny, suggesting that relying on an underclass, simply displaces the problem: "What then happens to the nanny's kids?"

*Names with asterisks after them have been changed due to concerns about the legal— and tax— repercussions of going public.

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