The nanny dilemma: Dealing with the ‘third’ parent
You see them everywhere – outside school gates, in malls, restaurants, in your neighbour’s home, at your child’s birthday party. Women in uniforms, trailing behind families, with bags in one hand, and the child in another.
Maids have become an integral part of most families in Qatar, sometimes even doubling up as caregivers or nannies for children of working parents. But what happens when a hired help is assigned the role of a primary caregiver?
In the first part of our nanny series, we discussed the process of finding the right help in Qatar. In this second part, JustHere explores the complexity of proxy parenting, and the repercussions it could have on the younger generation.
#1 Maids Vs Nanny
Role-wise the responsibilities of a nanny are quite different from a maid. While a nanny is especially hired to look after kids, a maid is assigned to do basic house chores. However, the thin line that differentiates the two is often blurred in Qatar.
Dr Maria Kristiansen, Associate Professor, Health Sciences Department, at Qatar University who deals with public health, says, “It happens a lot in the Gulf that these women are first hired as maids for cooking and cleaning, then a child is put into their care like a new task.”
As a result, a maid’s attitude towards the child will not be optimal, “as that was not her primary job”. “They will be more engaged in keeping the house neat and tidy while the kids are left on their own, because she has enough to do already.” This can be damaging to the child, she says.
#2 When to use help?
According to Dr Maria, the primary caregiver for a child aged 2 years or below should be the parents. However, with just 50 days of paid maternity leave in Qatar, working mothers are left with few alternatives. “The mother is forced to leave something that would probably be as important to her as motherhood. She might not be a good caregiver because she will be stuck at home, unhappy and frustrated.”
Julietta, a working mother, says she was never a fan of having a nanny, “but as a working mother it is impossible to juggle everything.”
She spent one year without a nanny, which affected the quality of her daughter’s life. “My daughter went to school in the daytime but then had to be rushed off to afternoon care, so she couldn’t simply rest and have occasional fun afternoon activities. Once I hired a nanny things changed dramatically – my child would finish school, come home, rest, study, play, have play dates or afternoon activities – her quality of life definitely improved.”
#3 “Not my own child”
Raising kids is a skill that you learn with trial and errors, says Dr Maria. Hence its best to hire nannies whose kids are adolescents or older, she advises. “She will have better experience raising kids.”
But then raising a child, not your own, is different from raising one of your own. “Also, what does the child even mean to a nanny who will be leaving the house or country in the next 6 months, and will never see the child,” asks Dr Maria.
Emotional attachment with an employer’s child is perhaps the biggest challenge for any nanny.
Shamie, an Indian expat, who worked for an American family as a nanny for five years, talks about the emotional conflicts she suffered. A beautician by profession, Shamie was forced to take up a position as a nanny when tension began to brew in her family life, and she was desperate to make two ends meet. So while she had to tend to other’s kids, her own twin daughters were sent to day care, an experience that was “shattering”, she says.
“I cried a lot, especially when I took my charges out to play or do something fun, I felt life was so cruel. I didn’t have the luxury to do these fun things with my own little babies. But I did have a chance to earn a living and provide for my babies.”
It’s the need for money that drives thousands of women from impoverished homes to the Gulf. Women willing to sacrifice their own motherhood, to serve another’s. Priscilla, another nanny of Indian origin, has been in this profession for the past 15 years in Qatar. She left her kids at a tender age in the care of her mother to travel to the Gulf.
“I definitely missed them a lot, I would run to India every year to see them. My whole life went travelling back and forth. I told God that I am taking care of other kids so that my kids have a good future, so please look after them.”
For women like Priscilla and Shamie, treating others’ kids as their own is the only way to battle depression. “They aren’t my kids, but I think of them as my own. This is the only I can survive, otherwise living away from my kids would be hard,” says Sharda*, another nanny.
But not all nannies can overcome the feeling of detachment. In Julietta’s case, she senses a lack of emotional connection between her Filipino help of two years and the kids. “Everything seems to be very process driven which is not bad but there also needs to be a fun element and some emotional connection.”
#4 The authoritative figure
Giving a nanny the freedom to discipline is an individual choice. Shamie says she was given total control over the kids’ discipline. Parents worked closely with me, kids were made to understand that as long as I was there “I was in Charge”.
Though some nannies would follow instructions, others don’t show much effort. Paula, an expat from New Zealand, says her Filipino maid rarely disciplined the kids. “She usually just intervened when the children were fighting amongst themselves. I always reminded the housekeeper that she was in charge, while the children were always reminded that the housekeeper was in charge when parents weren’t home.”
A reason why nannies hesitate to discipline kids could be attributed to the detachment factor when it comes to dealing with others’ kids. The other could be as Dr Maria puts it: It’s easier to soothe wailing kids with toys or food, than to discipline them.
As a public health professor, Dr Maria has also come across stories from her students at the University about how some nannies abused children, both mentally and verbally in the pretext of of disciplining.
“But I feel this is one-sided, because they are not considering the situation that many of them come from.
“For example, many of the maids are from the Philippines. I asked some students to go and check what happened in the Philippines recently, one of them got back to me teary-eyed saying that her nanny has been unable to locate her kids after the floods.
“The question is how can she then take care of you or your siblings, when her own kids are on the streets or missing.”
The key, she says, is to value your maid, treat them with respect. “Hand them legal contracts and don’t use them as labourers that you can replace over petty disagreements. If you treat them better, they will be better caregivers.
“Giver her opportunities to grow as a human being, let her go out and enjoy herself. Put them to night school, enrol her for a first aid course. Little things that you can put in her CV that can help build her skills and make her feel valued.”
#5 The nanny generation
Comparing the number of hours a nanny spends time with the child in the West and the Gulf, Dr Maria says, “A child is cared for 30 hours a week if the parents are working in the West, but over here, studies show that 70 hours a week a child is with the nanny.”
Having a parent as a role model is important, but due to the high turnover of nannies in the country, children would have their role models (nannies) change every three months. “So a child will have 6-8 different “mothers” while growing up, each with different cultures, religion and values,” which may lead to identity crisis among the youth.
This makes her wonder what kind of parents will this generation grow up to be.
While she questions the concept of having an additional parent in the family, there are some who don’t find it strange. JustHere spoke to a few Qatari youth, and all of them were of the opinion that as long as parents were hands-on in their respective roles, having a nanny didn’t alter family dynamics.
“Here in Qatar we’re all part of big families. Having a nanny around was really more like having another great addition to the family,” says Nofe, a Qatari student. “My nanny was warm and had a very strong sense of right and wrong, very much like my mother. Having two women around me with such great qualities was double the fortune.”
For Maha, another Qatari student, belonging to a conservative family, having a non- related member at home made it easier to share personal things. “Sometimes my nanny would be more understanding than a blood relative; we have our moments and conversations. I would only tell my nanny if I went out with friends, and I would trust her to not tell my parents. However I do not have a bond with all of the maids, only with those I trust.”
#6 Fighting insecurity
With a third parent in the picture, chances of a child getting attached to the nanny are high. Priscilla too talks about this special attachment that kids have with her, than with their mothers. “When their mothers would come home, they would never go and hug her or greet her or kiss her. I would have to force them to go and talk to their mother. Children share a lot of personal stuff with me sometimes, but I make sure they shared some of these with their parents.”
She talks about one of her former employees who broke down in tears because she couldn’t get time to spend with her child. “She told me she felt bad that it was me who was doing all the tasks that she was supposed to do. She missed being with her child.”
This feeling of insecurity among parents, especially mothers, could lead to a chain reaction, says Dr Maria. “When parents get insecure, they will start ill-treating the nanny. The nanny will then start distancing herself from the child. The emotional detachment is a price that eventually the child has to pay.”
#7 No right or wrong way
It’s not all that bad to hire a nanny to look after your child while you are work. But what’s important is you dedicate some “quality time” to your kids at the end of the day. “Talk to them about their day, or help them in their homework,” advises Dr Maria.
“Communication is a must for a child’s personality to develop. Who would a child talk to about the issues they are facing, for example, bullying in school. Even if the maid is a nice person, but there’s a language barrier, how will the child share things?”
Priscilla too insists on the need for communication between a parent and child, and the nanny. “It’s a way of bonding and also keeping a watch on what’s happening in their absence.”
*Name changed to protect identity.