Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Weekly Trip to the Library for Nannies and Au Pairs

"They say it's like true love, good help. You only get one in a lifetime." -- Kathryn Stockett

Talk about a page-turner! I have never had more trouble putting down a book than the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Anyone who gravitates towards the passionate issues of civil rights will love this book about black domestic servants working in Jackson, Mississippi households in 1962. Domestic employees may love the novel even more for the affectionate intimacy shared by the white children and their black servants in the South during the civil rights era. But, the book has me wondering if things really have improved as much as we would hope since 1962 in the deep South.



The story is written from the perspective of three different women. Aibileen and Minny are black servants that share the narration with Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, the white college graduate hoping to become a writer. Skeeter unintentionally becomes a civil rights activist in her attempt to become a writer. With the assistance of the black "help" she is able to write the book about working as a black domestic in the white households of Mississippi.

Although the media televises the tragic murders of black men Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. in the novel, the white community of Jackson, Mississippi seem unaware of the civil rights activism occurring in the rest of the country. By the end of the book Skeeter decides to move to New York, being shunned from the white community in her hometown.

Have things really changed since 1962 in the deep South? Certainly it is politically incorrect and illegal to not hire a person due to race. Obviously black nannies and housekeepers share the toilets, plates, and tables of their white employers today. Black Americans employ white domestics today. Clearly black history is improving -- Barack Obama has been elected President. But, with the in-home caregiver industry highly unregulated is there really anyway we can be certain that domestic employers aren't choosing white employees to work in their homes instead of African or Caribbean caregivers? Are parents choosing to hire white caregivers over a black nannies because they are racist (even if it is illegal)? Absolutely.

I currently have an Italian American white friend and a Caribbean American black friend looking for nanny jobs. They both have more than six-years experience at their previous jobs in the same town and both have stellar references. They are both using the same nanny placement agency and the same online placement website. The Caribbean caregiver has been out of work one month longer than the white nanny. My black friend has had a total of three interviews while the white nanny candidate went on five interviews the first weekend she was unemployed. The white nanny has been offered jobs, while my black friend cannot get interviews.

Obviously I may be making sweeping generalizations. There could be much more than just race determining who is being interviewed and offered jobs. But, it feels like my theory may really be affecting who is getting interviewed and who is getting offered jobs. Although it's illegal for agencies or parents to accept interviews or hire employees due to race, can anyone really enforce that?

Maybe more shocking is that a parent told me this week that she has been asked by nanny placement agency staff, "Would you be interested in interviewing nannies from the Islands?" The parents was shocked and offended. That is illegal.

On the surface, and certainly for my friends and neighbors, diversity is much more widely accepted today than in the South in the early 1960s. There are civil rights laws and labor laws protecting the rights of every race, religion, disability, and gender today. But in a highly unregulated industry of in-home, domestic employees it's nearly impossible to enforce these most basic rights and laws.

I am excited and cannot wait for the film based on the novel The Help with a script written by Tate Taylor and produced by Chris Columbus (according to Variety). I am glad I read this novel, and I am sure you will be too.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love love love love love this book!! I agreee with you Stephanie, it's a great book! I also think there is illegal practices in the nanny industry all over the place. How many nannies pay taxes??

Sharon Sanchez Nanny in NY

Fiona Littleton said...

Great book. Great newsletter.Great point about racism still exists and it's nearly impossible to regulate labor laws for nannies. I agree.

Michelle said...

This is a completely different spin on a review of the book that I have seen so far. It is an excellent book and I am amazed at the author's ability to write like she's a black maid in the South without being cheesy.

Re: parent/employers not having to follow labor laws you are definitely correct. But at least blacks today can negotiate their own salaries and should be able to get a fair trial in modern America.

Tobago Nanny said...

A few years ago New York City police fined New York nanny placement agencies for unfair labor practices. The police acted as parents looking for nannies and asked not to have interviews with black nanny candidates. When the agency staff didn't responded that they could send only white candidates to interviews they broke the law.

Anonymous said...

I am half way through this book and can't put it down either. Just written so well and easy to read. Such important topics. Great review of the book. I highly recommend it too.
Imani Okoro

Anonymous said...

I know there is much hype about this book, and it's an interesting subject and a part of nanny history. But honestly, I tried to read it and found it very difficult to get thru it because the way it was written, *I felt* was hard to understand. So after a few chapters I gave up. I hope the movie will be better.

In regards to discrimination again white or black nannies. In my area, I don't see a difference with families having black or white or other. But then again my area is a melting pot- so for the most part- all are accepted.

Anonymous said...

I am a parent (used to be a nanny now hire a super nanny). That's funny that 11:43 commented that she finds this book hard to read because I find it the opposite, extrememly easy to read. It just shows how we all perceive things differently.

I am almost done and will finish the book it today (my kids are on a sleep over) and just love it - despite the "Southern black venacular".

I think you will enjoy the movie because it's such a great book and great topic. It's heart breaking though because I am nearing the last page and the black nannies are really mistreated. So we should all be thankful that things truly are better today.

I think it's impossible for white nannies to know what if feels like to be a black nanny. It's impossible for me (a white parent) or a white nanny to understand what is like for black nannies to try to get interviews with white families.

My Carribean born nanny tells me it's harder to get jobs due to her "not speaking English quite right." She really says this securely, as if it's just a fact of life. She says that Carribean born caregivers will get less interviews than the white nannies in town. It is a sweeping generalization, but she and her friends just told me that during a barbeque as if it's just how it is.

But treating employees and nannies with respect is individual to each parent. Plenty of white nannies and au pairs are mistreated. Plenty of parents that hire white nannies and aupairs don't pay taxes, don't offer health benefits, don't pay more than minimum wage, treat their staff like servants, even today. I see this happening to in-home caregivers of all shades.

This is a great resource. The Help is a great book and if you find it difficult to read pass it on to a friend because it's just wonderful. I think those that struggle with the book will surely enjoy the movie. I can't wait for the movie!

Susan Thompson (parent and employer, former nanny)
Darien CT

Anonymous said...

What I love about the book that even when the parents didn't respect the black caregivers the children did. I also like that the nannies raised the kids better than some of the parents. I think things have improved dramatically for black Americans. But I am sure many nannies can be fired on a whim like in the book. I recommend this book highly!

Gayle Butler
Mansfield, TX

lovebeingananny said...

Thanks for posting this quote from the book "They say it's like true love, good help. You only get one in a lifetime." I feel most parents treat nannies like they are a dime a dozen. All they care about is finding the lady who will accept the lowest hourly rate. That is an important quote that I missed in the book I will go back and find it. I loved the book.

Anonymous said...

Someone commented on white nannies will never know what it's like to be a black nanny- in a way I agree.

However, I just started a nanny job in an area where there are mainly black nannies.

It was finally nice last week and I took my charge to the neighborhood park- where there were about half a dozen black nannies with their charges.

One little girl- (4 yrs. old) came up to me and my charge and wanted to play and help me push my little baby charge on the swing. Her nanny kept a watchful eye on her while helping her other younger charge. After a while the nanny came over to ask what the little girl wanted for lunch. I started a conversation with her- about how cute her charge was and how nice the re-modeled park was- and how happy we were to finally be able to be outdoors.
Then I told her I was a nanny too. I was shocked when she gave me a strange look and basically just walked away and went to go sit with the other nannies on the bench who were getting food out of the children for lunch.
I assume she must have said something to the other nannies- because I felt they all started to look at me more.

I felt like an outcast.
I get the same thing in story time at the library.
So in a way I do know what it's like to be the odd nanny out.
Hopefully I will see the same nannies over and over and be able to make friends with them- but from this encounter I feel like they may not want to accept me.

Anyone else have this experience?
Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

First of all I want to start out by saying that I have plenty of great nanny friends of all ethniciites. Living and working in New York is great that way. I do not think I am racist or predjudiced although not perfect either.

I think nanny above might be describing a clique of nannies. I really hate to imply racism. But sadly I have felt the exact same at some nanny assignments. But we can't judge people for being friends with just a few ladies at a time. I doubt the Carribean nannies were even thinking about that they might be excluding you. They were just too busy doing their own thing to care. Not realizing they hurt your feelings.

But, not to say it doesn't happen. People segregate themselves all the time.

It's worse when you replace someone. The friends of the nanny you replace have trouble getting along with you and/or expect you to be like the person you replaced. It has happened before. Yep, in one job it so happened the Carribean ladies have a tighter bond and I was shunned. But, I am sure they have felt that way a lot too.

I have had so many jobs and sometimes for about a year at new jobs it is so difficult to adjust. Your only job is to care for you charges, and make your Mom and Dad boss happy. It doesn't matter whether you like or dislike nannies and how they feel for you. It's about the kids.

I get stuck on playdates with nannies I hate but keep my mouth shut because the kids are friends and that's how it goes. (Of course I can go to coffee later and gossip to another nanny friend about the nasty nanny I hate making me just as bad as the nasty nannies I complain about).

Just be nice by saying hi to everyone and don't worry what they think about you and eventually you will either learn to be friendly or just all go your separate ways.

I really only had one job where I felt the Carribean nannies were shunning me, all other jobs we are all friends and treat one another as equals. I can't change how anyone else chooses to segregate themselves. It really really hurt though when I felt shunned by them for an entire year when I finally realized they don't like me and that's ok too. (Not that I did anything wrong. They wouldn't take the time to get to know me).

Notice how in big towns au pairs do that too? European au pairs are all together? It's simply because they feel more comfortable speaking with other people their age, that speak their language, can support one another in a new land. Do you feel like the au pairs are snubbing you too? I'm wure we all unknowingly exclude people at times when we don't mean to.

Just do your job and make friends with those who are willing.

Reyna Horowitz, NY NY

Anonymous said...

Thanks Reyna-
But honestly I will feel weird when I go to the park/library and see them.

I have been a nanny for many years so I have come across all types of nannies and Au Pairs. I am friendly with all- and if I feel my charge and their charges would get along well I do invite them to meet up with us.
It all depends on the person and how open/available they are to making a new friend.

So you are right- in this case it seems the nannies I met were a clique and really did not need a "new nanny friend".

There are a few moms who talk to me at my charges classes.-Just the usual chit-chat- how old is your little one?, do you have other children?- etc.

And until they ask a direct question or call me "the mom"-
I don't bring up that I am a nanny.
Once I do say I am the nanny-
sometimes they are nice and say-
"WOW I thought you were the mom!".
Or it's so nice the child has one more person to love and care for them.

But sometimes they don't talk to me again. At first it bothered me,
but now after 10+ years- I don't let anyone steal my joy of being a nanny.

But yes, I would like to be accepted into group of nannies in the town I currently work in- even it's only for them to say hi- and have a little chit chat. And I know it will be up to me to make the first steps.

Anonymous said...

HA ha I might actually know about the town you are in actually. I feel that working in the city people are actually friendlier because they are nice at the park and then go on with their day. No need for playdates, perhaps they see you next time at the park. I know a couple of parents that moved from the suburbs to Brooklyn because the moms couldn't make any friends in the suburbs. I have felt it is harder to find friends in wealthy suburbs while in the city anyone will talk to you and be nice in the city. Weird huh? Hang in there. Join a nanny group of friends that might not work in your town. Don't worry about the few in that clique. I doubt they were even thinking of you - just busy talking amongst themselves. Good luck!
Reyna

Anonymous said...

I just want to make sure Reyna and anonymous realize that this is a clique problem anonymous is having not necessarily a racist problem. I think they know it. But you obviously know there are nice people and not nice people of every shade or skin.
Esperanza Rodriguez
New Haven CT

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to have taken my comments in another direction than the origional topic.
But the topics here are so good and bring up other side issues.
So just wanted to say- thanks for the support! and this blog is truely the best!

Anonymous said...

To nanny with certain nannies not being her friend that has happened to me before. You'll find friends of your own. Have fun at the park with your little kid and if some nannies are too busy to talk to you it's their loss. Your only job is to care for that child. Good luck finding some nice nannies!

Career Nanny Julia
Friendswood, TX

Anonymous said...

I wanted nanny above to know that one of my best Mom friends in town told me she feels like an outsider nannies are talking together. She thinks she can't join the group. She feels like she's not included!That was so weird. I feel like that when a group of Moms are talking. Like I am the outsider. Everyone feels not perfect secure all the time. Most people don't know they hurting feelings just busy talking.
Esperanza Rodriguez
New Haven CT

Anonymous said...

I am going through the same problem at the playground. It's easy to say just sit by yourself and watch the kids. But it hurts my feelings. I hated not knowing where I should sit or stand at the playground today. The kids have no problems finding other kids to play with but I am having a tough time. I don't know who to talk to or sit or stand with. The mothers gather to talk. Mothers that are nice to me aren't really interested in talking to a nanny at the playground. The nannies have various groups. I hate sitting alone although I don't really know what else to do. It feels terrible. I wish the moms that are nice to me when alone would take the time to notice a nice nanny all by herself and include her in the group.

Micaella Lopez said...

For those of you who have not read the book yet but are thinking about it; this is a must read novel. I love that chapters are about the characters. One character for every two chapters; each chapter is narrated by a character and tells a different aspect of the story. I love the layout of the novel, its just makes you want to read more and to want to find out everything you can about your favorite characters.

This is a terrific 1st novel.. Read it, you won't regret it.
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