I was frantically tapping away at my office computer when my phone buzzed. “Nancy,” our nanny’s name, flashed on the screen. Smiling, I swiped through the images of my children she had texted: my 2-year-old daughter, wet from the playground sprinkler, her older brother scooting down the street. The third image was a “selfie” of Nancy and our daughter, their faces crowding the frame.
The picture was sweet, so I did what has become almost instinctual to compulsively connected, smartphone-toting parents like me—I uploaded it to Facebook. And then, writing the caption, I realized: No one would recognize Nancy. Though she has been caring for my family for five years, ever since we arrived home from the hospital clueless as to how to clean the belly button or change the diapers of our newborn son, most of my Facebook friends don’t know her face. During this half-decade of 50-hour workweeks, I’ve shared hundreds of family pictures on social media, yet somehow I had hardly ever before posted a picture of Nancy.
A few minutes scanning through the feeds of friends (an admittedly imperfect sample set) who also share family photos confirms I am not alone. Despite working long hours and performing major emotional labor in the intimate spaces of our homes and with our children, nannies are quite literally left out of the picture. In constructing the most public expressions of our family experience, we—knowingly or unwittingly—are editing out some of the most important people in our children’s lives.
So I added a caption asking my Facebook friends why, exactly, this is. Those imperfect metrics of resonance, “likes” and comments, suggested I hit a nerve, as people I hadn’t heard from in years chimed in with responses ranging from upbeat (“I’ve never thought about this!,” wrote a mom friend of mine. “I’m going to take a picture of my daughter and her nanny and share today!”) to frustrated (a former nanny described herself as “always behind the camera” or “holding the bags” yet too intimidated to ask her employer to snap a photo with her charges), to indifferent (photos of my nanny, one friend wrote, is “something my friends just wouldn’t be interested in seeing”).
Almost as quickly as social media has become a primary mode of self-expression, writers and academic researchers have recognized the negative psychological implications of what is casually known as “Fakebooking”: posting carefully curated tableaus of an idealized life that can be distressing if interpreted as reality. The “mommy blogosphere” has been especially attuned to these issues, spawning a movement to counteract what some see as the troubling exclusion of mothers (with our stretch marks, perennial yoga pants, and tired eyes) from pictures featuring our perfectly groomed offspring. There has been no similar movement to counteract the exclusion of nannies. But when employers refrain from including them in the public displays of family life, we’re giving the false impression that those smiling children are solely the fruits of the efforts of a nuclear family and perpetuating the fiction that some of us really can do it all. Even worse, erasing nannies from the chronicles of our daily lives—which they make possible, as anyone who has had a nanny call in sick will tell you—is a small, insidious contribution to the continued marginalization of domestic labor at large. As one caregiver interviewed by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 2012 book, The Outsourced Self, remarked, excelling at her job can mean “making herself invisible.”
“The only time I was ever in a photo was if I initiated,” one woman who worked as a Manhattan nanny for several years told me. “I spent countless hours with this family, but when they moved away, it was my husband I had to ask to take a picture of us together. A lot of people have nannies in New York City, but it sometimes feels like they pretend we don't really exist until we’re needed. It is my experience [that] the family wants the nanny to feel a part of the family when it is convenient for them. Adding [nannies] to photos could add a new dynamic.”
Communications strategist Erika Soto Lamb told me that she treasures the few visual records of her “camera-shy” nanny with her two children, especially a video in which she and her husband captured her toddler being lovingly scooped up by his nanny while stumbling through his first steps. Lamb, however, almost never shares these images online: “It hasn't really been a conscious decision not to, [but] I guess it could only be subconscious, right?”
Other mothers—and it is women who most frequently use social media and mothers who tend to navigate the delicate relationship with nannies—cite practical obstacles to sharing photos of their children and nannies online. One mother of three, a professor, “very, very rarely” shares such images because “[our nanny] takes care of my kids when we aren't around—it's her experience, not mine.” Parenting blogger Ilana Wiles worries that sharing photos of her nanny might compromise her children’s safety by making them more recognizable, though she acknowledges, “I think our nanny is much more integral to my life than my blog suggests, and I could work harder to show how important she is to our family ... both to give her credit where credit is due and to make it really clear to my readers that I am not doing it all.”