Dream of Hiring a Nanny More Real for Busy Moms

Seven years ago, Cielo Oliveira was in a bind. She loved teaching third grade at Gamaliel Elementary School in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, but juggling the demands of the job and caring for her two-year-old daughter was becoming too difficult.

The recently divorced Ms. Oliveira couldn't turn to her family for help, so she hired a nanny. It was the perfect solution until money got too tight.

At that point, the petite and bubbly Oliveira took the solution one step further: She packed her bags, moved with her daughter to the United States, and became a nanny herself.

"It just wasn't enough to live and pay someone to watch Claudia," she says of her monthly $60 salary in Bolivia. In the years since, she has been saving, sending $100 home every month and dreaming of her return. "Everything is there: my life, my family, my church," she says.

Driven by economic need, freed by loosening borders, in search of a cultural experience or linguistic skills, women like Oliveira are raising other peoples' children all over the globe.

They are crossing borders to enter the child-care industry - legally and illegally - in unprecedented numbers, those in the business say.

The surge in supply is being met by demand. From Japan to Germany, from Ireland to Israel, more and more mothers are working outside the home and finding themselves in Oliveira's bind: too much to do, too little time. For increasing numbers of them, in-home help is the answer.

In the realm of international trade, child care has become a booming business.

"It's not just the affluent who are turning to nannies," says Kimberly Porrazzo of the Southern California Nanny Center in Lake Forest, Calif. "It's the middle classes faced with mortgage payments, their first homes, a new baby. They have to work, so nannies have become a necessity when they used to be considered a luxury."

Measuring growth in the field is difficult. The in-home child-care business is virtually unregulated, and child care in general is a highly volatile industry, says author Susan Dynerman in "Are Our Kids All Right?"

A chart of the number of people working in the US as in-home caregivers - using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics - would look like a series of waves: The figures dip from 345,000 in 1993 to 286,000 in 1994, surge back up to 312,000 in 1995 and then fall to 276,000 in 1996.

Ms. Dynerman suggests this volatility occurs because most nannies use the job as a bridge to something else. Immigrants often see it as a path toward legal status and a better life; others see it as a way to travel and save money.

Nanny agency owners say the supply statistics are also skewed by the vast numbers of women who work illegally. For hard numbers, they point to the documented increase in single-parent and dual-income families here and in Europe. They say that trend fuels demand for nannies. And those figures are striking. As of March 1996, 10 million American mothers with children under 6 were in the workplace, up from 8.5 million 10 years earlier, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Farrah Javit is typical of the trend. The Maryland mother of two works full time, as does her husband. She can't imagine doing without child-care help. "I would have had to sacrifice my own health and well being," she says, adding that working is important to her. "I'm a career woman. I like working, and financially it was important to us, our plans for the future."

For Mrs. Javit, sending children to a day-care center is a poor alternative. "I don't think young children should be separated from their home environment," she says.

Some parents also balk at other aspects of day care. "People are nervous about all the vaccinations these places require," says Linden Smith, a pediatrician and author of "How to Raise a Healthy Child." Others say in-home care offers children more love and attention. Geraldine Youcha, author of "Minding the Children," says more than half of mothers with children under 5 prefer in-home care for this reason.

In Britain, where there will soon be more women than men in the work force, tired mothers have made child care into a billion-dollar business. A British survey released last month shows spending on help at home has nearly quadrupled in the last decade and now totals some $7 billion a year.

The same thing is true across the Atlantic. "Absolutely, demand is growing," concludes John Prince of Hamilton, Ontario, who has imported nannies to Canada for more than 20 years.

Nannies have been part of cultural lore from Moses' mother to Mary Poppins. Today they often resemble Julie Andrews' thoroughly prepared professional - give or take the singing ability.

They remain a cultural touchstone in the 1990s, a reflection of parents' fears in movies like "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," and of their dependence, as in the hit US television series "The Nanny."

Wages vary widely

The word "nanny" is thought to originate in baby talk and was coined in the late 1700s. Today, parents hire their nannies through agencies - in the US they pay from $1,200 to $1,500 for referrals that include screening and criminal checks - or through newspaper classified ads.

Wages vary widely. In Britain, the only country where nannies are trained and licensed by the government, a nanny may earn $500 a week; in New York City, a foreign-born nanny with a green card that enables her to work legally may earn $350 to $500 a week.

For foreign nannies in New York illegally, salaries are closer to $250 a week - still better than the wages for foreign nannies in Saudi Arabia, who earn as little as $75 a week.

A lower-cost option is to employ an au pair. These European, American, and Canadian government-run cultural-exchange programs offer young people from 18 to 25 the chance to live in another country while staying with a family and caring for the children.

The French phrase "au pair," meaning "on par with," indicates their position in the family. Government regulations in the US and elsewhere require that au pairs have their own bedroom and work a limited number of hours. But for parents, the low cost ($75 to $200 a week) makes up for the limited work hours and lower level of training.

"Quite often, I get parents who want a nanny, but [nannies are] far too expensive," says Christopher Kay, who runs EurOpair in Manchester, England. "Au pairs are a good compromise, especially if you have older children, because [the au pairs] just need pocket money."

For au pairs like Daniela Dittrichov, the impetus for going overseas is a chance to see a new country and learn a language.

For the soft-spoken 23-year-old from the Slovak Republic, au pairing in Britain and Germany also served an economic end. "It is a big chance for me. I can learn English and go back to Slovakia and find a better job," she says.

That's true for North American-born au pairs too, says Mr. Prince, who's been recruiting them for five years now. His business, Au Pair in Europe, receives up to 30 inquiries a day from as far away as Hong Kong and Australia. He has just opened recruiting offices in Guatemala, Brazil, and Mexico. Every year, he sends hundreds of successful applicants to seven countries.

Au pair programs have been expanding, perhaps in response to demand from parents and interested students worldwide. European nations have recently broadened their au pair programs to include Turkey and Bosnia. The US government's au pair program, launched in 1986 with 296 participants, now recruits 11,000 young foreigners a year.

They are probably drawn to America for the same reasons North American au pairs are drawn to Europe, Prince says. "They're interested in careers in child care, or they want to travel, or become bilingual to help their job prospects," he says. "The au pair program makes it possible to achieve these goals with little financial outlay."

"It's fundamentally an economic thing," agrees Mr. Kay of EurOpair, noting increasing interest from young women in the Czech and Slovak republics, as well as Bosnia, since their borders have opened up.

"These countries are looking toward Western Europe, business-wise, and the girls think it's a very good thing to be able to speak English," he says. "And some of them just want a better life."

The search for a better life motivates many of the nannies who go overseas to find work. Rosita de Chavez left the Philippines to work 14-hour days caring for four children in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. She sent $250 of her monthly $300 salary home.

"I wanted to send my brothers and sister to school," says Ms. de Chavez, a slim, quiet woman who now earns $120 a month working as a maid for an expatriate Indian family in Manila.

"It was worth it," she adds, explaining that her brothers have finished vocational school and her sister has graduated from college. "They now help me financially from time to time."

Financial motives drive many of the women who work illegally as well as their employers, who pay them less and avoid paying taxes as well.

"I'd say 30 percent of the people who phone my agency don't have work permits," estimates Homa Fekrat of the Silver Spring, Md.-based Nannies International. "No agency would take them, but I'm sure they find jobs through the newspapers."

"It's very easy," confirms Sonia Wiecko, who left Poland for seven months to work in Virginia in 1990. "I got a tourist visa for six months, then extended it. I said I was learning English and traveling."

Working illegally has its dangers, though. "When I began working, I didn't specify what I would do," Ms. Wiecko remembers. "It began with washing and ironing for the child; then it was for the whole family; then polishing silver, mowing the lawn, washing the car ... so many things. I felt completely dependent on them; I didn't feel like I could change anything."

Employing illegal workers presents problems for parents, too. Some have been caught avoiding taxes - as some prominent political nominees of President Clinton learned during his first term.

Foreign nannies can face more serious problems. Several prominent cases have involved Filipinas working abroad. A survey by an advocacy group for Philippine migrant workers estimated that in 1995, there were almost 50,000 cases of sexual harassment, rape, murder, and maltreatment. In Hong Kong and Singapore alone, 30 Filipina domestics died in the first four months of 1996.

The Philippines economy is powered by money sent home from these overseas workers. Some 795,000 worked overseas in 1995, 69 percent of whom were female.

Charges of abuse

Problems are felt on both sides, though: Parents often have to struggle to adapt to a nanny's cultural differences, her views on religion, or differing concepts of discipline. Charges that au pairs have physically abused or even contributed to the deaths of children bedeviled the US program in its early days and continue to do so. Recently, an 18-year-old British au pair working in a Boston suburb was charged with the murder of her nine-month-old charge.

Wendy Sachs, president of the New York-based International Nanny Association, says these incidents are among the many reasons her group is pushing to regulate the nanny industry. "We're totally unregulated," she says. "There's been a natural evolution in the industry, and it's time."

That evolution can be seen in the extent of the industry's influence and reach today.

The US Information Agency, which runs the American au pair program, uses it as a way to spread information about the US abroad. Families in the Philippines and other countries rely heavily on money coming in from women working overseas. And nannies play a role in the economies of the host countries by enabling parents to work.

Some see the industry as a barometer of social trends. "As countries start modeling themselves after the Western world, fewer women will stay home," Ms. Sachs says. The growing need for nannies in North America and Europe, she says, reflects "profound changes in the workplace, the economy, in the way women work."

As more women go to work - and more women look across borders to meet their in-home child-care needs - it will become even more important to regulate the industry, many in the business say.

"Would there be a crisis in American child care if all the illegal nannies were sent home tomorrow?" muses Mrs. Fekrat of Nannies International. "Absolutely."

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