All of the nannies I spoke with said they like their jobs. In general, they love babies and helping families. But it is difficult work. Foote said that when she started doing it, she worked as a live-in nanny during the day and as a night nanny at night, commuting back and forth between the two jobs and stealing bits of sleep when she could. Now in her 60s, she has spent most of her working life without health insurance and doesn’t currently have an apartment, preferring instead to live with her children in between long, demanding gigs working for families who bring her along when they travel. “It’s a very lonely career,” she told me. “If you are a night worker, who do you talk to?”
Night nannies help parents sleep at night, but this means they do not sleep much at night themselves. Many of them keep up these hours for years, often away from their own families or in addition to their own caregiving responsibilities at home. Pat Bey, a night nanny working in Philadelphia, said that sometimes the transition from work to home is hard, and often she can’t fall asleep right away during daylight hours. “If the streets are noisy, I’ll drink some Sleepytime tea,” she told me. (She does periodically close her eyes while on the job, as long as the baby she’s watching is asleep.)
It is a very intimate job. Foote said she often takes infants to classes and appointments and gets to know their grandparents and other extended-family members if they are nearby. While she strives to maintain boundaries by eating meals on her own, this is hard to do when she’s traveling with a family. She told me she cries along with the mothers when she leaves each job.
This closeness is often the product of a grueling schedule. According to a 2012 study from the nonprofit National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), 25 percent of live-in (and thus round-the-clock) workers had responsibilities that prevented them from getting even five hours of uninterrupted sleep a day.
The NDWA report also found that live-in help is especially vulnerable to physical and emotional abuse. The night nannies I spoke with—some of whom don’t live in their employer’s home but nonetheless face similar dynamics on the job—said they had never been hurt or touched inappropriately by their employers. Many of them have, however, experienced unpleasantness on the job, including, in the case of one nanny, being fired for using the bathroom and showering halfway through a 24-hour shift.
Families pay steep rates to hire night nannies, but nannies usually give up a chunk of earnings to their agencies, and what they do receive has to cover living costs in what are usually expensive cities. On top of that, their work schedules can be erratic. Nannies may have a client who only needs them for a few nights, or may not have any work for months. While it’s rare for jobs to end abruptly, some do.
“The math on care almost never works out” for employers, families, and nannies, said Armenia, the sociologist. Night nannies for working parents, she said, are a surface-level fix for the deeper problems of unaffordable child care and unsupportive employers and government policies. Most people can’t afford to pay their way out of those problems.