To Rebecca Ballantine, a Brooklyn-dwelling mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old, her Tibetan nanny is a part of the family. Ms. Ballantine, who has a history of involvement with Tibet, knew her nanny for about six years before hiring her, and has become close to her nanny’s husband and son as well. Ms. Ballantine was also quite startled to learn, recently, that in having a Tibetan nanny, she is on the cusp of one of the most-talked-about child-care trends of the moment.
“I’m not really into the whole New York mom thing, so I guess I wasn’t aware that Tibetans were such a big thing,” Ms. Ballantine said.
But they are.
By the time Gawker.com fingered the trend in a posting last summer—“Victims of Religious Oppression Hot New Childcare Accessory For Fall”—the Tibetan nanny craze had been the talk of playground-mothers’ groups and online parenting bulletin boards for many months.
“My nanny is Honduran,” read one posting on the popular Urbanbaby.com site. “Should I get a Tibetan? I hear they are all the rage.”
“Tibetan nannies … any ideas of where to find?” read another. “I like the idea of a Buddhist caring for my child.”
One of the site’s many enthusiastically pro–Tibetan-nanny subscribers assured fellow mothers that child-care workers from Tibet were “very balanced and Zen”; yet another explained,“Their personality is such that it makes them amazing nannies. Very patient, never lazy, soft-spoken and generally very caring.” Several suggested vaguely that the Tibetan nannies’ Buddhist heritage was the source of their supposed saintly qualities, even that a Tibetan nanny could contribute to a child’s “spiritual development.”
Other postings dealt with related topics such as where most of the Tibetan nannies in New York City could be found (Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and the West Village seemed to be the general consensus), whether to hire a Tibetan nanny who was known to be a victim of torture (could she accidentally harm a child while in the throes of a flashback, the subscriber wondered), whether Tibetan nannies should be given a day off work in honor of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, how to respond to snobbish mothers who openly brag about having bagged Tibetan nannies for their babies and whether some non-Tibetan Asian nannies were pretending to be Tibetan during job interviews in the hopes that it would help their prospects.
Any liberal-minded person not currently awash with post-partum hormones may well find such conversations bewildering, if not outright offensive.
Cringe-inducing testimonials to Buddhist child-care aside, isn’t seeking out a nanny of a particular ethnicity just a little, well, racist? Is the Tibetan nanny trend simply a new iteration of the already well-documented New York nanny fashion for hiring Chinese nannies capable of giving well-heeled little ones a leg-up in learning Mandarin? Or is the nanny-hiring process one of the few remaining areas of social discourse wherein it remains somehow acceptable to trade in crude ethnic stereotypes?
These are thorny questions—and embarrassing ones—for many new mothers.
“There’s kind of a mutually agreed unspoken agreement among mothers that all the normal rules about racism are off when you’re talking about nannies,” said one book editor in her early 30’s who asked not to be identified because her Filipina nanny is illegal. “People talk about ethnicity in a way they never would at any other time. Even people who are very aware of not making racial stereotypes will put that on hold when talking to other mothers.”
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