November 7, 2022

The Ex-Pat Life Series (a Longitudinal Study): The Nanny

The Ex-Pat Life Series (a Longitudinal Study): The Nanny

I think it is important to clarify the demographic I will be writing about in this series – the classic expatriate. An ‘expatriate’ (or ex-pat as we are more commonly known) denotes a person who lives outside of their native country. It is simple at its core definition, but I am curious how it has changed over the past three decades, if at all.

There are many contentious discussions around this definition. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin wrote in the Guardian about it being “a term reserved exclusively for ‘white people’ going to work abroad”. That definition, in my opinion, is incorrect and if I were to put my compassionate psychologist’s cap on, I might ask Mawuna, ”How do you FEEL about writing that?”. For me, it sadly denotes a child who may have struggled despite the best intentions of her parents, to make a better life for their family, but that is a discussion for another day and not my intention here.

Having lived an “ex-pat” life for thirty years (give or take a few breaks) I would like to share with you my personal, and professional observations of how this lifestyle choice influences different aspects of family life, child-rearing, and relationships In part 1 of this blog, I would particularly like to focus on the role of the nanny in the ex-pat family, and the impact it can have on a child’s behavioural development all the way to adulthood.

“It takes a village to raise a child” African proverb

I can remember in 1991, returning to Lusaka, Zambia, and handing my 6-week-old baby boy to Margaret. I had chosen to give birth in familiar surroundings in Bath, England, and I was happy I made this decision if not only from the perspective that our son’s family were able to meet and welcome him into the fold. My knowledge of nannies was pretty much non-existent. I wasn’t an ex-pat child, and I hadn’t been brought up with a nanny (unless you consider my grandmother to be my nanny, having spent my formative years in her care as my mother studied). In my life, I had only known one girl (whom I went to school with), who had a nanny.

Margaret, my son’s nanny, was employed, by us, to do a job (so far as I can remember, this was a job where the tasks were unwritten, and you simply expected the person employed to know what was expected). It’s a role, that holds the greatest responsibility (care of human life at its most helpless) and, in any culture, is one of the lowest paid.

In Africa, where we had made our home and place of work, it was almost expected that you would have a nanny if you had children. I can’t remember any friends in Lusaka who opted out. It was a great system of job creation and, highly respected work in the local Bemba culture, of which our nanny, Margaret, was a part. Our nannies wore uniforms – not the stuffy, authoritarian, military-style uniforms seen in fairy tales. Conversely, our nannies wore the most vibrant uniforms, made of the local chitenge materials and they had the day-to-day uniforms and the ‘special occasion’ birthday party uniforms. The latter usually came from South Africa, where there was more choice of less garish materials and more ‘westernised’ options, and they were deemed to be better made. There was definitely a sort of nanny hierarchy in the families around us, and it was deemed important within the nanny community to have the ‘international’ uniform as opposed to locally made. At the time, I had no knowledge or experience of these nuances, and on reflection, I realise that Margaret, ten years my senior, had her own standards to uphold. Despite her desire to ‘keep up appearances’ with her peers, her style of nannying was beautifully natural and integrated well with our children and our family. This easy-going approach to nannying is worlds away from the strict routine and systematic approach to family life, as I saw it, in the nineteen seventies and eighties.

Thirty Years Later

Fast forward thirty years and yesterday evening, as I sat on a bench watching sundown my ear was drawn to the joyous hullabaloo coming from a group of about ten nannies (with their wards) playing on the private beach outside their employers’ ex-pat condos. It was, what I remember to be, the time of day when parents are most grateful for the nanny taking their child or children, feeding them, amusing them, preparing them for bed, and wearing them out in the hope of a full night’s sleep!

When my children were very young, the other parents I knew took varying roles in this nightly routine. Some managed the aftermath of tears and tantrums of their overly tired toddler(s) and read soothing bedtime stories to them as they drifted off into their slumber. Others had already set about on their evening activities in the hope that, under the watchful eye of their nanny, their little darlings would bid them ‘good morning!’ no earlier than 7am.

As I walked to my child-free apartment yesterday evening, I observed two similar groups, and I reflected that the nanny role in an ex-pat family is so beneficial. It has at its core three fundamental ingredients necessary to raise a happy confident child through to adolescence (although the nanny-adolescent relationship is of course different) and beyond. The magic ingredients are love, attention, and security. These haven’t changed whether I have been in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East.

Margaret, our nanny in Africa, longed to be a mother and, despite us supporting her through full investigations, it wasn’t to be. Her own broken heart mattered little to her family (the cultural expectations were hugely impactful) and so she gave herself entirely to us and our children, filling that void within her heart, at least a little. For this, I will be eternally grateful and, I maintain that one of the most difficult times of my life was when we left Lusaka and said goodbye to Margaret. Tears were shed at the time, but we moved on, she was left to manage her own grief. Did I have enough compassion for Margaret at that time? I certainly didn’t consider the potential effect on our young children at the time.

As I sat and observed the busyness of this group yesterday evening, I was triggered by my memories of East Africa. The riotous laughter amongst the nannies as they chattered in their own mother tongue as well as playing with the young children (aged between 0-4yrs). These were the active children playing on the beach, the nannies crouched with them digging and building. The children were climbing all over these women and at one point it looked like they were one. All the children seemed familiar not only with their peer group but with every nanny. I thought of our time in Malaysia when my children were adolescents and we employed Ging, a singing, dancing, belching Filipino lady as help in our house. The dynamic changed compared to that which we had experienced with Margaret? Ging hadn’t known our children in their formative years, and she had to set her own boundaries with them to fully gain and retain their respect. That wasn’t an easy thing to do with a 14 and 16-year-old but she did, and when you analyse how she did it, love, attention, and security were very much present – she gave them time, her attention, she listened, and she fed them well!

I remember every evening from this period of our life, in, Damansara, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. I would sit on the lovely, old, wooden veranda (an extension of our bedroom) and watch all the Filipino house staff walk the dogs together, with the same conviviality that our nannies gathered on the beach last night. They would walk, and before separating for the night they would often stand outside in the street. Dogs would lie down, and their community would share, listen and solve the highs and lows of the day.

Universal Expectations

It doesn’t matter if the nanny is employed in the UK, Africa, Middle East or Asia. There is a universal expectation of ex-pat families, that whoever is entrusted with the care of our precious children will do the best job, even if we, don’t really know what that should be. What has become clear to me is that as an ex-pat I have always been fortunate to live in countries where the people I have employed as nannies came from cultures in which bringing up children was, shall we say, less complicated. The adage, “It takes a village to raise a child”, is correct if we want our children to be grounded, confident and secure adults. This group of nannies (I think that’s the correct collective) was not only taking care of the child in their care but taking care of the children. There was an unspoken and natural approach to this that allowed for contentment. This close-knit community made the daunting task more manageable and fun. Distraction is often key when dealing with tired toddlers. These children had no alternative but to be distracted every time they turned their heads to see another smiling adult and a different toddler to play with. It just all seemed so natural, and you could imagine them in a Filipino or African home where generations live together, grandmothers get on with their matriarchal Vata stage of life and children play together with a loose structure.

The ex-pat nanny doesn’t change. When you are fortunate enough you will find yourself with an ‘aunt’ in your home. In many African countries, it is a mark of respect for any older female friend of the family who spends much time with your children to be referred to as ‘auntie’. This is someone who cares for and loves your children in a way that is different from your own, but equally nurturing. They look out for the child, and the child sees them as family. What is important, as a parent, is that we should never depend on our nannies to teach our children emotional intelligence or solve their problems, and while our nannies do great jobs, feeding, laundering, and stimulating our children while keeping them safe, it is not their job to set the boundaries within the family. Parents are there to guide the nanny, to reinforce discipline and how that looks to that family. When a parent eschews their role here then what we often find are parents who struggle during the adolescent years of their children, once the nanny is no longer around.

For the past 12 years, we have been in rural France, where we have run our event and retreat centre. From this idyllic location, I have observed our neighbours (four generations, at the time and three now, living in the same hamlet). The youngest would go between three houses, the elder would wave her stick around, and the three younger generations (one being in their seventies) would ‘oblige’ with respect. Problems were solved with regular communal dinners at the kitchen table and as far as I remember, phones have never featured, on the many occasions, they kindly invited me to join them.

When there is a collective bringing up of a child, it makes it much easier if a parent or carer is having a bad day, week, or month. The negative impact on a child is reduced. There is an alternative, a distraction. During the AIDS pandemic, in the late eighties when we were living in Tanzania, I didn’t have children, but we did employ three local Tanzanians to help us in the run our home. I was twenty-two and Theresa, my ‘cook’ (that is the role she wanted, I had no say) was thirty-eight – a widow with small children. Her younger sister, Monica, also worked for us taking care of domestic duties – also a widow with small children. Sadly, Monica died just six months after starting work with us and Theresa was automatically with a family of four young children.

A Child’s Neurological Development Remains the Same (Regardless of Continent)

When I look back, I was an adolescent, I knew little about running a home and I knew nothing about how to deal with so much illness, death, and grief around me. Maybe Theresa felt she had five children to care for and not four? I remember playing with her children who she often brought to work. I was always grateful for the integration. There was no English, only Swahili and so care was shown through action and body language towards these children.

What is apparent in my work on these continents, is that despite our changing world, and the political climates of each country, child [neurological] development remains the same – dynamic and interactive. What might alter this development is the child’s environment. However, it’s proven that how parents react to the environment impacts our children’s development in differing ways, depending on the child’s age.

Cross-cultural research has indicated that the involvement of cultural factors in virtually all aspects of children’s socio-emotional functioning is something to really be considered as we parent in an ex-pat environment. If cultural norms and values affect the display and significance of children’s socio-emotional functioning, then what I see in our ex-pat nanny environment is an exposure to certain cultural values that our children may never have been exposed to – and that is, most certainly, a gift. However, as ex-pat parents, we must remain vigilant. Our role as parents ultimately, even with the help of our nannies, is pivotal in the development of our relationship with our children and the family unit.

I can help you to build those life-long healthy relationships with the adolescents that you parent and/or care for. Come and join me for our 10-week, virtual Parenting Adolescents course, starting in mid-November 2022. Find out more by visiting our Services page

In gratitude.