N.Y. / Region
Sue Downey was standing before a packed room in Midtown recently, extolling the benefits of cotton balls.
“The most fun you will ever have with a 7-year-old is a cotton ball, a straw and a wood floor,” she said, telling the 90 nannies in the audience to use the straw to blow the ball from one end of the room to the other. “Now, introduce a stopwatch to the game, and they can also practice telling time.”
The Saturday seminar, which covered topics like early childhood development, résumé building and mental health, was the brainchild of Alene Mathurin, a nanny and organizer. After the presentation by Ms. Downey, a nanny in Philadelphia, Ms. Mathurin took the microphone.
“I want you to stand up and close your eyes,” Ms. Mathurin said in her singsong Caribbean accent. “I want you to picture yourself exactly how you see yourself and I want to tell you some things about yourself.”
“I want you to know that you are beautiful,” she said. “I want you to know that you are enough.” Some of the nannies called out in agreement. “I want you to know that you are all woman. And while you are doing this I want you to exhale.”
Ms. Mathurin, 43, is the founder of My Nanny Circle, a grass-roots group that focuses on the training and empowerment of caregivers. The organization is not political, but on this particular Saturday, it was impossible to ignore the events that had unfolded in Washington the day before. President Trump had signed an executive order curtailing immigration, and anxieties were high. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, about 38 percent of nannies in New York State are non-naturalized immigrants.
“I am not here to talk politics at all, believe me, because I can seriously get my knickers in a twist,” said Stella Reid, 52, a guest speaker and a former star of the reality show “Nanny 911.” Ms. Reid, who had arrived illegally from England in 1989 but is now a citizen, read testimony from Representative Mick Mulvaney, Republican of South Carolina, Mr. Trump’s nominee for the Office of Management and Budget, who had failed to pay payroll taxes for his nanny’s work: “In our minds, she was a babysitter,” adding, “She did not educate the children.”
The apparent dismissal of his nanny’s contributions made Ms. Reid “agitated,” she said. “I am not here to talk about whether you are legal or not, that is not my business,” she said. “What I am talking to you about today is professionalism. Raising the bar.”
My Nanny Circle aims to do just that by increasing both knowledge and morale among its members. “There is nobility in the nanny profession,” Ms. Mathurin said. “The biggest problem I see is that we have a society that doesn’t value nannies, even though they supply the most important, valuable service: caring for children.”
Twice a week, Ms. Mathurin hosts Facebook Live sessions on topics that include year-end bonuses and embracing forgiveness. The My Nanny Circle Facebook page, a combination job board and discussion group, has nearly 1,500 members.
There are thousands of nannies in New York City, although their exact numbers are unknown. The nanny industry, unchecked by national standards or accreditations, remains largely in the shadows. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which organizes domestic workers, estimates that there are close to 17,500 nannies in New York State, based on figures from the Economic Policy Institute.
Advocacy groups like the alliance, which helped shepherd the passage of the 2010 Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, have had some success tackling legislative agendas. But Ms. Mathurin is more concerned with the immediate — and sometimes personal — issues plaguing the nanny profession.
Ms. Mathurin, who is black, is a rare figure in the nanny industry, Ms. Downey said. “Nanny training organizations have been mostly a cause taken up by white nannies,” said Ms. Downey, 49, who is white; she is also a founder of Nannypalooza, a conference. “There are inequities in the nanny world just like anywhere, and I think it is important to raise all boats, to lift us all up.”
Ms. Mathurin understands the issues surrounding inequality and poverty only too well. She was just 3 years old when her mother left St. Lucia in the Caribbean for England, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. She never knew her father.
“I was raised in an agrarian society, and we often had nothing to eat, so we would go out looking for chicken eggs or bananas,” she said. When she was 9, she was foraging for food with her grandmother, who suddenly fell into a diabetic coma. “I saw she wouldn’t move,” she said. “She opened her eyes once and then she died. I screamed as loud as I could.” She was raised by other relatives, but “no matter how old you are, there is a void because I never knew what it was like to have a mother or a father.”
After graduating from high school in St. Lucia, Ms. Mathurin took a job with American Airlines, which enabled her to travel. She met a man in New York, moved to the city to marry him, and soon gave birth to a son, who is now 15. Unable to find work, she reluctantly took a job as a nanny for newborn twins who lived at the Ansonia on the Upper West Side.
“I immediately fell in love with Alene; I just thought she was the most amazing person,” said John Caraccioli, her first employer. Mr. Caraccioli, a real estate broker at Halstead Property, is married to Jeffrey Appel, a vice president at Bank of America. Fifteen years ago, when their twins were born, “there weren’t a whole lot of guys with kids. We were unique, even in Manhattan.”
It was a culture shock for Ms. Mathurin. “Coming from a small Christian society, a gay couple was very much taboo for me,” she said. “I had never seen a family like this before.” She spent those early years bottle-feeding the twins and then returning home to nurse her son. It wasn’t long before an intimate bond formed between the families.
“Here I was, working with the most beautiful people on earth, caring for the children of two men, and I don’t even know my own father,” Ms. Mathurin said. “As a black woman going to the home of two men who loved me, and yet they didn’t look like me, or talk like me, radically changed me. I disregarded everything I thought I knew about race and life.”
Ms. Mathurin self-published a book about the experience, “I’m a Girl With Two Dads, and I Love It That Way.” After six years with the Caraccioli/Appel family, Ms. Mathurin attended Rutgers, studying psychology and public administration. To earn money, she continued to work as a nanny.
In 2012, she was working for another family with twins in Chelsea when there was the harrowing murder of two toddlers by their nanny on the Upper West Side. “That day changed my life completely,” Ms. Mathurin said. “I cried so much for the children. Yet when I went out with the girls the day after it happened, I will never forget the stares that people gave me. I felt guilty, like I had done something.” It was then that she decided to start My Nanny Circle.
Most of the nannies in Ms. Mathurin’s network are from the Caribbean, although there are also Latina nannies, white nannies and even a few men.
“You don’t see many guys like me picking up kids,” said James Phinizy, 32, a nanny who was approached by Ms. Mathurin one day at school pickup. “She saw someone different who was doing a really great job, and she just reached out to me.”
Meches Rosales-Maupin, 40, from Guatemala City, has been working in New York for 11 years as a nanny. She used to be an organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, but she left to organize her own group of Latina nannies, and to work closely with Ms. Mathurin, who “represents love,” Ms. Rosales-Maupin said. “I feel like it is a really confusing time,” she continued, referring to the current political climate. “I see in the future a black cloud, but Alene gives us pride, she celebrates us.”
Ms. Mathurin makes little money from My Nanny Circle. For the seminar, she flew Ms. Reid in from Los Angeles, paid two of the speakers and a photographer, and picked up the tab for the pizza lunch. To support herself and her son (Ms. Mathurin is divorced), she relies on her book sales as well as part-time nanny work. She also consults, helping families and nannies resolve conflicts. Occasionally, this means coming down on the side of the employer.
As Ms. Downey concluded her talk that Saturday, a nanny raised her hand to ask about speaking in her native language to her charges. After all, “I am just a nanny, not a language teacher,” she said.
“You are not just a nanny,” Ms. Downey replied. “If you’re with a child 12 hours a day, and you’re just the nanny, that’s wasted time. Show them you are an educator. You talk about cognitive abilities. You talk about brain development. And if you don’t know about that, then you go to classes and you learn it.”
And that is exactly where Ms. Mathurin steps in. As she often says, “If nannies don’t learn to love themselves, then how can we love the children who depend on us?”