Living

5 Families And The Caregivers That Support Them

Remember childcare? Caregivers, cleaners and the women they work for discuss their unique relationships.

A photo of Naomi Pfeffer with her daughter, Ariella, her son, Reuben and their nanny, Ohrie Sarrondo.

Naomi Pfeffer with her daughter, Ariella, her son, Reuben and their nanny, Ohrie Sarrondo. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)

I am a 40-year-old woman with a five-year-old kid, a business to run, a husband with a demanding job and no flair for the domestic arts. Which is why headlines like “29 secrets to staying on top of your housework!” are clickbait for me: I’m a sucker for aspirational content and, perhaps, a bit of a masochist. I’ve collected a few tips, like how to use denture tabs to clean sneakers (neat!), but there’s only one secret to keeping my house organized. Her name is Candy, and I pay her $30 an hour. She comes every other week to deal with what I freely admit that I cannot—toilets, floors and fine details, like dusting the baseboards.

Candy is not really a secret. I openly tell friends how much her services help my husband and me negotiate our busy lives. I wasn’t always forthcoming about hiring help, however, although my working mom employed nannies and cleaners throughout my childhood. It took me a long time—and many stressful nights trying to clean up after a long workday—to reconcile my feminist ideals with the idea of hiring another woman to clean up my messes. To be honest, it’s still a complicated issue for me.

When I began looking for other employers of domestic workers to talk to, it was almost always cisgender mothers in hetero relationships, like me, who got in touch. These women were like me in other ways, too—university-educated, Canadian citizens and hesitant to talk about the people they rely on to clean their homes and care for their kids.

Ethel Tungohan, an assistant professor of politics at York University, isn’t surprised. “They probably feel that they’re failing in some ways and they can’t do it all,” says Tungohan about mothers who hire other women for domestic work. Along with the academic work she does as Canada Research Chair in Canadian Migration Policy, Impacts and Activism, Tungohan organizes alongside grassroots groups, such as Gabriela Ontario, that advocate for foreign caregivers.

“Being part of a labour relationship, even if you and your employee are on good terms, is still power-laden,” she says. “It’s tough to square yourself with the knowledge that you’re effectively outsourcing the care of your children to someone else.”

On occasion, high-powered women do acknowledge their domestic help: In 2011, comedian Amy Poehler named and thanked her nannies in a speech at the Time 100 gala, following it up with a 2015 nanny shout-out in a Saturday Night Live skit with pal Tina Fey—“We’ve got a deep, dope squad. It takes a village, y’all”—during a spoof of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video. More common, though, are celebs and so-called momfluencers that present Instagram-perfect pictures of domestic bliss, with nary a nod to the cleaners and caregivers behind the scenes. Having it all seems to mean appearing to do it all, too. This pressure to appear perfect holds us back from discussing important stuff, like exactly how we get it all done and the people who help us do it.

Which also means failing to acknowledge the ethical, political and gender issues inherent in domestic work. According to recent Statistics Canada data, women spend an average of almost three hours per day on housework, while men spend just under two. “We have this expectation that women are in charge of households and that domestic responsibilities are the provenance of women,” says Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto. “If women are going to be employed in paid work, they’re also going to have to figure out how to get the housework done.”

The lack of societal respect for cleaning, child care and general household duties has translated into low-wage, precarious jobs that have historically been filled by immigrants and migrant workers. It’s impossible to talk about domestic work in Canada without looking back at the foundational inequities of this country’s caregiver programs.

The first, launched in the late 1800s, was designed to bring domestic workers from Britain and Ireland to fill vacant jobs in housekeeping and child care. By around 1910, low pay and bad working conditions drove European workers to seek higher-paying jobs, creating a domestic-worker shortage that worsened after World War II.

At that point, the Canadian government began recruiting women from Japan, Barbados and Jamaica to fill the gaps. Unlike their European (read: white) predecessors, they were not given automatic permanent residency. In 1955, the newly introduced West Indian Domestic Scheme allowed Caribbean-born caregivers to apply for permanent residency after one year of service, but only if they remained single for that time and were willing to be subject to pregnancy tests and invasive gynecological exams. That was just one in a series of ongoing, legislated inequalities, including a 1973 designation of domestic work as “low-skill” that made it harder for workers to qualify for residency.

Such discriminatory policies and unfair working conditions have drawn criticism, and pushback. In 1979, the advocacy group Intercede united a diverse group of caregivers, feminists and labour activists to lobby the federal government to allow domestic workers the right to stay in Canada permanently. In 1981, their efforts resulted in the Foreign Domestic Worker Movement program, which allowed workers to apply for citizenship after 24 months of employment, provided they upgrade their supposedly low-skill qualifications. A path to citizenship was cleared, but domestic work was still undervalued. And Tungohan, among others, has argued that recent changes to language and education requirements have made it increasingly difficult for today’s domestic workers to apply for permanent status.

Today it’s predominantly Filipina women filling this labour gap, and the Philippines’ economy is dependent on money sent home from workers in other countries. Qualifying for Canada’s caregiver and home support worker programs often means leaving their own families behind. Their labour is crucial here, yet they still face discrimination and hurdles trying to settle permanently in Canada.

One of the women currently navigating those hurdles is someone I’ll call Mildred. Originally a dentist in Manila, she left her three children to come to Toronto in 2008 through the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP).

Workers in the LCP are allowed to apply for permanent residence after two years of full-time work. But it took 10 years for Mildred’s application to be accepted: Her youngest daughter was found inadmissible due to a hearing impairment, which put Mildred’s own application at risk.

“I left her when she was four years old, and it breaks my heart when I remember I wasn’t with her because of her disability,” says Mildred, who asked to keep her full name confidential in order to protect her family’s privacy.

For the last two years, Mildred has worked for doctor Meera Dalal-Burns, looking after her four-year-old twins. As I found with many of the caregivers and employers I spoke to, true affection has flowered between the women. “When you have a nanny and you make a commitment to bring someone into your family, you have to treat them as a family member,” says Dalal-Burns. “It’s a really important job.”

Mildred’s family, including her youngest daughter, was finally able to join her in Toronto last year. Now, with Dalal-Burns’ support, Mildred is studying to become a dental assistant. It’s a step below her previous occupation as a full-fledged dentist, but a step toward leaving caregiving—and its precarious status—behind.

I know that my family is extremely lucky to be able to afford Candy’s help, and I feel strongly that domestic work is important work that needs to be discussed, examined and celebrated. And so, I spoke with five families and caregivers across the country who are doing just that.

From left: Nidhi Seth, Mini, Mercedes. (Photos courtesy Nidhi Seth and Mercedes)

Caregiver: Nidhi Seth
Family: Mercedes, Felipe and Mini, Toronto

Nidhi Seth describes what she does as “mothering the mother”: As a postpartum doula, she helps new moms take care of themselves and their newborns by offering plenty of support and evidence-based advice.

That’s exactly what aviation insurance underwriter Mercedes (who asked that we not use her last name) needed after her birth experience didn’t go as planned. She had dreamed of a home birth, but complications led to an unwanted C-section that left her in pain, with no family nearby for support and struggling with postpartum depression.

“I remember going to sleep at night [and] not wanting to wake up,” Mercedes says of the first few months of motherhood. “I was in a very dark place. [Then] Nidhi walked in and I just instantly felt calm, like a guardian angel had arrived.”

She and her husband, Felipe, first hired Seth to care for newborn Mini at night. The relationship quickly evolved into a deep connection between the two women, and Seth started working days as well.

“I fell in love with Mercedes,” says Seth, a former medical student. “We started opening up and talking about our childhoods, and it helped her to know that, for better or for worse, we all go through things. And it helped me to see how compassionate and nurturing I could be.”

Along with baby holding, nursing coaching and other caregiving tasks, Seth helped Mercedes process her birth experience. “No one had ever listened to it and no one had understood,” says Mercedes. “We sat there for an hour and a half, and I got to release that loss I had. It was nice to have a witness to my story.”

Now that Mini is six months old, Mercedes still books Seth twice a week for child care to give herself time to go to the gym or run errands. She is aware of how fortunate she is to be able to afford this ongoing support. “It scares me that most women have to go through this alone,” Mercedes says. “I never felt guilt asking for help. I look at my mom—she had three C-sections and did it all herself. She always told me we had the money for help but she didn’t know how to ask.”

Susan Paddon, at rear, with her children Frida and Nils, and their caregiver, Meagan Smith. (Photo: Matthew Parsons)

Caregiver: Meagan Smith
Family: Susan Paddon, Matthew Parsons, and Frida and Nils Paddon, Margaree, N.S.

When both her kids had reached toddler age, Susan Paddon felt it was time to start working again. But child care is scarce in Margaree, N.S., a picturesque and remote community on Cape Breton Island. So, when she learned that her yoga classmate Meagan Smith was looking for a place to live, she made an unusual suggestion: that Smith, a farmer who had just finished a seasonal job, live in the family’s guest room rent-free, in exchange for caring part-time for Frida, 2, and Nils, 14 months.

“I had a very good feeling about Meagan from the first time I met her,” says Paddon. “She came over to hang out a few times, and our children were really drawn to her.” Smith jumped at the chance to live in the family’s off-grid house in the woods.

Smith cares for the kids three times a week, doing crafts, changing Nils’ diapers and immersing herself in Frida’s imaginary worlds. Meanwhile, Paddon retreats to her home office to write, while her husband, Matthew, goes to work as a teacher. The kids love having Smith around, and the family was overjoyed when Nils tried to say her name for the first time.

“It’s been so wonderful for Frida to have another adult around who might have a different response to things than I would have,” says Paddon. She adds that having the time and space to focus on her work has helped her be a more attentive mom when she is playing with her children.

Smith may be paid in room and board, but she has also become part of the family. “We all hang out together, sit in the living room and chat,” she says. “I really appreciate living with a family.” She says that she feels wholly appreciated, which hasn’t always been the case when she’s done domestic work in the past.

“I’ve done a lot of child care and I’ve been a house cleaner, and I’ve been paid less than minimum wage and worked unpredictable schedules. That seems to be the way people think it can go in this kind of work,” she says. “But caring for people’s children is one of the most important things you can do. It should be one of the most highly valued forms of labour.”

Both she and Paddon hope to maintain their relationship when her next farming job comes along. “When I leave, I don’t feel I’ll be losing them,” Smith says. “We’ll stay friends, and I’ll continue to see the kids whether I live here or not.”

A photo of Ohrie Sarrondo with Reuben and Ariella Ginsburg.

Ohrie Sarrondo with Reuben and Ariella Ginsburg. (Photo: Thomas Fricke)

Caregiver: Ohrie Sarrondo
Family: Naomi Pfeffer And Ezra, Reuben and Ariella Ginsburg, Winnipeg

When Naomi Pfeffer’s son, Reuben, was four months old, he got sick in a way that would frighten any new parent. “He’d thrown up his medicine, he was listless, and it was just terrible,” says the Winnipeg-based mom of two. Pfeffer was beside herself with worry. But her nanny, Lorenza “Ohrie” Sarrondo knew exactly what to do.

“She got Reuben into the bath, [then] got him into the car seat and got us ready to go to the hospital,” says Pfeffer. “I would have been completely out of my mind at that time if she hadn’t come.” Reuben is now a healthy seven-month-old, and Sarrondo continues to care for him and his nearly two-year-old sister, Ariella, one day per week. She also works in home-care support for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Pfeffer and her husband, Ezra Ginsburg, decided to hire a nanny when postpartum medical issues made caring for newborn Reuben and then-16-month-old Ariella especially challenging. The couple were referred to Sarrondo through a friend. Although she’d never worked as a nanny before, her love of children—and experience raising four of her own—made Sarrondo confident she would be good at the job. Pfeffer agreed when she saw how Sarrondo connected with her kids.

Both women were surprised by how well they clicked. “When I started with Naomi, she reminded me of my eldest daughter,” says Sarrondo. She immigrated to Canada in 2015 to join her husband, who was here on a skilled-worker visa. Sarrondo was only allowed to bring her underage daughter with her, leaving her older children behind in the Philippines. She has two grandchildren who she’s only ever spoken to over FaceTime.

Pfeffer didn’t grow up with a nanny, and sometimes feels guilty about her messy house or when she thinks about Sarrondo’s separation from her own family. What helps is that both women say they have mutual respect and a true connection.

Sarrondo says she learned the importance of a solid caregiver-parent relationship when she herself hired a nanny decades ago, when she was running a small garment business. “This is what I realized: If you are kind to a nanny, she will love your kids,” says Sarrondo. “Naomi and Ezra are so good to me.”

For Pfeffer, Sarrondo is also a trusted confidante who is full of useful parenting knowledge—and even marriage advice. “Ohrie is older and more experienced than me as a mother and wife,” she says. “Anytime I shoot my mouth off about my relationship or kids, she tends to be the more calming voice.”

A photo of Jordan Duke with Lucy, Henry and Timo Rahenbrock.

Jordan Duke with Lucy, Henry and Timo Rahenbrock. (Photo: Nina Rahenbrock)

Caregiver: Jordan Duke
Family: Nina, David, Lucy, Henry and Timo Rahenbrock, Toronto

When Nina Rahenbrock’s son Timo was in daycare, he fell head-over-heels for Jordan Duke, a young apprentice at the centre. “There was a time at our dinner table when every word Timo said was ‘Jordan,’ ” the Toronto mom recalls. “He’s so good with kids.”

Nina and her husband, David, immigrated from Germany nine years ago. “We don’t have family here and we don’t have a backup plan,” she says. When they needed a babysitter for Lucy, 9, Timo, 6, and Henry, 2, it seemed only natural to approach Duke. “I was surprised none of the other daycare parents had asked him to sit for them,” she says.

The lack of offers wasn’t surprising to Duke. As a young Black man, he was shocked that Rahenbrock asked him to do the job. “Some parents [at the daycare] were standoffish and nervous around me,” he says. “When Nina asked me to babysit, it was an eye-opener. It made me realize just because some people are standoffish doesn’t mean they’re not receptive to me.”

Duke grew up babysitting siblings and cousins, and always had a deep connection with children. Still, he’d never considered child care as a career path. Six years ago, he was working as a cleaner in a daycare when the owner noticed that the kids were drawn to him. “She said, ‘You need to do this full-time because you have a gift,’ ” he says. “She got me my first job in child care.”

Today Duke is working toward a child and youth apprenticeship diploma. It’s not always easy for him to navigate the world of child care—he sometimes gets stares at the park and feels that certain parents reprimand him for petty reasons. Some of his peers don’t understand his work. But as someone who grew up with a single mom in what he calls “a broken home,” Duke is determined to be a role model.

“It’s very important for men—and Black men—to be in caregiving,” he says. “The kids see me and associate me with rappers and the NBA a lot. But being in the caregiving space shows them that Black men can be other things, too.”

To the Rahenbrock kids, Duke is a favourite caregiver and all-around super-cool guy who lets them eat pizza on the couch and makes dance videos with them on his phone. For Nina and David, he’s someone they can rely on. “Jordan is the first person I call when I need someone,” says Nina.

“I really trust him.”

A photo of Amanda Cameron and her children, with Monika Scott and Robyn Pook of Mint Cleaning.

Amanda Cameron and her children, with Monika Scott and Robyn Pook of Mint Cleaning. (Photo: Jenn McLeod)

Cleaners: Monika Scott and Robyn Pook, Mint Cleaning
Family: Amanda and Caleb Cameron and their children, Ucluelet, B.C.

By the time Amanda Cameron was pregnant with her second child, she and her husband, Caleb, were overwrought. They were running an Airbnb out of their home in Ucluelet, B.C., while Amanda worked full-time as a counsellor and Caleb ran a whale-watching and fishing charter business. “We were both busy all the time,” she says. Housework seemed overwhelming. That’s when she got in touch with Mint Cleaning.

Mint is a business run by two moms—friends Monika Scott and Robyn Pook—who know how powerful a little bit of housecleaning support can be. “The state of my house will reflect the state of my mind,” says Scott, a mom of three.

Scott and Pook met at a moms’ group at a time when neither had a plan for post-maternity leave. Scott had run a home daycare that was no longer feasible, and Pook knew that, with twins at home, she wouldn’t be able to return to the long hours of the restaurant industry. Cleaning seemed to be a good fit for both of them. “I was shocked how much I loved it,” says Pook. “I can work at my own pace, and it’s quiet. It’s almost a break from my life and from my children.”

Mint now employs a team of cleaners, and many of their clients are women who are dizzyingly busy managing jobs and kids. “These are the women I most admire: working moms,” says Scott. “They’re so appreciative of what we do.” Some of their clients burst into tears of relief when they walk into a house that’s clean for what may be the first time in months. But Pook and Scott say it’s not easy for everyone to admit they need help with the housework.

“There’s a stigma that having a cleaner is a rich-person thing, or like you feel like less of a woman if you get help,” says Pook. “It tacks onto that mom guilt.”

Cameron hesitated to book her first home cleaning because, as a counsellor, she’s acutely aware that it’s a luxury not everyone can afford. But she realized that having help would benefit her mental health. “It makes me a better human, when my environment is clean. It makes me treat people better,” she says.

Cleaning isn’t the career path Pook and Scott anticipated. “I always joke that I scrub toilets for a living,” says Pook. “But cleaning is hard work, and we want to change the stigma around cleaning and make it cool.”


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