Stand at the East Hampton train station on any given Friday afternoon between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and you will witness a reverse commute that defines the summer rhythms of the One Percent. Nannies — many of them women of color who give their employers the flexibility to work, play tennis, and socialize during the week — fill the trains back to New York City, eager to escape their employers’ summer playgrounds and get back to something resembling normalcy.
While these women (yes, almost all of them are women) might be living in nine-figure homes or in towns where fishing shacks sell for millions of dollars, nannies often have a very different view of these elite seasonal destinations. “They hate it out here,” according to a longtime Hamptons resident who has brought live-in employees to her Bridgehampton estate for the last several years. She noted that many of the people she hires don't drive or swim, plus "it's so white and let's not even get started on how bad the cellphone service is...” In other words, that 15-bedroom home can feel more like a gilded prison where you’re never off the clock.
It's no surprise then that Silvia, the Filipina nanny character in Emma Rosenblum’s juicy new novel, Bad Summer People, seems to be counting down the days until she can escape a mosquito-laden hamlet on Fire Island. Silvia works for a couple, Lauren and Jason, who are the social center of gravity of Salcombe, the exclusive enclave where the book takes place. (In addition to Rosenblum’s razor-sharp observations of life among New York’s social and economic elite, the novel features multiple affairs, a murder, and rampant cheating at tennis.) “I thought it would be really interesting to include a nanny’s perspective,” said Rosenblum. “Silvia is very much part of the story and is witness to a lot of what is happening.”
Rosenblum, who is also the chief content officer of BDG, which owns Romper, told me she didn’t want to make Silvia into “a savior or a martyr.” Adding: “She’s a little bitchy, and she has complicated feelings. She knows the dad is cheating on the mom, and she likes one kid more than the other. She gets paid well but would like to get paid a little more.”
Bad Summer People also reveals what is common knowledge among many nannies: “summer vacation” is a misnomer for these months of intense output. Several nannies I spoke with confirmed that living with a family in these remote locales is often more work than what is usually required of them the rest of the year. One nanny who used to spend the summers in the Hamptons told me her employer asked her to go into the swimming pool fully clothed to fish out her 3-year-old, who was refusing to get out. “The mother didn’t want to get wet, never mind that I don’t know how to swim,” she said.
Silvia describes her routine in Salcombe with tinges of dread and exhaustion. “She was outside with the kids constantly, dropping them off at the camp (which only went until noon — why?), taking them to tennis, and then to the beach. She would occasionally befriend another nanny, but many families paid local teenagers to watch their children. So, she sat alone on her adult tricycle, which she rode for its large rear basket, big enough for towels and beach bags, waiting for the kids to finish activities, scrolling on her phone.”
For all the beauty and quaintness of Nantucket, one nanny who worked there for a summer bottom-lined it: “Why would you want to go to a cloudy, gray island with cold water?”
And even when the destinations are luxurious, several former child care providers told me there were plenty of reminders they weren’t on the same vacation as their employers. “I flew with the family I worked for to a resort, and I rode with the kids in economy while the parents rode in first class,” said one woman who had nannied when she was in her 20s. Once they arrived, she shared a room with the kids while the parents had their own suite. “I was young enough to be like, ‘Oh wow, I’m staying at the Ritz Carlton!’ Instead of being insulted,” she says. Summer on a yacht was not the stuff of fantasies for Candi Vajana, who writes the Funny Nanny blog. She once worked for a family that would plan spontaneous vacations to Spain one week and Antarctica the next. One summer, Vajana ended up on a yacht with three young children spending “a fair amount of time at sea,” something she said was challenging because “there was nowhere else to go.”
Back on dry land, just ask nannies about pushing strollers along the cobblestone streets in Nantucket, an island known as the place “where billionaires go to escape millionaires.” (In a similar vein, Silvia talks about how the boardwalks in Salcombe stressed her out and that “someone was bound to break a bone.”) Yet for all the beauty and quaintness of Nantucket, one nanny who worked there for a summer bottom-lined it: “Why would you want to go to a cloudy, gray island with cold water?” Another nanny whose employer summers on Nantucket agreed to come with them only if her employer flew her back to New York City on the weekends. “What was I going to do there on Saturday and Sunday?" (The employer obliged.)
And it’s not just the beach towns that make summer a hardship post. A former live-in nanny for a family on the Upper East Side told me she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go to Aspen, describing how sick and dehydrated she was for the entire week she spent there one August.
With everyone living under the same roof for eight weeks, even if it’s a large one, many nannies unwittingly take on new emotional burdens — and are privy to information that can place them in complicated, fraught situations. In Bad Summer People, Silvia suspects that her employer is having an affair, something that was hardly a newsflash in that demographic. Rosenblum writes, “Most of the dads she’d worked for were having affairs. But Jason was the most obvious by far. He didn’t even pretend to like Lauren. Even Arlo and Amelie could tell. Amelie once said to her that ‘Daddy hates Mommy.’” While Silvia might relay this casually to readers, these are all household tensions that Silvia, too, endures.
Vajana, who has worked for a number of wealthy families, said she has had to deal with uncomfortable moments during the summer months, from employers going through her personal dresser drawers on her days off to a dad who would wander around the basement, where her room was located, in his underwear.
Toward the end of Silvia’s chapter, she makes the observation that “Rich people were miserable, but they didn’t know how lucky they were.” She has seen all their privilege — and their heartaches and petty grievances. That’s one reason why, Rosenblum says, “Silvia could be the narrator of her own book.”