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New Ways of Doing the 'Good' and Gender Equal Family: Parents Employing Nannies and Au Pairs in Sweden

by Sara Eldén and Terese Anving
Lund University, Sweden; Lund University, Sweden

Sociological Research Online, 21 (4), 2
DOI: 10.5153/sro.4163

Received: 29 Feb 2016 | Accepted: 4 Nov 2016 | Published: 30 Nov 2016


The last decade, Nordic families have started to employ nannies and au pairs to an extent previously never experienced. Political initiatives such as tax deductions for household services, together with global trends of 'care chains', have created a private market for care services, which have made it possible for families to hire cheap female, and often migrant, care labour. In the case of Sweden, this is an indication of a re-familializing trend in politics of care and family; a move away from a social democratic welfare regime, towards the privatized and marketized care/family solutions of other Western countries. This qualitative study of Swedish families who hire nannies/au pairs shows how the dual earner/dual carer ideal is being replaced by a dual earner/privately outsourced care ideal, a shift that requires particular forms of accounting for their practices on the part of the parents, related to the discourse of gender equality as well as narratives of what is 'best for children'. This, we argue, indicates that gender equality and 'good care' for children is increasingly becoming a class privilege.

Keywords: Care Work, Parenting, Gender Equality, Au Pairs/nannies, Family Practices, Welfare State


1.1 New possibilities for managing the work/family balance have emerged for Swedish families in the past decade. The former Swedish welfare state model, with publicly funded institutions such as daycare centres and paid parental leave (Bergqvist & Nyberg 2002), all justified by strongly held ideals of social equality, the dual earner/dual carer model, and gender equality (Daly & Rake 2003;Lundqvist 2011), is today complemented by a growing private market for care services, a market that is also subsidized by the government. Since 2007, domestic care work, such as cleaning (Gavanas 2010), elderly care (Szebehely & Trydegård 2011) and childcare in the form of nannies and au pairs is tax deductible. This, we argue, shows a shift in the politics of care and family in Sweden, a move away from the social democratic welfare regime and closer to the privatized and marketized care/family solutions of other Western countries (Macdonald 2011; Tronto 2002). This shift also affects the practice of doing family and parenthood as well as gender equality in Swedish families.

1.2 In this paper, we look at the growing practice of hiring nannies and au pairs, and how this transforms the doing of family, care, parenting and gender equality in Swedish families. The analysis is based on interviews with parents who buy private childcare services. In focus are the ways in which parents legitimize the purchase of such services in relation to managing work/family conflicts, ideals of gender equality, and ideals of parenting.

Gender Equality, Motherhood, Fatherhood and Parenting

2.1 After the Second World War, Swedish family politics was driven by different motives, one being the ideal of social equality, and another the ideal of gender equality (Lundqvist 2011). The social equality motive was primarily aimed at creating equal opportunities for all children, regardless of family size or financial circumstances, e.g. in reforms such as the universal child care allowance. The gender equality motive questioned the male breadwinner model and the 'double role' women faced when entering the labour market while still being primarily responsible for care at home. Since then, the aim of Swedish family policy has been to provide support for the reconciliation of work and family life, as well as a political strategy with the specific goal of promoting gender equality (Ahlberg et al. 2008: 81). As a consequence, gender equality has been regarded as part of the national identity of the Swedish welfare model (Lundqvist & Roman 2010: 65).

2.2 The dual earner/dual carer model has been encouraged politically through reforms such as parental leave, equal opportunity in the labour market, and an extensive public daycare system. The latter also addresses the social equality motive, with a goal of affordable, quality care for all children regardless of parental income (Daly & Rake 2003; Ellingsæter & Leira 2011; Lundqvist 2011). In addition, ever since the 60's, the 'caring father' has been in focus in intellectual and policy debates, resulting most notably in the 'daddy quota' of the parental leave, introduced in 1995 (Klinth 2002; Lundqvist 2012). The explicit aim of this reform was to get fathers to stay home and take care of their small children, and thus enabling the realization of a 'working mother' ideal (Ellingsæter & Leira 2011: 7). While these reforms have in some cases been successful, research shows a discrepancy between the political rhetoric and real-world experience (Anving 2012; Grönlund 2008). The gender equality discourse has certainly had an impact on people's normative conceptions of how heterosexual couple relations should be organized, but gendered norms on 'proper' female and male roles in the family still prevails, as do gendered practices (Ahlberg et al. 2008: 88). For example, full-time work is still standard and the expected norm for men, while women are in paid work for lesser time, due both to the fact that they are more likely to work part-time, but also because of them taking much more of the parental leave (Ahlberg et al. 2008: 89).

2.3 Over the years, the idea of shared and gender equal parenting has led to a discursive shift in policy and politics, from talk about mothers and fathers, to the gender-neutral term parents (Johansson 2014). However, as research has shown, normative assumptions on motherhood and fatherhood prevail in Sweden. For example, norms for being a 'good mother' are much narrower than the ones for being a 'good father', and mothers are still expected to take responsibility for basic care, while fathers involvement is to a larger extent seen as 'optional' (Ahlberg et al. 2008: 91; Klinth 2002). Further, while gender equality and shared parenting still constitute the main ideals of family policy, the recent decade a 'freedom of choice' discourse has emerged proposing that there should be more possibilities for the parent to chose how child care is organized (Lundqvist 2012: 44). This development correlates well with normative frameworks on parenting identified in other Western contexts, showing evidence of the emergence of 'intensive parenting' discourses and practices (Hays 1996): to make the right choices for your child is becoming increasingly central to the very meaning of being a parent in Sweden today, resulting in worry and anxiety for not providing the child with the best possibilities for a successful future (Bäck-Wiklund & Bergsten 1997: 114-116; Johansson 2007).

The Outsourcing of Care Work

3.1 The failure to fully realize the dual earner/dual carer model has spurred various political initiatives over the years, one of which is to subsidize domestic care services for households. This idea was first introduced in the beginning of the 1990s, but was met with great scepticism (Kvist & Petersson 2010; Kvist 2013). While privately employing cleaners, nannies and maids may be common among high-income families in other countries, it was at that time considered very un-Swedish and as belonging to 'a clear and visible class society with masters and maids in people's homes', a society that was seen as having been abolished in Sweden by the social democratic welfare system (Kvist 2013: 215).

3.2 The proponents of the suggested reform framed it explicitly as a gender equality initiative by arguing that the possibility of paying for domestic help would enable women to participate in the labour market on more equal terms (Kvist & Peterson 2010: 193; Kvist 2013: 215; Estévez-Abe & Hobson 2015; Hellgren 2015).[1] The debate continued, and when a right-wing government was elected in 2006, the so-called RUT tax deduction was one of the first reforms to be introduced. This reform allows purchasers of domestic services to deduct a proportion of the labour costs.[2] Then, too, the debate was intense (Kvist & Peterson 2010), but with time the RUT deduction have become more accepted and even embraced by some of its former political opponents.[3]

3.3 The deduction has led to considerable growth in the formal market for paid domestic services (Calleman & Gavanas 2013; Kvist 2013).[4] The market is dominated by companies that provide cleaning services, but the number of companies also offering nanny services is growing rapidly.[5] In addition, and in parallel to the emergence of a subsidized care service market, another, less formal, market has emerged: au pairs. Before the 1990s, au pairing was practically non-existent in Sweden, but today, as in neighbouring Norway and Denmark (Bikova 2010; Liversage et al. 2013; Stenum 2010), families seek and employ au pairs from all over the world (Calleman 2010;Platzer 2010). [6] Although their working conditions differ in some ways, nannies and au pairs both represent groups that are performing paid care work primarily centred on children in the private setting of a family home. Given the relatively high cost, the service of nannies and au pairs is a realistic choice only for a well-off group of middle-class parents (see also Halldén & Stenberg 2013).

3.4 We argue that the recent developments in Sweden attest to a shift in politics, policy and practice regarding family and parenthood. Privatized ways of solving the child care dilemma are being explicitly supported through political initiatives, (indirectly) challenging the publicly funded alternatives. This means that privatized ways of organizing care work for children in other national contexts, such as the US and UK, which have been discussed in feminist and global care chain research (e.g., Anderson 2000; Ehrenreich & Hochschild 2002; Macdonald 2011; Tronto 2002), are now entering the Nordic context, albeit at a later date. However, how this is being done is not identical to the situations described in other Western societies (Widding Isaksen 2010; Estévez-Abe & Hobson 2015). While there have been serious challenges to, and cutbacks in, welfare institutions since the financial crisis in the 1990s (Lundqvist 2014), which also affected daycare centres (Statistics Sweden 2010), public daycare is still used by most Swedish parents, and is generally regarded as a positive and important part of children's upbringing (Swedish National Agency for Education 2013). [7] Also the late (re)introduction of paid domestic work in the Nordic/Swedish context is interesting given that gender equality has indeed been so strongly embraced on many levels of society. This prompts us to ask: what happens to gender equality, parenting and care for children – in practice and in discourse – when the possibility of privately outsourcing care work for children emerges?

Study and Methods

4.1 The overall focus of the research project has been to study family practices in families where parts of the care for children is purchased as a service in the private market in the form of nannies and/or au pairs. A family practice perspective (Morgan 2011) focuses on the 'doing' of family by its participating actors; on the diversity of experiences, routines and practices that constitute family life. Our assumption is that the everyday practices of 'doing family', as well as reflections on what constitutes 'good' family practices, may be affected by the entrance of a nanny/au pair. In addition, the perspective of 'intensive parenting', that is, the argument that there are discourses today stressing the need for parents to fulfil the obligation of 'emotionally absorbing, labour intensive' parenting (Hays 1996: 8; Dermott and Pomati 2015; Macdonald 2011; Tronto 2002) has inspired our analysis. Ideals of good parenthood are inherently classed: the middle-class engage in what Lareau (2003) labels 'concerted cultivation', visible in an increased pressure to 'make the right choices' on behalf of your child to ensure his/her the best possible future, choices that are often directly related to financial and cultural capital (Anving 2012; Gillies 2011; Lilja 2015). The choice to have a nanny/au pair – which correlates strongly with an upper-middle class position – and the ideas of what kind of care practices this enables, turn out to be important for understanding the doing of family and parenthood in the families up for analysis here.

4.2 In its aim to capture the complexity and multi-dimensionality of relationships, practices and narratives (Eldén 2012; Mason 2006; Smart 2009), three different actors involved in the family practices surrounding nanny/au pair work have been interviewed: nannies/au pairs (26), parents (28) and children (19).[8] Given that the focus in this article is on gender equality and parenthood, the analysis is primarily based on the interviews with parents. Seven of the interviews with parents were couple interviews, with both the mother and father; the remainder were individual interviews, with two participating fathers (nine of the 28 parents were thus men).[9] The participating parents were between 34-53 years old, they had between two and four children between the ages of 6 months and 14 years. All interviewed parents lived in heterosexual relationships. All were working, and were generally highly skilled professionals such as lawyers, economists, engineers and doctors. Their average income was above the Swedish median. Together, these couples had employed approximately 75 au pairs and/or nannies over the years. They lived mainly in and around the larger cities in Sweden.

Doing Family with the Help of a Nanny/Au Pair

5.1 Employing a nanny or au pair in Sweden is not in lieu of publicly funded daycare or afterschool care. On the contrary, all participating parents had had their children in public care at the same time as they employed a nanny or au pair. The nanny/au pair care is thus a complement to the 'ordinary' care services that all Swedish children are entitled to, but this complementary status does not, however, make the hiring of a nanny/au pair less necessary in the minds of the participating parents. Two overarching themes can be identified in the parents' narratives on why they decided to hire a nanny/au pair. Firstly, a nanny/au pair is viewed as necessary to solve the 'jigsaw puzzle of life' as they call it: to make the everyday life of managing a home, family and job possible. Secondly, hiring a nanny/au pair is also justified by discourses of what is good for children, with reference to the quality of care that can be offered, both through the kind of parenting that is made possible when a nanny/au pair is present, and through the additional 'care value' that the nanny/au pair can bring.

Solving the Jigsaw Puzzle of Life: Reformulating Gender Equality

6.1 For the participating parents, having a nanny or au pair is essential in handling the everyday 'jigsaw puzzle of life'.[10] All describe the role of the nanny/au pair in terms of a person who helps them to manage the demands of everyday life. Isabell and Isak, for example, see the hiring of au pairs as necessary – 'to make it work as full-time employed parents', as Isak puts it:

Isak: This jigsaw puzzle of life that we talk about, it is very serious actually, because it really is a puzzle, we really do get our everyday lives in order, when we get home in the evening, leave in the morning, it works with what we expect of our jobs, and at the same time with the children.

6.2 When describing their everyday life before they employed a nanny, words such as 'hectic' and 'stressful' are frequently used by the parents. The experience of stress is described as stress both for the parents and the children, as the parents feel guilty about the stress that they believe they induce in their children. The stress concerning leaving and picking up their children at daycare appears most problematic. For Kristina, who has a leading position at a large company, the hiring first of nannies, and then an au pair, has considerably reduced the stress in her family's daily life:

Kristina: And so, we've always known that if we want to have a career we have to buy ourselves help. And we've tried different ways. We've had a nanny coming to pick them up a couple of days a week, but for us this [having an au pair] is best and most cost-efficient. Most of all we find it such a relief not to have to take them to daycare in the morning, not to have to make the children get a move on in the morning. So we have breakfast together in peace and quiet and then they can [stay with the au pair], they sit and play, they get dressed and go in peace and quiet, without any stress, to daycare and arrive at 9.

6.3 Both fathers and mothers in our study expressed how hiring a nanny reduced everyday stress and made it possible to feel content and 'competent' both at work and in relation to their children and the home. An important factor here seems to be that in most cases both fathers and mothers have demanding careers in well-paid jobs. However, in all the parent narratives, hiring a nanny/au pair was primarily related to the mother's career choices, and often involved both a critical reflection of men's unwillingness to follow gender equality ideals, and also criticism of perceived dominant motherhood and femininity ideals. Several mothers in our study were very frank about their husband's failure to share the care and housework equally. Elvira, for example, explained her decision to employ nannies, as well as other domestic help, as a consequence of her husband's unwillingness to do care work, and the consequences this had for her career:

Elvira: It is not about avoiding taking responsibility as a parent, for me it's about solving the jigsaw puzzle of life, since I have a husband who doesn't do his share of the work at home. So for me it has been a choice: either not having any kind of decent career at all, or getting help.

6.4 Elvira expresses disappointment at her husband's lack of involvement at home. On the other hand, when she got married 'I knew what I was getting into', so she really could not blame him, she said. Instead of trying to change him, and to avoid the endless fights over household chores, employing help was the best solution for all, she argued, and most important for her own possibility to have a career.

6.5 Elvira's husband's employment comes out as a non-negotiable 'fact' to which she has to adjust her and their children's lives. Like Elvira, Felicia is very aware of the injustice in her relationship. In addition, she is critical of the double standards by which others evaluate her and her husband's care work:

Felicia: I feel pretty judged, actually. My husband is just like 'thumbs up, he picks up the kids once a week. Damn, what a good dad he is.' [Laughs] […] But I have learnt a little from him, before I felt bad if I was away [from home] two nights a week, but now I feel pretty good if I'm at home five nights a week.

6.6 Felicia feels that the expectations of her as a mother differ from those of her husband. Although she recognizes the injustice, the solution for her has been to adopt her husband's attitude. This, she argues, is important also in relation to the kind of an example she sets for her children:

Felicia: I want to show the girls […], I want to show my son, too, that a mother isn't just someone who serves others, who stays at home and the like, because I'm… I don't know if I live as I learn, but I do in fact think that I am very feminist.

6.7 Trying to pursue a career on the same terms as her husband becomes a way of challenging dominant motherhood ideals for Felicia. It becomes a question of what kind of mother and what kind of woman one wants to be, and what kind of an example one sets for one's children. This means distancing oneself from a stereotypical feminine model of caring, 'of serving others', as Felicia says.

6.8 A similar distancing from certain kinds of femininities is discernible in Agnes' description of her decision to hire her first au pair:

Agnes: We got our first au pair when I started work at this company […] I had a very junior position, and low pay really; and I think my boss at the time, he knew exactly what I was paid, and for him it was so strange that I got an au pair in the position that I was in then. Because he had one of those wives working part time in like daycare or preschool, so that was his… That's the usual way of solving the family jigsaw puzzle, while I was very, we, I joined the company because I had high ambitions to get on and understood that now I have to make an effort and so we need help.

6.9 As in the case of Elvira and Felicia, it was Agnes's career choices that led to the decision to hire an au pair (despite the fact that her husband worked fewer hours than her). Importantly, when legitimizing the hiring of the au pair, she explicitly distances herself from another kind of femininity. Being a 'career mother' is defined by some of the participating women in opposition to other women: those women who choose less demanding and more traditional, caring jobs, and who then also do more care work at home. That is not the kind of femininity or motherhood ideal that these women value themselves, or want to pass on to their children. However, one could argue that their decision to hire domestic help does indeed signal to the children that this care work still needs to be done, but that it can be performed by people other than themselves, in this case other (young and often migrant) women. By hiring other women to do parts of the care work the women distance themselves from 'traditional' ideals of motherhood and femininity, while simultaneously reaffirming those same ideals: care work is still to be performed by (other) women, not by men (Anderson 2000). The outsourcing of care becomes a new way of doing gender equality for the women in our study:

Elvira: For me, RUT is an […] important gender equality reform […] If we can utilize the RUT services in various ways, then it's like we kind of live in a quite gender equal relationship, because the RUT services compensate for his absence and allow me to prioritize my time with the children instead of doing other things. So for me that is a lot about gender equality.

6.10 Other research has shown that women and mothers in dual earner relationships are indeed involved in both critical assertions of their husband's lack of contribution to care work (Eldén 2011), and also attempts to explain away and excuse the husbands actions, and thus 'save' the image of the couple as living in a gender equal relationship (Ahlberg et al 2008; Roman & Peterson 2011). The new possibilities of hiring domestic help have enabled new ways of solving this problem. Gender equality is redefined: from 'equal sharing of work and care responsibilities' to 'equal work opportunities and outsourcing of care work'. Through this outsourcing, the parents not only manage to solve the 'jigsaw puzzle of life' and reduce the couple fights over household chores (which many parents tell about). They also manage to sustain the much valued ideology of gender equality – without having to change the actual division of domestic care work between the woman and the man. Underlying this gender equality is the quite invisible work of 'other' women. As a result, realization of the ideal of a gender equal family is becoming a classed question, possible only for the well-off, though framed in individualizing talk about the ability to make the right 'choices' and 'prioritize'.

Doing What's Best for the Child: On Quality Time and Good Parenting

7.1 According to the parents, an important motivation to solve the jigsaw puzzle of life by employing a nanny or au pair is to reduce what they perceive as stress in the everyday lives of their children. Two aspects stand out as especially important: reducing the time the children spend in daycare, and making space for 'quality time' for the parents and children. Both of these aspects are argued for in relation to assumptions about what is 'best for children'.

7.2 The question of how much time children should spend in daycare has been a recurrent discussion in public and political debates in Sweden. As mentioned, public daycare centres are generally considered good by Swedish parents; however, in recent years there has been a debate about how many hours a child should spend in daycare (partly fuelled by the cutbacks made). Good parenting is increasingly associated with the ability to pick up your children early from daycare, something that is far from realistic for most parents, and that generates a lot of stress and anxiety (Lorentzi 2011). This is a recurrent theme in the interviews: limiting the time the children spend in daycare is a primary concern and motivation for hiring a nanny/au pair. As we have seen, Kristina talks about the calm mornings her children can enjoy thanks to the au pair who can drop them off later at daycare. Similarly, Isak and Isabell return repeatedly during their interview to their possibility of reducing their daughter's hours. Isak concludes: 'her hours at daycare are between nine and three, and you cannot really have so few hours if you are a full-time working parent', if you don't hire an au pair.

7.3 For the parents, it seems that limiting their children's hours spent at daycare is of primary importance, not necessarily that they themselves need to spend more time with them. Moving the child from daycare to the family home is what is key, and this can be done by the nanny/au pair. The time at home is pictured as less stressful and more relaxing for the child. Lars contrast the 'stressful' environment of public daycare with the possibility of having the full attention of one grown-up – the nanny/au pair – in the calm atmosphere of the home:

Lars: What is best for the child is […] we don't want the children to be in daycare […] too long, we think that it's probably pretty good to get out of there by 3 p.m., come home, maybe crash out on the sofa and take it easy a little, or that you sit down with, yes, with one grown-up you know well and who only focuses on you.

7.4 The parents are indeed conscious that their decision to employ a nanny/au pair means that they might spend fewer hours with their child than other parents. This absence is discussed and handled through talk about quality time. Hiring domestic help enables the parents to be more 'in the present' when they are present. In the parents' narratives, quality time is also created out of the possibility of not having to do domestic chores, since someone else is doing them. Julia, for example, argues that before she hired an au pair, the everyday caring activities took so much time and energy that she did not really have time to be with her children:

Julia: But I realise that when we come home, then you pick up the kids and keep doing things and do the laundry, prepare dinner, clean up after dinner, get ready for tomorrow, they have packed lunches two or three days a week […] so then I cannot even be with my kids […] when we thought about having an au pair it was not to take care of our children really, rather we just wanted someone to help out at home.

7.5 Isak and Isabelle describe a similar situation, and further argue that with their arrangement the care work itself also improves. Their children can be served proper food – 'we don't just need to get Gorby's pastry and put it in the microwave', which would have been the case if they had had to prepare dinner on weekdays themselves, something that is now the au pair's responsibility – and they expect her to make proper meals for the family. In addition, when the everyday caring chores are taken care of by someone else, the chores you actually do as a parent can become fun, an activity to share with the children, Isabelle argues:

Isabelle: 'Could you please give the children a bath?' [you ask the au pair] –otherwise it turns into a obligation for us. Then we can do it in a relaxed and enjoyable way at the weekend instead. Not that we miss out on it, rather you share it a little more. Yes, it becomes a better experience for the children and they get, like, time to play in the tub for half an hour if they want, instead of us saying that they should have a bath in five minutes.

7.6 Arguments about quality time are also central to the parents when they face questions and sometimes even criticism about their decision to hire a nanny or au pair. Agnes, for example, talks about the attitude that she sometimes meets in discussions with other parents, namely 'You don't have children to have someone else take care of them':

Agnes: Well, then I provoke people by saying, 'Yes, but you know what? When I come home at five on Friday afternoon, I don't have to do a single household chore, and I don't have to do any work until Monday morning. I have no laundry, no cleaning, no grocery shopping, I have nothing. I am totally off. I spend 48 hours with my children.' How many people can do that?

7.7 Being relieved of the everyday, mundane care work creates time and space both for other activities and for making those care activities you actually do a choice – into something fun you do together. In her contrasting of their own family life with that of others who do not buy domestic help from nannies or au pairs, Agnes also emerges as a 'better parent' who manages to give her children everything: quality time with their parents who are less stressed out, since they are relieved of the boring chores of care work at home. They have also managed to fulfil their job tasks better, plus provide good care from nannies/au pairs.

7.8 In the parent's narratives, the 'best for my child' argument also entails elements of the special qualities of nanny/au pair care. This is argued for in relation to specific skills or characteristics that the nanny/au pair is thought to possess, and is expected to pass on to the child. Language is a specifically sought after skill: when the children are young, the parents often want a nanny/au pair who speaks the same native language as the child, but later, the au pair's ability to teach the child a second language – most commonly native speaker English – is desired. This is considered positive for the child's advancement at school, and also in relation to the family's future plans, for example of moving to another country.

7.9 Ideas about quality time also occur in discussions about nanny skills, in talk about what the parents want the nanny/au pair to do – and not do – when she is with the children. Many parents establish guidelines, and sometimes rules, for what the nanny/au pair should do with the child – something often mentioned (and considered problematic) by the nannies and au pairs we interviewed. While iPads, computers and TV generally are looked down upon, doing homework, reading together, crafting, singing, baking, and being outdoors are portrayed as 'good activities' (cf. Dermott & Pomati 2015). The increased possibility of controlling what activities the child participates in as well as what relationships he/she forms is indeed portrayed as one of the greatest advantages of nanny/au pair care compared to public daycare by the RUT nanny companies interviewed in our study (cf. Tronto 2002: 45).

7.10 The parents also communicate ideas about nanny care as character building for the child. Having a nanny/au pair is seen as getting children used to being taken care of by others, teaching them to relate to different people, and become independent and socially competent individuals. Several of the parents talk about the nannies' background, expressing an awareness that the nannies come from a less privileged socioeconomic background than their own. While our interviews with nannies and au pairs indicate that this in fact is not always the case, the parents most often have this image. While some view this as a challenge, taking it upon themselves to teach the nanny 'good manners', others see it as an advantage. When Hanne employed her nanny, she inquired into where the nanny lived. When she realized that this was a 'tough area', she concluded that the nanny had to be 'street smart', which she appreciated:

Hanne: Because there is a strength in that and it makes her [the nanny] different from me, because I come from a very privileged background, my parents are academics […] and then it feels good that the adults that are close to our children are not too homogenous, rather have different experiences and different backgrounds, because that gives the children a better view of what the world actually looks like. Not everyone lives like us… But they turn into very good people anyway.

7.11 Similarly, Olga and Otto talked about 'the difference' that au pairs could bring to the family in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity:

Olga: We also thought that it could be fun because we're interested in different cultures and… We thought it might be exciting for the whole family to have someone living with us […] We thought of it like an exchange student. That was our idea, it would be good, a win-win situation.

7.12 The added care value that the nanny/au pair gives to the children thus takes various forms: the child learning a new language, meaningful free time full of 'good activities', or the chance to meet someone from another culture or socioeconomic background. The argument of 'enriching' the children's environment by hiring nannies and au pairs has been identified by scholars in other cultural contexts (Tronto 2002: 43), as has the importance of the increased control of children's time that this seems to give parents (Tronto 2002: 45; Macdonald 2011). In the Swedish context, this is contrasted with the care provided by public daycare centres, in talk about reducing the time spent there, and complementing it with the 'unstressful' environment and relationships enabled by nannies/au pairs. Again, the question of who can provide this good environment, filled with 'quality time' by nannies/au pairs and also parents, becomes a question of 'choice' and 'priorities' that obscure the economic injustice of the practice: only upper middle-class families can in reality pull it off.

Making Gender Equality and Good Parenting into Classed Practices

8.1 The challenges of the social democratic welfare regimes of the Nordic countries, regimes that until now have often served as ideals and examples of the possibility of gender equality politics (Hochschild 2003: 29) and, in the case of Sweden, 'state feminism' (Hernes 1987; Daly & Rake 2003), have been identified by some as processes of 're-familialization' – with political reforms placing a greater emphasis on families by privatization of public institutions of care, and through discourses of the right of families to choose (Borchorst & Siims 2008: 214; Leira 2002; Lundqvist 2011; Ulmanen & Szebehely 2015). The emergence of privatized care solutions in the form of au pairs and subsidized nannies is an especially interesting challenge to the current system. This is because it represents a way of organizing child care that has been practically non-existent in Sweden for half a century (from 1960s to 2007), while it has been a key way of solving the work/care dilemma for middle-class families in other national contexts. Thus, Swedish parents are inviting nannies and au pairs into their families at a much later date than other Western middle-class families. And from a very different point of departure: in a context of a (still) comparatively extensive welfare system, including cheap and high quality daycare institutions, and in a context where gender equality is taken for granted as 'good' by both men and women. The practice of hiring a nanny or an au pair in this context necessitates, as we have seen, new ways of 'doing' and accounting for gender equality on the part of the parents, as well as referral to discourses and practices of 'intensive parenting' and 'what is best for children'.

8.2 By framing the hiring of nannies and au pairs in the gender-neutral terminology of 'solving the jigsaw puzzle of life', Swedish parents can mask the underlying gendered character of their decision. Dual earner couples explaining away unequal sharing of house- and care work is indeed not a new phenomenon (cf. Roman & Peterson 2011), but our study attests to new ways of both solving the problem in practice, and of legitimizing these practices. Arguably, the fathers in our study are probably more engaged in the question of solving the work/family conflict of their families than those in many other national contexts.[11] However, in all narratives, the decision to hire help is primarily related to the mother taking on a career, and the primary responsibility for selecting and hiring the nanny/au pair, and also managing her work is in most (but not all) families a work done by mothers. Thus, our interviews add to the vast number of studies that have shown that also in Sweden, women are still responsible for most of the care work at home (Ahlberg et al 2008; Grönlund 2008; Roman & Peterson 2011), although in this case, some of the work has been transformed into managing other women's work (cf. Macdonald 2011).

8.3 Criticism has been directed at the ways in which the model of dual earner/dual carer has been implemented in the Swedish welfare state, arguing that the earner part of the dichotomy has been more in focus than the carer part. This has resulted in many issues of gender equality relating to the private sphere of society being left outside of the scope of political reform (Gunnarsson 2013: 10). One could indeed argue that RUT was an attempt to also reform the carer part of the dichotomy. However, we argue that it has done the reverse: it has further cemented the gender equality discourse as being about the earner part of the dichotomy – about a woman's right to have a career on the same terms as a man – since the solution of 'dual earner/private outsourcing of care' makes the care part even more invisible. The talk about care as something 'others' do – especially the mundane everyday activities – signals a devaluation of the practice as such, something that is further emphasised by the exchangeability of the nanny/au pair (few stay in the family for longer than a year). In addition, this 'other' person is almost always a woman, and in many cases also a migrant woman, something that, as others have shown (Anderson 2000; Williams & Gavanas 2008; Hellgren 2015) and as our interviews with nannies and au pairs in Sweden have confirmed (Anving & Eldén forthcoming), results in a very precarious position of the worker. Thus, the care carried out by the nanny becomes a kind of glue that ties the family together, but it is in its character almost invisible. This invisible glue is what enables the parents to pursue two careers, and thus also enables the ideal of gender equality to be superficially maintained: the parents manage to solve the jigsaw puzzle of life without compromising their work ambitions – and are thus 'equal'. Tronto argues that by hiring a nanny, 'upper middle-class women and men' can 'benefit from feminist challenges without having to question the privilege of the traditional patriarchial family' (2002: 47). In the case of Sweden, it is rather the privilege – and the strong positive discourse – of the gender equal couple that is saved.

8.4 In addition, the parents are deeply engaged in practices of 'intensive parenting' and of making the right choices on behalf of their children to provide the best care possible (Lareau 2003; Dermott and Pomati 2015; Hays 2003; Lilja 2015). In the narratives of the parents, having your child in public daycare is indeed still regarded as positive, but it is turning into one conscious choice of many that they make when organizing the everyday life of their children. Employing a nanny/au pair makes it possible to limit the child's hours at daycare, thus 'reducing stress' and providing the child with more 'quality time', both in the form of activities that the nanny/au pair does with the child – a time that is often indirectly controlled and planned by the parents – but also in the increased quality of the time the parents spend with the children, since they do not have to perform as many mundane caring tasks. In consequence, the parents manage to live up to the ideal of the good, engaged, active and competent guardian. The possibility of outsourcing care work in Sweden thus seems to indicate a confirmation of the previously identified normative framework of the 'working mother', while the 'caring father'-ideal is instead diminishing (Ellingsæter & Leira 2011), and replaced by competent, intensive parenting (Johansson 2007).

8.5 By employing these two very strong discourses – the gender equality discourse, and the 'best for the children' discourse – the hiring of nannies/au pairs turns into a positive choice that is hard to dispute. No one could be against gender equality, or that children should enjoy a less stressful and meaningful time (Tronto 2002: 43)[12]. Together, these discourses constitute a moral narrative that effectively masks other narratives, most significantly the equality narrative, which was previously so strong in Sweden, namely every child's equal right to good care (Lundqvist 2011).

8.6 The group of parents that can hire nannies and au pairs is indeed a privileged one, and does not represent the majority of Swedish parents. However, the fact is that a growing number of well-off people are using domestic services today, including increasingly the services of nannies and au pairs. And despite its limited number, this group's success in performing the ideal of the good gender equal family – solving the jigsaw puzzle of life, picking up children up early from daycare, giving their children the best opportunities, and pursuing two demanding careers – strengthens this ideal. Their values and behaviours become 'the publicly accepted version of contemporary good parenting' (Dermott and Pomati 2015: 2-3). Good parenting and gender equality becomes something you can 'choose to do', a moral rhetoric that masks the financial reality behind it, and thus puts pressure on those who do not have the means to buy help.

8.7 The growing practice of having a nanny/au pair means a giving up on the former Swedish gender equality ideal and its aim of not only equal sharing of earner responsibility but also of getting men more involved in caring at home. Further, it results in reproductions of new inequalities at the heart of family practices, inequalities linked to class and ethnicity, in making care work something better performed by 'others', that is, other women, something which also reinstates care as a feminine activity. Compared to the other dominant form of outsourced childcare in Sweden – the care work performed at daycare centres – this care is much more invisible, and performed under precarious working conditions. This testifies to a future where the ideal of the right of every child to good care is seriously challenged, and where 'good care' and (a reformulated ideal of) gender equality is increasingly becoming a class privilege.


This research has been carried out within the research project Care for children in an era of private market services: A study of nannies, parents and children funded by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Eldén P13-0603:1). Many thanks to the anonymous reviewers for comments and feedback that helped improve the text. Thanks also to the FAMIW research group at the Department of Sociology, Lund University, and to Esther Dermott, who read and commented on previous versions of the article.


1 The reform also aimed to stimulate the service sector and create jobs in the formal economy, suitable for those with lower education or newly arrived immigrants (Kvist 2013: 216).

2 RUT ('Rengöring, Underhåll, Tvätt'/Cleaning, Maintenance, Laundry) enables taxpayers to make a deduction for domestic services, up to 50% (in January 2016 reduced to 30%) of the labour cost of the service, up to a stated limit (Skatteverket 2015).

3 The Swedish Social Democratic party is no longer opposed to the RUT deduction (Socialdemokraterna 2016).

4 In 2013, the total RUT deduction nationally was SEK 2.4 billion, which was paid to 17 000 companies that provided services to more than half a million households, an increase of more than 11% over the previous year (Swedish Tax Agency 2014).

5 It is difficult to obtain exact figures on the size of the nanny market, since the Swedish tax agency does not differentiate between various kinds of RUT companies. The largest nanny company in Sweden Nanny.nu employs over 800 nannies and has more than 900 customers (figures from 2014) (Nanny nu 2014; Svenska Dagbladet 2011).

6 There are no reliable statistics of how many au pairs are actually working in Swedish families, due to contradictory rules and regulations, which makes much of the au pair work invisible. Previous research claim that the numbers are around 2000-3000 au pairs per year (Calleman 2010: 85), but our qualitative studies testify that it is becoming more acceptable and more common among parents, and the number of au pairs seeking placement in Sweden is rising (Anving & Eldén forthcoming). The working conditions of RUT nannies and au pairs differ in some respects: while RUT nannies are employed by a company that in turn sells the nanny service to the purchasing family, the au pair contract is a private agreement between the au pair and the family. Our interviews show that au pairs work between 25 and 40 hours per week for board and lodging and a monthly pay ('pocket money') of SEK 3500. RUT nannies work on average 3 hours a day, 2-4 days a week, and are paid by the hour (between SEK 100-120).

784% of Swedish children aged between 1 and 5 years attend daycare (Swedish Statistics 2014).

8 We also interviewed six RUT nanny companies, two au pair agencies, as well as several other actors engaged with au pair/nanny services (churches, the Swedish Tax Agency, the Migration Agency).

9 First, we interviewed au pairs and nannies, which were recruited through nanny agencies, posting on social media and snowballing. The nannies/au pairs were asked if they wanted to pass on information about our project to the families they worked for. Some did, while some did not feel comfortable doing so. Some participating parents have thus, been referred to us by nannies/au pairs, while others were referred by other parents, as well as through personal contacts. Some contacted us on their own initiative, through our posting on social media sites for au pairs. For ethical reasons, if nannies/au pairs and parents involved in the same family practices participated, different researchers interviewed the two different parties. All interviews (1-2,5 hours) were conducted by the researchers/authors, at a time and place of the parent's choice. They were transcribed in full, and analysed trough frequent team discussions followed by coding into NVIVO. For this paper, the codes in focus have been 'gender equality', 'division of labour within the family', and 'parenthood'.

10 The term 'jigsaw puzzle of life' was introduced by the TCO union (Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees), and is widely used in political debate on the work-family balance.

11 Many au pairs tell about being surprised at the high level of engagement of fathers in the families they work for compared to the norm in their home countries. However, all nannies and au pairs see the mother of the family as the one who manages their tasks and as their primary counterpart in the family.

12 The individual parents' choices are very understandable and to be respected. We are not condemning their behaviour, rather we wish 'to point to the way in which our individualized accounts of mothering [parenting] make us inured to the social structures that contribute to the growing gaps among advantaged and less advantaged children' (Tronto 2002: 48).

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