Thursday, May 12, 2005

Mimi Towle had a problem shared by an increasing number of American parents: communicating with a nanny who barely speaksEnglish. “There were some incidents where I didn’t feel clear on things — ‘How long did you put her down for a nap?’ There were just things that got lost in the translation,” Mrs. Towle said.

The former fact-checker for Parenting magazine says she was familiar with “every bad scenario of what could happen with a child,” but was surprised to find that bookstores in her suburban community near San Francisco — where Hispanic nannies are commonplace — didn’t have any guide to Spanish phrases about diapers and bottles, rashes and fevers.

So she wrote “Bilingual Babycare: Bridging the Communication Gap Between Parents and Caregivers,” a book whose publishing success has highlighted shifts in American demographics and lifestyles.

Now in its second printing, Mrs. Towle’s book includes hundreds of helpful phrases like, “El es muy especial para comer” (“He is a picky eater”), “Creo que ella tiene popo” (“I think she has a dirty diaper”), and “Puedo verificar sus documentos legales?” (“May I check your legal papers?”).

Providing this helpful information has provoked some unexpected reactions, publisher Oli Mittermaier said.

“Of all the titles we publish, this is the only one … that has received some negative response,” said Mr. Mittermaier, co-founder of San Francisco-based Lilaguide, which specializes in books for new parents, including “Baby-Friendly Washington DC Area.”

On Internet book sites such as, anonymous reviewers have assailed Mrs. Towle for perpetuating “useless stereotypes” of Hispanics as “uneducated and fit for only low-skill, low-wage jobs,” or accused her of pandering to “upper-crust wives” needing advice on how to “survive their domestic trials and tribulations.”

The criticisms usually come from “people, oftentimes not even parents, literally judging the book by its cover,” the publisher said. “It’s just a book intended to make a very common situation safer and more practical. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Mrs. Towle says she was taken aback by the vehement comments about her book. “The odd part that makes me pause is the people who get up in arms: ‘Why have kids if you’re going to work? Why would you have somebody who can’t speak English taking care of your kids?’”

Negative stereotypes and “upper crust” concerns, she says, were far from the considerations when she and her husband hired a “warm and wonderful” woman to help care for their child.

“I wanted to work at home. I wanted to be with my baby, but I also had to work,” said Mrs. Towle, who worked from home as a freelance writer for years before becoming a mother. Fees at area day care centers were so high, she said, that hiring someone to provide “in-home care” was the more affordable option.

Furthermore, she said, a Hispanic baby sitter can provide important educational assistance in 21st-century America — especially in a state where the 2000 census found Hispanics made up nearly one-third of the population.

“I had noticed that people who had Spanish-speaking nannies, their kids ended up being bilingual and, in California, that’s an advantage,” Mrs. Towle said in a telephone interview.

The idea for the book sprang purely from everyday parental concerns, she explains.

“I just wanted the nanny to have things like what to do in case there was an earthquake — poisons, CPR and first aid, food safety,” she said. “I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a book that had this, because as far as I could see around my hometown … there just were a lot of Spanish-speaking nannies. I just thought, why don’t we write one?”

Thus was inspired a 224-page English-to-Spanish/Spanish-to-English attempt to help parents speak to their baby sitters, and vice versa, about everything from playgrounds to potty training.

“I’ve had a lot of the nannies come up to me and say that they love the book because it gives them a specific tool for their job,” Mrs. Towle said. “They have the words they need when they’re talking to employers.”

That “Bilingual Babycare” has found such a ready market is troubling to some.

“I guess it’s really a sign of the times,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). “Having a full-time nanny has become almost a required necessity of the upper-middle class.”

Low wages paid to such workers, he said, obscures the broader costs of mass immigration.

“What we have to remember is we’ve created a situation here where everybody winds up subsidizing the caregivers for the children of people in higher economic brackets,” said Mr. Mehlman, whose group advocates efforts to reduce illegal immigration.

“The employer pays some kind of baseline salary, but health care, education for the caregiver’s children, all these costs then get socialized and passed onto the taxpayer,” the FAIR spokesman said. “Clearly, this is a national issue, the need for child care, but every family in America can’t import a nanny.”

Mrs. Towle, who is working on German and French editions of “Bilingual Babycare,” said she never meant to stir such political concerns.

“It’s just a helpful communication tool — not a social statement.”

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