Am I Exploiting My Nanny?

Hypocrites, Toothless Labor Laws, and Saving Day Care
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Feb. 19 2004 3:20 PM

Am I Exploiting My Nanny?


Dear Caitlin and Barbara,

"The Nanny Wars" strikes me as just another skirmish in a much larger debate being conducted among women about their roles as workers, mothers, girlfriends, and wives. I must admit to coming away from your piece, Caitlin, not knowing what you're really advising women to do. You're clearly not against nannies on principle, as you have one yourself. (Barbara, I think you are against nannies on principle—are you?) So, boiled down to its essence, the piece seems to have one message: We need to pay nannies more, including their Social Security and Medicare taxes, a goal both Barbara and I, I think, would heartily embrace. But your piece offers no plan or even the sketchiest ideas for making that happen except to guilt liberal women into doing it: "C'mon Ladies, Don't Be Cheap!" you write to me. (More of the Dr. Laura approach to politics.)

Let's just say that was effective— what about all the employers out there who aren't proper-thinking, Caitlin-fearing liberals? Given the income bracket required to afford nannies, I suspect at least some of the people who hire them are Republicans. To judge from the people Republicans elect to office, one can only assume that, being good conservatives, they believe you should pay people only what the market will bear, even if it's an unlivable wage. Or maybe they don't even think about it; these attitudes are so prevalent, they're part of the air we breathe. But you aren't concerned with these families, or I should add, the conservative writers who represent them, because they, unlike the women you criticize, aren't hypocrites. So, they get a bye. The whole piece comes down to an elaborate game of gotcha. The problem in this country isn't feminists who aren't living up to their ideals. It's that a lot of people don't even have those ideals. Apparently, a lot of people aren't troubled by the notion of asking other people to do what you call "shit work" for $6 or $7 an hour. (How else to explain a Congress that won't raise the minimum wage above $5.15 an hour?)


As for United Domestic Workers of America: It's hard to know where to begin. The union is not, as you suggest, for nannies or maids. It represents home health aides who assist the elderly and disabled in a program set up by the state and paid for under Medicaid. The aides work in poor, not rich, people's homes—defined as personal wealth not exceeding $3,000 for a couple. To date, the union exists only in California. As for the Sleeping Car Porters Union, their workers were employed by the Wal-Mart of their day, the railroads. My point was that maybe Wal-Mart is the place to start organizing, as it's the biggest employer in America and accused of the very same unfair labor practices that you're concerned about (abominably low wages, not paying Social Security). Except it's impossible to organize Wal-Mart. Why? Because of toothless labor laws, the overabundance of cheap labor, the array of corporate interests, backed by billions of dollars, all working to prevent it. Yes, the Farm Workers triumphed—back in the 1960s. And yet having organized, those workers still can't get employers to sign off on basic contracts. Farm workers are still exploited. Once we start talking about "collectives" on Long Island, I think we can pretty much agree we're clutching at straws. These are not just debater's points—such facts are crucial to understanding just how hard it is to organize in this country, even though technically it is everyone's "right." Take the grocery workers' strike in California: Workers who have, to date, earned a decent wage, with benefits, are being asked to give all that up to compete with, yes, Wal-Mart.

But I'd like to end with what Barbara brought up at the end of her last entry: day care. I don't share Caitlin's view that "day care sucks" or that it necessarily involves "institutional rows of cribs." There's a wonderful program at the YMCA across the street from my apartment, which, when my daughter is a little older she may go to. (She's already on the waiting list.) It's cheaper, but that's not the reason we're thinking of putting her there. We like the idea of her being with other kids, of there being planned activities. (The Y has a pool, for instance, where she could learn to swim.) Given that this is the option that will always be affordable to most Americans, I'd like to get your ideas on how we could come together to make quality day care a reality for most families.

(For anyone who's read this far, I'd like to answer Caitlin's challenge. To be honest, the sentence in question reflects writing under time pressure. "The mistreatment of nannies at far different hands" actually referred to the scenarios you describe in your reply, not your piece.)


Sara Mosle teaches writing at Philip's Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., and has written about education for Slate, the New York Times, and the Atlantic among other publications.


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