Am I Exploiting My Nanny?

Let's Talk About the Kids
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Feb. 19 2004 4:54 PM

Am I Exploiting My Nanny?

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Dear Sara and Caitlin,

Sara, you're right to want to fold the nanny issue into the larger scandal of underpaid labor—at Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and just about everywhere else these days. Only, I want to say—not so fast. There is something distinctive about nannying—or paid housecleaning for that matter—that requires a bit more thought. Unlike the underpaid Third World women who no doubt stitched the Gap shirt I'm wearing, the nanny or maid works right in someone's house. Theirs is a peculiarly intimate kind of work, performed in the presence of the people we love best—our children—in fact children are the "objects" of a nanny's labor.

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So let's talk about the kids. Lurking in Catlin's article is the bias that children do better when their mothers do not go out to work. I agree, sort of. It's sad that both mothers and fathers have to leave their children every day in order to win the family's bread. This, however, is ultimately a consequence, not of feminism, but of the industrial revolution that removed productive work from the home. Childcare was once inextricably entangled with that productive work—the means by which you taught the children productive skills, like farming and sewing, as well as the discipline to perform them. I'm not longing for the old days of informal child labor in the household, but its absence leaves the kids dangling. What are they supposed to be doing in a home where nothing much—beyond eating, sleeping and the little tasks of personal hygiene—goes on? We play, of course, and try to prep them for nursery school, but staying home with them doesn't solve the problem.

Nannies don't either, and a nanny (or a maid) introduces a new set of child-related problems. When an immigrant, usually Third World, nanny moves in with the family (as a resident or just a day worker), her very presence teaches the kids an ugly lesson: that there are tasks that are somehow "below" mommy and daddy, but appropriate to darker-skinned people with broken English. Caitlin, for example—who took the odd and astoundingly privileged course of staying home with the nanny—reports that this personage washes the sheets and generally cleans up after the kids go through a bout of stomach flu. You think the kids don't notice that mommy is available for reading stories but only nanny deals with actual diapers and shit-stained sheets? You think this division of labor doesn't make a lasting imprint on them?

Suppose I could have afforded a nanny and a maid when my kids were little; I still wouldn't have hired them because I didn't want my kids growing up with the world's class and racial hierarchies stamped on their emerging little world views. The African-American poet Audre Lorde, for example, wrote of encountering a little white girl in the supermarket, who pointed at Lorde's child and exclaimed, "Look, mommy, a baby maid!" I didn't want this for my kids. I wanted them to grow up respecting every kind of work and every kind of human being. (And I am proud to report that they did.)

There's another, far more heartrending, child-related problem here. What about the nanny's children? As far as I can recall, this issue never comes up in Caitlin's article, but it was this issue that inspired Arlie Hochschild and me to compile Global Woman. We were moved and appalled by stories of Filipina nannies in Hong Kong or L.A., and Sri Lankan nannies in Europe and the Gulf states, who may go for five years or more without seeing their own children. If a mother's working outside the home is potentially hazardous to kids, as Caitlin sometimes seems to suggest, what about her working thousands of miles away for pay that rarely allows a visit home? In her essay in Global Woman, Arlie talks about this transfer of loving care—from Third World to affluent First World kids—as a new kind of imperialist extraction—not of gold or rubber, this time, but of love.

All the more reason, then, to work for high-quality, affordable childcare for everyone—at decent rates of pay for the childcare workers!

But there's another problem here, one which even the achievement of that utopian goal won't solve. We need to talk about the conditions of work for the parents too. When we ur-feminists talked about "having it all"—career and kids—that "all" didn't include 12-hour days at the law firm or a double shift at Hardee's. What's really eroding women's foothold in the workplace (though not, we must note, men's) is the expectation that everyone work killer hours. You won't make partner at the law firm without those 80-hour weeks, nor will you support your children (perhaps even with a husband's income to help) on single shifts at Wal-Mart.

So, in addition to fighting for childcare, I want to see a battle to salvage the eight-hour day and, beyond that, to win the flex-time options we used to talk about. All parents (and grandparents, if they're as besotted as I am) should be able to enjoy a few unpressured hours a day with the tiny people in their lives.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author most recently of Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, as well as co-editor of Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy,and the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

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