Books October 2003

Nannyhood and Apple Pie

As capitalism's "latest recruits," American women may know less than their nannies about loving care

On the bulletin board at my frantic Gymboree in Los Angeles there are flyers, business cards, and tear-off slips for services targeted at every brand of overbooked, underappreciated post-feminist new mother. There are lactation support groups, baby yoga classes, eco-friendly housecleaners, Reiki-trained doulas, and a service that takes the notion of mother's helper to a whole new level: "Nanny and Me: For your caregiver and child—courses in Spanish that lovingly teach your Latina nanny the customs and daily practices of Jewish culture."

This would be ripe fodder for Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist and the author of The Second Shift and The Time Bind. In her opportune and profoundly fascinating new book, The Commercialization of Intimate Life, she writes, "Love and care, the very basis of any social life, are a source of great confusion in America today." This eclectic collection of essays—which Hochschild describes as "lanterns to shed light on what's happening to care in everyday life under global capitalism"—covers (and contrasts) a wealth of topics: Japanese versus American advice books, the transmission of patriarchal Indian customs from mother to daughter, male bias in academia, modern marriage, contemporary work. Although the lantern light can at times flicker, particularly in the sections originally presented at academic symposia, this collection is a must-read sociological primer for anyone concerned with the intricacies and ironies of American family life today.

Hochschild begins the book with a lyrical recollection of her own parents in the 1950s. Her mother was a troubled caregiver, cooped up at home, who "gave us many gifts of love, but each with a touch of sadness." In contrast, she writes, "When I remember my father, I picture him skip-stepping down a long flight of stairs in front of our house, whistling a jaunty tune, facing away from the house and from us." It's no surprise, then, when she informs us that "like many white middle-class women of my generation, I became a 'migrant' in the 1960s from the emotional culture of my mother to that of my father."

However, problems have ensued in this personal—and cultural—migration. Hochschild refers to feminism here—as she did in The Second Shift—as a worthy but "stalled" gender revolution. Women did skip-step off to work, but no one moved home to take their places. Men kept working the same long (if not longer) hours, while adding 20 percent of the housework to their loads, and although their fathers had done no housework whatsoever, these modern men drew resentment because their contribution wasn't 50 percent. Hard-driving wives trying to make partner at their firms felt it was unfair that they should do more housework than their hard-driving husbands. "Instead of humanizing men," Hochschild concludes, "we are capitalizing women."

Like some Big Mother in the sky, though, capitalism both creates the problem and rushes in with a solution—of sorts. Echoing Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Hochschild writes, "Feminism is to the commercial spirit of intimate life as Protestantism is to the spirit of capitalism. The first legitimates the second. The second borrows from but also transforms the first." And incorporates, co-opts, and abducts it. At the product level capitalism proffers relatively benign items, such as Instant Quaker Oatmeal for busy mothers (an ad for which Hochschild winningly deconstructs). At the service level, plugging what Hochschild calls the "care gap" left open by women, we have, she notes, "childcare workers, eldercare aides, hospice workers, summer camp counselors, psychiatrists, and for the affluent, chauffeurs, family photo assemblers, and birthday party coordinators."

I think only a mother with a psycho-chemical disorder would fondly miss the light-headedness and nausea that come with blowing up birthday-party balloons, but here's where things get creepy:

Especially in their more recent incarnation, the commercial substitutes for family activities often turn out to be better than the real thing. Just as the French bakery often makes better bread than mother ever did, and the cleaning service cleans the house more thoroughly, so therapists may recognize feelings more accurately, and childcare workers prove more even-tempered than parents. In a sense, capitalism isn't competing with itself, one company against another, but with the family, and particularly with the role of wife and mother.

So, fifty years of progress later, men are men, women are men, and a Third World nanny is home lighting the menorah candles. (Economic inequalities being what they are, tending strangers' children may be the nanny's only means of supporting her own five, back home in a different country—a phenomenon Hochschild describes in "Love and Gold," an essay that previously appeared in Global Woman, a collection she co-edited with Barbara Ehrenreich.) Perhaps more damning still, when it comes to child-rearing, the nanny (along with other "commercial substitutes") is fast becoming the new ideal. A nursery-school director quoted by Hochschild remarks,

"This may be odd to say, but the teacher's aides we hire from Mexico and Guatemala know how to love a child better than the middle-class white parents. They are more relaxed, patient, and joyful. They enjoy the kids more. These professional parents are pressured for time and anxious to develop their kids' talents. I tell the parents that they can really learn how to love from the Latinas and the Filipinas."

Who or what, then, comes first in professional parents' hearts? Hochschild argues that owing to the "religion of capitalism" and the "emotional draw of a work culture," what many Americans find easiest to love is work. In a capitalist society work dictates the schedules, the deadlines, the urgency; product life cycles supersede family life cycles at every turn. (The capitalism so beloved of "family values" conservatives—the same capitalism that is so friendly to radical individualism—is by its very nature inimical to the nuclear family.) In a study Hochschild did at Amerco, a Fortune 500 company, she found that many employees with twenty or more years at the company were on their second or third marriages. "To these employed," she wrote, "work was their rock, their major source of security. They were getting their pink slips at home."

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