Books March 2004

How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement

Dispatches from the nanny wars
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When my twin sons were babies, we lived a block away from a day-care center, and just as I was setting out with the stroller for the first walk of the day—usually at 7:30, right after the first segment of the Today show ended—I would see mothers dropping off their children, many of whom were infants no older than mine. I'd slow down as I passed, taking an interested look at these mothers, who were always in such a rush, bogged down with diaper bags and teddy bears, and then I would walk on, headed for the park. The long, long day would begin to unfold: the walk, the end of the Today show, the morning nap, lunch, another walk, the afternoon nap, two solid hours of MSNBC (sometimes more), and then, at five or so, the last walk of the day. Often I would see the same mothers picking up the babies I'd seen dropped off ten hours before, and I would marvel at the sight. In fact, I sort of planned my day around it: it was my little treat. Think of all they've missed, I would say smugly to myself. I felt in every way superior to them: every day while they had been miles away from their babies, I'd been right there with mine, catching every little smile, writing down every advance—rolling over! eating a bit of mashed banana!—on the lined ivory pages of their baby books, importantly calling the pediatrician if anything seemed slightly awry. That so much of the day had been tedious and (truth be told) mildly depressing was itself a badge of honor. Unlike those women parking their kids in day care while they went to work, I was a mother virtuously willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her children, and being rewarded with the ultimate prize: I wasn't missing a moment of their fleeting, precious, and unrecoverable childhoods.

It was entirely snotty and rude and most of all silly for me to have this attitude toward those mothers. In the first place, the day-care center was in no way tony, nor were the cars that pulled up to it in any way luxurious; I'll bet that all those mothers worked more because of economic necessity than because of a desire for professional advancement or emotional fulfillment. More to the point, a majority of my sainted hours noting every little moue of delight or displeasure that crossed my children's faces were spent in the company of a highly capable and very industrious nanny who did all of the hard stuff. There was no need for me to be moping around the apartment all day; I really could have lightened up and had a little more fun, clicked off the TV and gone to the movies or lunch or shopping. But I felt anxious about the whole thing—very, very anxious. If I was going to stake out my turf as an "at-home mother," putting all my worldly promise in cold storage to do it, didn't I have to actually stay home? Fifty years ago a young matron lucky enough to have household help would have been up and dressed and off to the department store or the library guild or the dry cleaner's by midmorning, and no one would have questioned her inclinations as far as motherhood was concerned. But now, of course, the situation is so fraught with four decades' worth of female advance and retreat that almost any decision a woman makes about child care is liable to get her blasted by one faction or the other. Standing bravely in the crossfire are nannies, who tend to be the first choice of professional-class mothers who work (so much better than day care—the baby is still being raised in his own home, according to his mother's deeply considered specifications) and the guilty luxury of a good number of at-home mothers. And, as many of us have learned, the mother-nanny relationship has the potential for being the most morally, legally, and emotionally charged one that a middle-class woman will ever have.

I didn't know a single child who had a nanny when I was growing up. Nannies existed in English nursery rhymes and children's stories, in Mary Poppins and Peter Pan. The Brady Bunch, of course, had Alice, but she seemed to be part and parcel of the double family tragedy, never even alluded to, that had brought them all together. The Courtship of Eddie's Father had Mrs. Livingston, but again: tragedy. My father was always very proud of a scar on his right elbow, which he had received at the hands of an incompetent nurse who scalded him in the bath when he was an infant, and whom my grandfather had sent packing that very day. The scar proved to my father that his family had once been a tiny bit grand; it proved to me that he had been born a long, long time ago: a nurse? When I was growing up, in Berkeley in the 1960s, faculty wives—which is what my mother was—stayed home, kept house, and raised children. When my mother died, I gave a maudlin eulogy about all the days we spent together when I was small, shopping at Hink's department store and eating peeled apricots and lying down for naps in the big bed under the gable window of her bedroom. I probably should have found something more estimable to say about her, but in the days after her death all I could think about was what a wonderful thing it had been to be raised at home, by a mother who loved me. But by the 1970s, of course, the idyll was coming to an end; many of the younger wives had begun to want out. I remember being sent in 1977, at age fifteen, to my very first psychotherapist, a young wife and mother with a capacious office on Bancroft Avenue. I can't remember a thing I talked about on all those darkening afternoons, but I do remember very clearly a day on which she suddenly sat up straight in her chair and began discussing, for reasons I could not fathom and in the most heated terms imaginable, not the vagaries of my sullen adolescence but, rather, marriage—specifically, her own. "I mean, who's going to do the shit work?" she asked angrily. "Who's going to make the pancakes?"

I stared at her uncomprehendingly. The only wife I knew intimately was my mother, who certainly had her discontents, but whom I couldn't even imagine using the term "shit work," let alone using it to characterize the making of pancakes—something she did regularly, competently, and, as far as I could tell, happily (she liked pancakes; so did the rest of us). But in 1978 shit work was becoming a real problem. Shit work, in fact, was threatening to put the brakes on the women's movement. Joan Didion's unparalleled 1972 essay on the movement ("To make an omelette," the essay begins, "you need not only those broken eggs but someone 'oppressed' to break them") described the attempts women of the era made to arrive at an equitable division of household labor:

They totted up the pans scoured, the towels picked off the bathroom floor, the loads of laundry done in a lifetime. Cooking a meal could only be "dogwork," and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one's own forced labor. Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their "freedom." It was a long way from Simone de Beauvoir's grave and awesome recognition of woman's role as "the Other" to the notion that the first step in changing that role was Alix Kates Shulman's marriage contract ("wife strips beds, husband remakes them").

Alix Kates Shulman's marriage contract, which I have read, is so perfectly a document of its time that it might stand alone, a kind of synecdoche for twenty years' worth of arguing and slamming doors and fuming over the notorious inability of husbands to fold a fitted sheet or get the children's breakfast on the table without leaving behind a scrim of crumbs and jelly on every flat surface in the room. Originally published in 1970, in a feminist magazine called Up From Under, the contract—like the women's-liberation movement itself—quickly moved from the radical margins of society to its very center: it was reprinted in the debut issue of Ms., no surprise, but also in Redbook and New York and Life, in which it was part of a cover story on the subject of experimental marriages. (That a marriage in which the husband helped out with housework qualified as "experimental" tells you how much things have changed in the past three decades.) It was also taken seriously in some very high quarters, including the standard Harvard textbook on contract law, in which it was reprinted.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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