Letters to the editor

Nanny Wars

Caitlin Flanagan ("How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement," March Atlantic) flatters me in referring to my book The Price of Motherhood as the "Big Kahuna" and the "Das Kapital of our working-mother age." But I'm afraid she is the closet Marxist, stirring up class warfare among women. Her piece is one long attack on working mothers, referred to as "professional-class mothers."

She attacks me for not attacking Zoe Baird, the ambitious self-made attorney whose husband failed to pay Social Security taxes for their two household employees. Flanagan says I called this a "civil violation" (as I did, correctly), implying that I should have called for a criminal prosecution, and accuses me of being illogical because I argue that all workers (including mothers at home) should receive Social Security. Never mind that the point of retelling the Zoe Baird story was to show how women shot themselves in the foot by attacking her instead of focusing their anger on immigration laws that keep nannies undocumented. The upshot of the Baird affair was to strengthen a system that marginalizes domestic workers and bars countless qualified people—mostly mothers—from judgeships and high office.

In my book I describe how Canada has adopted a reform whereby temporary work permits are issued to foreigners with training in early childhood development or four years of hands-on experience. They must live in, and after two years they may apply for permanent-resident status. This law was made possible by an alliance of affluent two-career couples, organized foreign-born child-care workers, and women's groups.

No such alliance exists in the United States, and no reform is in sight. One immigration attorney told me that this is because so many American working women feel guilty about hiring a nanny at all. They feel it is "somehow selfish and inappropriate for women to be seeking solutions just for themselves for what many see as a privilege."

In other words, judgmental attitudes like Flanagan's are contributing to the very exploitation of immigrant women that she deplores. We need a cease-fire in the mommy wars and the "nanny wars," and a reminder of the first rule of real war: divided we fall.

Ann Crittenden
Washington, D.C.

Caitlin Flanagan's rant would make more sense if it addressed the plight of exploited workers in general—and especially if she could tell us what other jobs Third World women with limited skills can find that pay $350 a week plus room, board, utilities, health insurance, and Social Security benefits, or that pay $10 to $15 an hour on weekends.

Sarah Armstrong Jones
Los Angeles, Calif.

Anyone who admits to never having changed a sheet should not presume to expound on those who have changed thousands. Caitlin Flanagan's narrow-minded and self-serving essay was clearly meant to be provocative and splashy, presumably to pave the way for her book in progress on "modern motherhood." She manages to sow dissension among those with common concerns, to demonstrate her lack of historical imagination, and to trash nearly everyone else who has ventured to write on the subject of women vis-à-vis motherhood, housework, and professional aspirations.

Thirtysomething professional women, in Flanagan's view, are guilty of moral turpitude in hiring poor immigrant women for housework and child care. Her sharpest barbs, however, are aimed at older feminists (particularly the novelist and activist Alix Kates Shulman), who are guilty of the apparently worse crime of silliness. Their "silliness" consists of the morally irreproachable and perfectly reasonable (if radical at the time) suggestion that men help care for the homes they occupy and the children they father. Except for a mention of Flanagan's husband, who has never changed a sheet either, men are so conspicuously absent from her article that they might as well not exist—a sad commentary on the earlier ideals of equal partnership.

After all of Flanagan's high-handed judgments, her ignorant flaying of young and old alike, and her snide parenthetical jokes, what is her grand conclusion about how to handle the conflicting demands of work, marriage, and child-rearing? Treat our hired help fairly and pay taxes! The feminists of thirty years ago, despite their "silliness," approached the matter with far more complex thought and inventiveness. But it's easier to dodge the hard questions, mock one's peers and elders, pat oneself on the back, gush over one's excellent nanny, and publish a nasty piece of work.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz
New York, N.Y

How does Caitlin Flanagan know that "when a mother works, something is lost" for children? She offers no supporting evidence other than her own experiences growing up with an at-home mom and becoming one herself. Since she is so cutting about the justifications offered by other women, it is surprising she doesn't recognize her own.

Carly Berwick
Jersey City, N.J.

The fact that Caitlin Flanagan has taken her children to eight birthday parties in a month is not, in my view, an example of "the way that adult middle-class life has become so intensely, laughably child-centered." The very subject of her piece belies this notion and makes it an absurd statement. If legions of women who can afford to raise their own children choose not to do so, and spend the majority of their hours away from their children, what about this is "child-centered"? And furthermore, any society that makes it hard for most middle-class women to find quality day care so that they (out of necessity) can work is also not "child-centered." I don't know who this "professional class" is that Flanagan speaks of. Most of the college- (and even graduate-school-) educated women I know are teachers, nurses, musicians, social workers, and entry-level doctors and lawyers with huge school debts. They use a patchwork of home day care, after-school programs, teenagers, and relatives to care for their kids; those boatloads of willing nannies to which Flanagan refers are quite scarce in the heartland of America. Considering the amount of shuttling around many children—rich, poor, and middle-class—do before and after school, I can't agree that we are as a society "child-centered." Taking your children to birthday parties on rushed Saturdays when your nanny has her day off does not mean your world revolves around the well-being of your children or your family.

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