Contents | March 2004
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Dependents" (October 2003)
"Making beds for my employers, I know too much of them. Their bed here, it is like the bed of a seven-year-old: dry, neat, white, what Bing calls pretty princess perfect perfect." A story by Mona Simpson
"Nannyhood and Apple Pie" (October 2003)
As capitalism's "latest recruits," American women may know less than their nannies about loving care. By Sandra Tsing Loh
"The Baby Experts" (May 2003)
The high anxiety of child-rearing. By Sandra Tsing Loh
"The Mother Load" (October 2002)
Many of today's working mothers have upper-middle class lifestyles but middle-class aspirations. By Caitlin Flanagan
"Babes in Day Care" (August 1988)
The controversy over whether nonmaternal care harms infants. By Ellen Ruppel Shell
"The Captivity of Marriage" (June 1961)
"Probably every educated wife has found herself staring at a mountain of dirty diapers and asking herself desperately, 'Is this all there is?' And at the same time she is embarrassed by her dissatisfaction." By Nora Johnson
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "The Mother's Dilemma" (February 12, 2004)
Caitlin Flanagan on parenting, home life, and the morally troubling nature of the mother-nanny relationship.
The Atlantic Monthly | March 2004
Books & Critics
hen 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.
How Serfdom Saved
the Women's Movement
Dispatches from the nanny wars
by Caitlin Flanagan
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.
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.
The document, which I first encountered when I read the Didion essay as a girl, struck me as odd; I could see how a bride on the eve of her wedding could think ahead to the making and unmaking of beds (although it was only once I was deep into marriage that it occurred to me this task might be a chore, as opposed to yet another delightful aspect of married sexuality, which I could imagine only in the most thrilling terms), but there was other language in it that seemed born of actual and bitter experience. Shulman and her husband, for example, were going to divide "the week into hours during which the children were to address their 'personal questions' to either one parent or another." It was difficult for me to conceive of a bride's coming up with such a disillusioned view of the thing, even a bride fully alerted to the oppression of motherhood, but it turns out that Shulman was no bride when she wrote it. I have since learned that her marriage agreement—talk about a doomed cause—was of the postnuptial variety.
Alix Kates Shulman's marriage—under way a full decade before she sat down at her typewriter, aglow with "feminist irony, idealism, audacity, and glee," and punched out the notorious contract—had been buffeted by many of the forces at play in American cultural life of the late sixties and early seventies, but she and her husband evinced an impressive ability to up the ante. He worked; she stayed home with the kids and wrote "subversive" essays, short stories, and position papers, all of which centered on her growing desire to come Up From Under. He retaliated by starting a new business venture in another state and taking up with a UC Berkeley student. She double-retaliated by taking a young lover of her own and publishing an essay about her husband's inability to bring her to orgasm, an essay that ended with the half jaunty, half exasperated imperative "Think clitoris!" At this point Alix and her husband were apparently seized by the one patently sensible idea of their entire marriage: they needed to get divorced.
Now the story begins to get complicated. In the early seventies there was no such thing as joint custody in the state of New York, and Alix realized that a divorce was not going to be much of a boon to her, since it would leave her with the kids full time, which would mean a heck of a lot of breakfasts to prepare and lunch boxes to pack—activities that would sorely cut into the time available for her to make pronouncements on behalf of the voiceless clitoris. When friends heard about her rotten marriage and asked her when she was going to divorce the bum, she would snappily reply, "Not until you're ready to help me take care of my kids." Thus the marriage agreement—which Shulman originally, and more accurately, wanted to title "A Divorce Dilemma and a Marriage Agreement"—was born, a way to husk the marriage of any pretense of emotional fulfillment and reduce it to a purely labor-sharing arrangement. (Her husband signed it, ran off with his coed, and then—proving himself to be one of the great masochists of the twentieth century—returned to Shulman for another full decade of punishment before they finally switched off the lights.)
The marriage agreement virtually demanded to be ridiculed, and ridiculed it was: not only by Joan Didion but also by Russell Baker and Norman Mailer. (In his 1971 anti-feminist manifesto The Prisoner of Sex, Mailer considered the agreement at some length, concluding that he "would not be married to such a woman." The potential of the agreement to serve as a lifetime protection policy against marriage to Norman Mailer makes me half want to hold onto my own copy, just to be on the safe side.) Certainly Shulman has earned herself a spot on almost any short list of very silly people. Yet I am reluctant to make too much sport of her document, or of the countless similar ones that it inspired. I am a wife and mother of young children in a very different time from Shulman's, a time that is in many respects more brutal and more brutalizing, a time that has been morally coarsening for many of us, a time that has made hypocrites of many contemporary feminists in ways that Shulman and her sisters in arms were not hypocrites. I have never once argued with my husband about which of us was going to change the sheets of the marriage bed, but then—to my certain knowledge —neither one of us ever has changed the sheets. Or scrubbed the bathtubs, or dusted the cobwebs off the top of the living-room bookcase, or used the special mop and the special noncorrosive cleanser on the hardwood floors. Two years ago our little boys got stomach flu, one right after the other, and there were ever so many loads of wash to do, but we did not do them. The nanny did.
o get at the larger point here, let us look, for a moment, at a product not of Shulman's time but of our own. Let us look at a most unremarkable comment in a most unremarkable essay, a comment that, at first blush, does not demand to be made fun of, or even really to be noticed at all, a comment that would not cause the least consternation in the most progressive households, among the most liberated and most liberating women.
Anita Diamant is the author of several novels and works of nonfiction, most notably a runaway best seller called The Red Tent, which The Boston Globe described as being "what the Bible would be like if it had been written by women." This past fall she published a collection of personal essays, Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith. In one of them, "Airing It Out," she describes a marital rough patch that she and her husband struck not long after their only child was born: "Things between us were bad. We weren't talking. We weren't kissing. We weren't, well, you know." They went to a marriage counselor, who gave them advice so standard it might have been torn from the pages of one of the family magazines Diamant once wrote for.
By way of "homework" the therapist suggested several commonsense gimmicks. We were to spend ten minutes each evening debriefing about our respective days. We were to take turns and not interrupt each other. He also suggested regular sex dates. Sounds mechanical, but it sure takes the pressure off the rest of the week. And for heaven's sake, said the therapist, if you're fighting about who cleans the bathroom, why not just pay someone else to do it for you?
For heaven's sake. It's a no-brainer. Hiring someone to clean the toilets will certainly put an immediate end to fights about that unpleasant topic. Hiring someone to strip the beds and remake them might have rendered Alix Kates Shulman's marriage agreement entirely unnecessary; it might even have saved her marriage. But it wasn't perversity or thick-headedness or even economic hardship that precluded her from turning to this easy and efficient solution, which Diamant's marriage counselor found so obvious—for heaven's sake!—that he seems to have issued it in a fit of pique at his clients' obtuseness. Shulman's marital crisis occurred in the 1970s, a very bad time to be in need of domestic help. Black women, who had held a centuries-old unhappy lock on the work, were abandoning it in huge numbers, taking advantage of the civil-rights movement to get the kind of jobs that had historically been out of their reach. Tainted by the stigma of slave days, poorly paid and culturally resented, "living in" (the most hated of domestic-work arrangements) was becoming increasingly rare, even in much of the Deep South. Day work, its slightly less loathed companion, was becoming the sole employment option of fewer and fewer black women. The availability of domestic workers was reaching a dramatic low point at the very moment when the need for them (with millions of middle-class women voluntarily entering the work force) was approaching an all-time high. The two phenomena were on a crash course, set to destroy much of what Betty Friedan and her compatriots had begun.
From the archives:
"Home Alone" (September 2002)
It's all too easy to deride Martha Stewart, but the attacks on her often point up how much there is to admire. By Caitlin Flanagan
A second factor intensified the dilemma. Give those old libbers their due: they spent a lot of time thinking about the unpleasantness of housework and the unfairness of its age-old tendency to fall upon women. (They could hardly have imagined that in twenty years' time Martha Stewart would build an empire on the notion that ironing and polishing silver and sweeping a kitchen floor might offer an almost sacred communion with what is most essentially and attractively feminine.) They were loath, they claimed, to foist such demeaning work on other human beings (well, not all of them were loath: Betty Friedan had a crack cleaning woman on staff when she was busy writing about the oppression of domestic work). Indeed, Shulman's contract specifies that the "burden" of the cleaning work should not be placed on "someone hired from outside." Members of the women's movement believed that it was of great importance, politically and psychologically, for men to share equally in the care of households and children. Further, feminists of the period had also thought deeply about race, and about the tendency of white women to shape comfortable lives around the toil and suffering of black women. The members of a thousand consciousness-raising groups drove themselves into a thousand tizzies trying to think up a solution to this homely yet vexing problem. The notorious Wages for Housework campaign ("WE WANT IT IN CASH, RETROACTIVE AND IMMEDIATELY. AND WE WANT ALL OF IT") came to naught. Pat Mainardi's much read The Politics of Housework included many strategies for cajoling a reluctant male into taking on some washing and cooking, from the deeply Marxist ("Arm yourself with some knowledge of the psychology of oppressed peoples") to the stubbornly practical ("Use timesheets"), but you can know chapter and verse about the psychology of oppressed peoples and still not get a man to turn out a nice meal—the rice ready at the same time as the meat—come the end of a long day. Communes, which had offered the promise of a collective approach to domestic work, turned out to be yet another bust. As Vivian Estellachild wrote in 1971, the typical hippie commune's recruitment ad could have read, "Wanted: groovy, well-built chick to share apartment and do the cooking and cleaning."
Certainly there was a bit of hope in the abandonment of bourgeois housekeeping standards, something that the most radical factions were demanding and that even the less political groups saw as promising. The Feminine Mystique has its roots in a questionnaire that Betty Friedan sent to her Smith College classmates on the occasion of their fifteenth reunion. Included on it were questions one might expect: "Did you have career ambitions?" "Who manages the family finances, you or your husband?" But there were also these two telling questions: "Do you put the milk bottle on the table? Use paper napkins?" Milk decanted into a pitcher, and a linen napkin beside the breakfast plate—the physical embodiment of an approach to daily life that included moments of grace and loveliness, that showed (to use the old phrase) a woman's touch—suddenly seemed the very stuff of oppression. But even with the fillips abandoned, with the milk plunked down on the table and the kids wiping at grotty faces with paper napkins, there was still a heck of a lot of housework and child care that simply couldn't be streamlined.
And so, because of these petty, almost laughably low concerns—the unmade beds, the children with their endless questions, the crumbs and jelly on the counter, the tendency of a good fight over housework to stop the talking and the kissing and the, well, you know—one of the most profound cultural revolutions in American history came perilously close to running aground. And then, like magic, as though the fairy godmother of women's liberation had waved a starry wand, the whole problem got solved. You must take a deus ex machina where you find one, and in the case of the crumbs and jelly on the counter tops, the deus ex machina turned out to be the forces of global capitalism. With the arrival of a cheap, easily exploited army of poor and luckless women—fleeing famine, war, the worst kind of poverty, leaving behind their children to do it, facing the possibility of rape or death on the expensive and secret journey—one of the noblest tenets of second-wave feminism collapsed like a house of cards. The new immigrants were met at the docks not by a highly organized and politically powerful group of American women intent on bettering the lot of their sex but, rather, by an equally large army of educated professional-class women with booming careers who needed their children looked after and their houses cleaned. Any supposed equivocations about the moral justness of white women's employing dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated.
he process by which the First World has been flooded with immigrant female domestic workers during the past two decades (in such overwhelming numbers that researchers are now remarking on the "feminization of migration") is fairly well documented, considering that so much of it is done in secret. There are several established trade routes along which future nannies are transported, the most desperate of which takes women from Southeast Asia to Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, destinations so notorious for the mistreatment of domestic workers that I am put in mind of Winston Churchill's old saying: "When you're going through hell, keep going." For Americans the two mother lodes of nannies are Central America and the Caribbean. There is an excellent précis of the entire phenomenon in the introduction, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, to the recent and very fine essay collection they edited, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy.
How these workers became available to middle-class women is well known and amply reported, both in the press and in dozens of fine books, including Rhacel Salazar Parreñas's Servants of Globalization and Grace Chang's Disposable Domestics. But how so many middle-class American women went from not wanting to oppress other women to viewing that oppression as a central part of their own liberation—that is a complicated and sorry story. In it you will find the seeds of things we don't like to discuss much, including the elitism and hypocrisy of the contemporary feminist movement, the tendency of working and nonworking mothers to pit themselves against one another, and the way that adult middle-class life has become so intensely, laughably child-centered that in the past month I have chaperoned my children to eight birthday parties, yet not attended a single cocktail party (do they even exist anymore?).
To begin, let us turn to the best book ever written on American working mothers, a book that ought to be required reading in any women's-studies course: The Equality Trap, by Mary Ann Mason, who is a law and social-welfare professor at Berkeley. In it she reveals that there were in fact two distinct groups of mothers who entered the work force in the 1970s, for two distinct sets of reasons. There were middle-class women, fed up with housework and eager for the challenge, the respite, the intellectual engagement, of work. (Imagine my mother: it is 1976, and a casserole is defrosting on her kitchen counter, but she is far away from that counter; she is on a BART train, rocketing along to her new office at Equitable Life Insurance, pleased as punch.) It is these women, and now their daughters (imagine me, with an advanced degree and a book contract, sitting down at the computer, pleased as punch), who have driven a tremendous amount of the public debate and policy on the subject of working mothers.
But there was a second group of women, a quieter and more invisible group, who were not at all pleased as punch. Mason writes,
The dramatic shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, which occurred in the seventies, rendered the concept of a "family wage," earned by a relatively well-paid union member father, an anachronism. Their husbands' lower wages were driving mothers into the labor market in unprecedented numbers.
The number of women in each group continued to grow, but as Mason chillingly and accurately notes,
The great majority of American women workers were ... striving to make ends meet in women's occupations and were not entering high-paying male-dominated occupations such as law, medicine, and corporate management. But it was the relatively small class of women who were trying to push into the high-stakes male professions ... [that] drove the feminist movement ... [These women] were not greatly concerned with secretaries or poor single parents.
Moreover, "Clusters of women rally around hot button issues like abortion rights, domestic violence, and gay parenting while academic women fret on queer theory, but there is no longer a compelling activist vision." And the pure, ugly truth of the thing: "Ironically, perhaps the only impact the feminist drive for equal rights in the workplace has had on this poorest, fastest growing segment of women is as a cheerleader for women's participation in the workplace, no matter how mean her job or how difficult her family burden."
The feminist movement, from its earliest days, has always proceeded from the assumption that all women—rich and poor—constitute a single class, and that all members of the class are, by virtue simply of being female, oppressed. In many regards this was once entirely true: all women were denied the vote; employment law discriminated against all women; and all women lacked the right to legal abortion. But this paradigm has led to a new assumption: that all working mothers—rich and poor—constitute a single class, that they are all similarly oppressed, and that they are united in a struggle against common difficulties. At its best this is vaguely well-intentioned but sloppy thinking. At its worst it is brutal and self-serving and shameful thinking.
The professional-class working mother—grateful inheritor of Betty Friedan's realizations about domestic imprisonment and the happiness and autonomy offered by work—is oppressed by guilt about her decision to keep working, by a society that often questions her commitment to and even her love for her children, by the labor-intensive type of parenting currently in vogue, by children's stalwart habit of falling deeply and unwaveringly in love with the person who provides their physical care, and by her uneasy knowledge that at-home mothers are giving their children much more time and personal attention than she is giving hers. She feels more than oppressed—she feels outraged! she wants something done about this!—by a corporate culture that refuses to let a working mother postpone an important meeting if it happens to coincide with the fourth-grade Spring Sing.
On the other hand, the nonprofessional-class working mother—unhappy inheritor of changes in the American economy that have thrust her unenthusiastically into the labor market—is oppressed by very different forces. She is oppressed by the fact that her work is oftentimes physically exhausting, ill-paid, and devoid of benefits such as health insurance and paid sick leave. She is oppressed by the fact that it is impossible to put a small child in licensed day care if you make minimum wage, and she is oppressed by the harrowing child-care options that are available on an unlicensed, inexpensive basis. She is oppressed by the fact that she has no safety net: if she falls out of work and her child needs a visit to the doctor and antibiotics, she may not be able to afford those things and will have to treat her sick child with over-the-counter medications, which themselves are far from cheap. She is oppressed by the fact that—another feminist gain—single motherhood has been so championed in our culture, along with the sexual liberation of women and the notion that a woman doesn't really need a man. In this climate she is often left shouldering the immense burden of parenthood alone.
ith these very different kinds of oppression in mind, let us turn to a New York Times Notable Book, written by a New York Times reporter: A Mother's Place: Choosing Work and Family Without Guilt or Blame, by Susan Chira. Chira was raised in an "affluent" suburb of New York, roared through Andover and Harvard, got a job at the Gray Lady, felt a "stab of anxiety" when, in her pre-children days, she happened to glance at a New York magazine headline that read something like "You Can't Have It All," yet nonetheless screwed her courage to the sticking place and had a baby. Almost immediately she became—oppressed. She was oppressed by the boredom and guilt that "cast a pall" over her maternity leave. She was oppressed by the working mothers she saw portrayed in the news media, who were "always teetering on the verge of collapse, haunted by the damage they were causing their children, dragging themselves heavyhearted to work." She was oppressed by "a growing conventional wisdom that labeled mothers like me neglectful, children like mine damaged, and a life like mine impossible and bad for society." She was oppressed by Mrs. Doubtfire, Striptease, and the television sitcom Home Improvement (I would posit that she was also oppressed by her own taste in entertainment, but that's another matter altogether, I suppose). She was oppressed by "the cultural jeremiads against working motherhood," by the fact that she kept hearing that "children are this young only once" and "these years come and are gone forever."
But Susan Chira shook off the shackles of her oppression! It turns out that the way to solve this thorny problem requires little more than a bit of attitude adjustment. It lies in "reframing the debate." Adopt Chira's credo: "Working motherhood is not second-class motherhood." Remember that "generations of black women had to work, and their children saw their work as evidence of devotion, not neglect." (Well, you know those black women: they have all the luck.) Champion whichever survey or opinion poll supports your choices; debunk the rest. Beware advocates of traditional motherhood, who seek to turn you into a "June Cleaver vampire." Be reasonable: "Is it really the end of the world if a mother is not at home when a child returns from school?" If all else fails, think big picture. Really big picture. "In hunter-gatherer societies," she reminds us, "mothers could combine family life with work."
Attitude properly adjusted, you are ready to adopt some of Chira's helpful, commonsense tips on guiltlessly combining work and motherhood, many of which involve shrewd deployment of the office telephone. "I began taking time at work to call the baby-sitter when I needed to touch base," she reports. She also personally "put through calls to the pediatrician." One of Chira's interviewees "had a rule at work that her children would always be put through to her, and she recounted how she would settle fights over the telephone about who got to practice the piano first." Chira asks this enticing question: "How about doing what one of my friends does: programming the phone so that her young son can push a button; get her office; tell her he's home; chat a little about his day; and then, reassured, play with his friends?" Indeed, some of Chira's happiest moments have arrived when she has dwelled closest to the golden nexus of phone and child: "Cradling my nursing baby in one arm and the phone in my ear, conducting an interview with some serious personage, I could hardly contain my happiness."
None of the above much bothers me. Mothers, myself included, have the right to work for pay; anyone old enough to hold a job has the right to work for pay. Whatever arrangements such mothers willingly make for their children, whatever strategies they employ to relieve their guilt, whatever books they read to assuage their anxiety—all of that is their business, not mine. What sends me around the bend is what the author has to say about poor mothers. Make no mistake about it: books in support of working mothers are written by women with progressive politics, and you'd better believe that these women are friends to the downtrodden. Chira fully understands that she writes "as an upper-middle-class professional woman," which is why the interviews for her book were so wide-ranging, involving mothers "employed or at home; married, single, and divorced; well off, working class, and on welfare; white, African American, Latina and Chinese."
As we read about these interviewees, we get the distinct impression that Chira is indeed serving more as what Mason called a cheerleader for their participation in the work force than as someone revealing the hardships of their unlucky lot in life. We meet three different factory workers, whose collective story is a little bit of modern American Dickens: one first punched in at the plant at age eighteen and in rapid succession got married, gave birth, and was widowed; another works a second job in hopes of someday being able to leave the factory, but so far no luck; the third, an employee at a Welch's jelly factory, was once so hard up that she could afford to feed her children only eggs and Welch's jelly. I'll bet all three women would be stunned to read, in Chira's section on "Working and Thriving," that "waitresses, factory workers, and domestic workers told the researchers in a 1987 study that they would not leave the workforce even if they did not need the money." As it happens, the survey, which I tracked down, says nothing of the sort. How could it? That's a preposterous claim. But, it turns out, there's more good news for the factory workers, particularly for the ones who are moonlighting: several other studies have found that "taking on more than one role can act as a buffer against depression." All three of the factory workers said they'd wanted to stay home with their children when they were small (and one of them, whose teenage daughter became pregnant, fervently wishes she could have been home during the girl's adolescence). But perhaps these wishes were better left ungranted: "In extensive reviews of research on mothers' employment, [various researchers] all reported that most studies found higher levels of satisfaction among employed mothers than among mothers who stayed at home."
Before reading A Mother's Place, I had thought that universal day care might be a hideously expensive but necessary addition to the social-welfare program. But to hear Chira tell it, maybe we don't even need it. Of one of the factory workers we learn that "even on a budget, paying comparatively little for child care, Toni was able to find warm, reliable sitters for her children and has used only two baby-sitters in all her years of working." Ahling Deng, a New York garment worker living in a Chinatown tenement, has also had no problem: "Her middle daughter and her son attended a local day care center from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. She paid only $5 a week, a sum based on her income, which is now about $140 a week." Again, I tend to get bogged down in the extraneous details: how in the world is this woman supporting small children on $140 a week? But for Ahling, it turns out, "the challenge is far more how to keep her children Chinese amid a sea of American self-indulgence than how to work and mother at the same time." I'll bet that $140 a week sure helps to keep the American self-indulgence at bay. Then there's a single mother who works all day as an administrative assistant at a hospital and attends night school—but she doesn't need universal day care either: "Her long days are possible because Elesha can draw on her close extended family, who share in her daughter's care." As Elesha told Chira, "She's not really away from me that much, and when she is, she's still with my family. She just thrives there." And then there's this to consider: another of the factory workers managed to stay home with one of her three children, but "the one who was the weakest in school was the child she had reared at home."
Why would Chira write such things? Because her book isn't really for or about the working-class mother. Look at the subtitle: "Choosing Work and Family Without Guilt or Blame." It's for women like herself, who have chosen to separate themselves from their children for long hours of the day, and who feel a clawing, ceaseless anxiety about this. Conflating the hardships of the working-poor mother with the insecurities of the professional-class mother ennobles the richer woman's struggles (entirely self-inflicted). Describing how even poor mothers are "working and thriving," and extolling the benefits of passing a child around among family members while her mother is gone for hour after hour, makes the richer woman's choices look not like what they are—a series of decisions often based entirely on providing herself with maximum happiness—but, rather, like the empirically proven superior way to raise children. Once read in this new light, the book—couched in the know-it-all, smarty-pants tone one expects from the one-two punch of Andover and Harvard, with a little New York Times pomposity thrown in for good measure—becomes as silly as a Bazooka Joe comic. All that blather about having your child's telephone calls "put through"—to the factory floor? to the sweatshop? ("Sorry to interrupt, Ms. Deng, but I've got Johnny on line two.")
nderstand this conflation of the anxieties of the wealthy with the struggles of the poor and you will understand a number of phenomena in our culture. In fact, with this understanding firmly in mind, we are ready to consider the Big Kahuna of this kind of thinking, the Das Kapital of our working-mother age, a book generally approached with the kind of unquestioning reverence with which the fundamentalist Christian approaches the Book of Revelation. We are ready now to consider The Price of Motherhood, by Ann Crittenden.
The Price of Motherhood proceeds from an undeniable and painful truth: that although keeping a house and raising children are as physically exhausting and emotionally demanding as almost any job you can think of, they are entirely unpaid endeavors—a fact that carries grave economic repercussions for women far beyond the loss of a weekly paycheck. This was made starkly evident to Crittenden—as it is made starkly evident to millions of women every year—when she took a look at her Social Security statement and noticed a startling row of zeros, the first of which corresponded exactly to the date she began her life's most challenging work: raising her son. If a traditional marriage ends in divorce, the children's father walks off with a full complement of Social Security credits and a career uninterrupted by a years-long furlough; the mother is left with those zeros. Crittenden rightly notes that "the spouse who principally cares for the children—and the children—are almost invariably worse off financially after divorce than the spouse who devotes all his energies to a career." Indeed, becoming a mother is the single best way a woman can elevate her risk of living in poverty—a truth that ought to be the unwavering call for action of the feminist movement. Crittenden has named the economic liability that mothers face the "Mommy Tax," which seems fair enough. But she goes on to inform us that this tax is "highest for well-educated, high-income individuals and lowest for poorly educated people who have less potential income to lose." Wait a minute—as a good liberal, shouldn't I be happy about that last fact? Don't I want tax burdens to fall with disproportionate weight on the wealthiest? Well, not if the wealthiest are working mothers. All working mothers, let us remember, are oppressed, and the oppression of the wealthiest is somehow more important, more urgent, more remarkable, than the oppression of the poorest. Crittenden reminds us that it is women "who adjust their lives to accommodate the needs of children; who do what is necessary to make a home; who forgo status, income, advancement, and independence." And, she informs us, "Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the experience of the nation's most educated women—the ones who had the best shot at having it all."
If you are the sort of person whose deepest sympathies lie with the nation's most educated women, you had best not crack open The Price of Motherhood, for it will break your heart. In it you will learn of female lawyers who "flock into the big firms" where they "work morning, noon, and night"—my God, it's worse than being a migrant farm laborer!—"and then depart, leaving the fat pickings of partnership to the men." You will learn about women married to men who earn "serious six- and seven- figure incomes," men who "usually work horrendous hours"; these are salaries and hours that "operate as effectively as a mullah's edict in pushing a wife back into the home." You will learn of women who are so ignorant of their financial holdings that although they live "in million-dollar-plus houses," they "couldn't get their hands on $5,000." Says a Radcliffe College fundraiser, "Getting even $10,000 out of a woman is like pulling teeth." We learn of Crittenden's own plight on leaving The New York Times to raise her child: "very conservatively, I lost between $600,000 and $700,000, not counting the loss of a pension."
In Crittenden's defense, her concern for the most privileged members of society makes a certain sense: you could argue that a kind of trickle-down economics might come into play. "Not only are the largest [law] firms the most lucrative," she accurately notes in her section on how hostile such firms are to mothers, "they are the traditional breeding grounds for high government officials, judges, and other positions of authority." Perhaps if enough women held power and authority and economic clout they would work to improve the economic lot of women without power and clout; perhaps a high tide of female power would raise all boats. Unfortunately, this has proved not to be true. The most educated and powerful women are the ones most likely to employ nannies, and when they do so, it is very often on the most undesirable terms.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Sage, Ink: "Fatal Attractions" (January 10, 2000)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.
We have come, of course, to the case of Zoe Baird, who had done her time at a lucrative big firm, who didn't blink when motherhood came along but kept on charging blindly forward, and who found herself in due time a candidate for one of the high government appointments—Attorney General—for which such firms groom lawyers. But it all went bust, as you will recall, in Nannygate. Crittenden's chapter on nannies, of which the Zoe Baird case is the centerpiece, is buried near the back of the book, as if even its author is aware of how illogical it is—aware that nearly every sentence undermines the book's most central arguments, that the entire topic of nannies is the Achilles' heel of the feminist campaign to help professional-class mothers earn the right to (as they would say) mother and work without guilt.
Baird's nomination hearings came to an abrupt halt when it was revealed that she employed two Peruvian illegal immigrants as domestic workers, one of them as her child's nanny, and had failed to pay the required Social Security taxes on their wages. (The two, by the way, earned around $6.00 an hour, whereas their employers' household income was well in excess of half a million dollars a year.) This, Crittenden tells us, was merely "a civil violation"—one that might be viewed on a par with getting a parking ticket. "That was Zoe Baird's crime," Crittenden informs us in quiet, seething understatement: just that silly little civil violation about the taxes, or whatever. And then the world came crashing down on poor Zoe because her case really became a referendum on working mothers. "Just when we are on the verge of moving into real power," a friend of Crittenden's lamented, "they invented a new reason to keep us out." Those damn nanny taxes! What next?
But wait a minute, Ann. Haven't you just spent an entire book telling us how important Social Security set-asides are? Didn't you characterize Social Security as "the keystone of the American welfare state"? Didn't you remind us that "a person can only qualify for Social Security as an employed worker or as the 'dependent' spouse or widow of an employed worker"? (We're hip to those quotation marks around "dependent," by the way—the word is so damn insulting to women. Right on, sister. But it's a word with a particular resonance in the case of the Bairds' two domestic workers, seeing as they were married to each other, and neither one of them was getting Social Security contributions.)
For someone in Ann Crittenden's position, seeing a string of zeros on her Social Security statement can be a "dramatic reminder" that society does not value and honor her hard choices—leaving The New York Times! exposing herself to snubs at cocktail parties!—as highly as it should. It "sends some strange social messages" about what's most important in our culture. But besides making her feel undervalued and perhaps shorting her a few dollars in retirement if she gets divorced, the zeros probably won't have much effect on her life. They certainly won't plunge her into poverty the way they often do to former nannies. For many Americans, Social Security constitutes a crucial element of financial survival: it's how they support themselves during retirement.
f course, Baird was hardly alone in committing this particular civil violation. Failure to pay the required taxes does not necessarily speak of any ill will on the part of employers; often it is at the request of the nanny herself. Just as often it is an expression of the deep ambivalence many Americans feel about hiring servants. In 2001 a University of Southern California professor named Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo published a book that I thought would be the talk of Los Angeles, but that—after quietly winning a clutch of awards in its field—sank without a trace. Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence concerns the lives and working conditions of Central American nannies and housecleaners in Los Angeles. Masterly, evenhanded, and rooted in the high-minded ambitions of its author (the daughter of a former domestic worker, she donated all royalties from the sale of the book to the Domestic Workers' Association, a division of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles), Doméstica raises questions that are hard to face if you have immigrants working in your home. The author notes in the preface,
In the United States today, these jobs remain effectively unregulated by formal rules and contracts. Consequently, even today they often resemble relations of servitude that prevailed in earlier, precapitalist feudal societies. These contemporary work arrangements contradict American democratic ideals and modern contractual notions of employment.
She says of nannies and housecleaners,
Unlike the working poor who toil in factories and fields, domestic workers see, touch, and breathe the material and emotional world of their employers' homes. They scrub grout, coax reluctant children to nap and eat their vegetables, launder and fold clothes, mop, dust, vacuum, and witness intimate and otherwise private family dynamics. Inside the palatial mansion, the sprawling ranch-style home, or the modest duplex, they do these activities over and over again.
The analogies between this kind of employment and another, far darker kind of service are sometimes uncomfortably apt: Hondagneu-Sotelo reports that Dolores Castro, the owner of an employment agency, says of domestic workers' sketchy and often wildly inaccurate knowledge of their rights, "In the world that they travel, there's a lot of misinformation because it's all coming from, it's almost like wives' tales ... like the way that slaves sort of communicated in the old South." Hondagneu-Sotelo writes, "Castro's comparison of contemporary domestic workers to slaves of the old South is telling. Her job is not that of the slave trade, but she earns a living by making these low-wage job placements."
Many professional-class women, who had previously encountered mistress-servant relationships only in literature, are stunned to find themselves suddenly plunged into just such a relationship, a consequence of hiring a nanny that they had never even considered. Hondagneu-Sotelo points out that although these women don't like to think of themselves as members of the landed gentry, paternalistically doling out favors to humble dogsbodies, neither are they eager to think of themselves as "employers" in the contemporary American sense of the word, or of their homes as workplaces. They prefer to think of themselves as consumers of a service—and consumers, of course, have no obligation or responsibility to what they consume. In such a perspective, the relationship may seem cleaner, less encumbered: a sterile transaction of cash for services. But the law is very clear on this, and it was written to protect domestic workers: unless they make less than $1,400 a year, they are deserving of the same wage and hour regulations, the same disability insurance, and the same Social Security set-asides to which all other employees in this country—from the law-firm partner to the lowly Wal-Mart clerk, and everyone in between—are entitled.
o the contemporary feminist, Zoe Baird was a victim principally of the national antagonism toward working mothers, and specifically of a problem common to all such women: there simply isn't enough affordable, high-quality child care in this country. (To the extent that the feminist thinks at all about the Peruvian couple in Baird's employ, it is usually to characterize them as sub-victims of the same problem.) It is a problem, feminists argue, that the government ought to address posthaste. In a new book called The Mommy Myth, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels report that "for most mothers, work is an absolute necessity, and so, hello, Earth to Congress, some reliable form of childcare is also an absolute necessity." Because most of their readers don't have time to review everything that "those half-wits in the District" have to say on the subject of universal day care, the authors provide a fairly accurate overview of how the program has died a thousand deaths in Congress. They conclude, "A clear villain emerges—the far right wing in the United States." They're mostly right about that, and they're definitely right that millions of working-poor families are desperately in need of child care.
But guess what? We're told a single mother with a waitressing job is in exactly the same boat as a wealthy woman with a partnership in a major law firm and a similarly well employed husband. Joan K. Peters is the author of a highly regarded book called When Mothers Work: Loving Our Children Without Sacrificing Our Selves. It proceeds from an assumption dear to many women's hearts: "I argue that mothers should work outside the home," she tells us at the outset. "If they do not, they cannot preserve their identities or raise children to have both independent and family lives." (Good news for sweatshop workers and their children everywhere—Mom's identity as an underpaid seamstress is vital to healthy family functioning.) To Peters, as to so many of her philosophical sisters, all working mothers are united in a common struggle.
Whether they are applying for the post of attorney general like Zoe Baird, or moving from welfare to work, child care is a visible issue in their lives. As more employed women balk at trading their jobs for full-time motherhood, subsidized quality child care will become one of their primary political demands.
No, it won't. The chances that someone like Zoe Baird—a woman who, at the time of her predicament, was working a huge number of hours at a highly remunerative job—would make use of subsidized child care are close to zilch. Getting It Right, by Laraine T. Zappert, is based on a "landmark study" of "more than three hundred women who have graduated from Stanford's Graduate School of Business," and who are "successfully taking up the challenge of life, family and career." The book is organized like a B-school PowerPoint presentation, with chapters divided into heavily bullet-pointed sections such as "Experience," "Lessons Learned," and "Action Plan." The chapter on child care unequivocally advises readers to eschew day care in favor of employing nannies, because they are clearly the best option for professional women; in the first place, such employees "obviate the need for time-consuming pickups and deliveries." (Even the nomenclature suggests why a woman anxious about her choices in life wouldn't like day care: a good mother doesn't want to admit to having to make "deliveries" and "pickups" of her children, as though they were so many dirty shirts being sent to the laundry.) As one professional woman said, "Good help and lots of it is key to making the whole thing possible." Any moral equivocations about the larger ramifications of hiring a woman for such a job can be dispensed with quickly. Zappert points out, "The premiums offered to find and retain an excellent child-care provider are often more beneficent than any of the workplace perks that most professional women themselves enjoy." (Good thing Zoe's Peruvians didn't hear about those perks; they might have demanded access to an on-site gym and an annual executive physical.) True, such arrangements "can have a downside for the care provider." But there is always a silver lining where working mothers are involved: "Princeton sociologist Marta Tienda points out that 'because we rely on other women to take care of our children, two women can enter the labor force for every one that takes on a new job ... all of [whom] are driving economic growth in a profound way.'" Granted, one of these two women has taken a job in which she may be paid under the table and denied Social Security set-asides, and is very probably (more good news for our booming, child-care-based economy) leaving her own children with yet a third woman in an arrangement in which cash changes hands and Social Security is never mentioned. But the professional-class working mother need not dwell on such unpleasantness: "Political economics aside," Zappert says, "it is clear from our survey that if you can do it, and particularly if you are working full time and/or have more than one child, having in-home child care can greatly decrease the stress of balancing work and life priorities."
So here we have the crux of the problem: ask an upper-middle-class woman why she is exploiting another woman for child care, and she will cry that she has to do it because there's no universal day care. But get a bunch of professional-class mothers together, and they will freely admit that day care sucks; get a nanny. This was a truth that Naomi Wolf—feminist, Yalie, Rhodes scholar, big thinker—learned the hard way after giving birth to her first child. In Misconceptions, Wolf reports,
I never thought I would become one of those women who took up a foreordained place in a hierarchy of class and gender. Yet here we were, to my horror and complicity, shaping our new family structure along class and gender lines—daddy at work, mommy and caregiver from two different economic classes, sharing the baby work during the day.
Her dreams of parenthood, apparently formed while tripping across green New Haven quadrangles on her way to feminist-theory classes, were starkly different: "I had wanted us to be a mother and a father raising children side by side, the man moving into the world of children, the woman into the world of work, in equitable balance, maybe each working flexibly from home, the two making the same world and sharing the same experiences and values." She had wanted a revolution; what she got was a Venezuelan.
am about the same age as Naomi Wolf, and we had children at about the same time, but I had neither expected nor wanted a revolution. I did not have a single dream about moving into the world of work when I was a girl. In fact, when I concluded that being a girl was in every way superior to being a boy, my two top pieces of evidence—freely offered, never challenged—consisted of the facts that I would never have to go either to Vietnam or to a job. (I confess to a brief, Howard Carter-inspired period during which I planned to become an Egyptologist, but that dream centered chiefly on a pale-blue linen sheath that I intended to wear in the desert. I was also deeply affected by the Modesty Blaise novels, but I realized that all the images they inspired—principally of having an erotically charged but entirely chaste relationship with a worshipful man while we cheated death and fought crime on an international basis—were, although startlingly intense, the stuff of fantasy.) What I dreamed about was getting married and having babies and running a household. I did, as a young woman, teach school, but I always thought of it as an engaging time killer until the babies arrived. And arrive they did, trailing the advertised clouds of glory, but also (this had not entered into any of my dreams) trailing an awful lot of shit work—shit work that grew more onerous and complicated with each passing month. Furthermore, the shit work seemed to be devolving almost entirely to me, for like Naomi, I had taken up a preordained place in the hierarchy of class and gender.
Don't get me wrong: I got a real kick out of the babies. But the cleaning was putting me in a funk—a bad kind of funk. A feminist-type, really cheesed-off kind of funk. I had expected, merely upon the simple fact of giving birth, to be magically transformed from the kind of woman who likes to spend most of the morning lying on the couch reading and drinking coffee and talking on the telephone to the kind of woman who likes to spend most of the morning tidying up and thinking about what to cook for dinner and inviting other mothers over for a nice chat. It didn't happen. Play dates—a sort of minimum-security lockdown spent in the company of other mildly depressed women and their tiresome, demanding babies—brought on a small death of the spirit, the effects of which I feared might be cumulative. I also felt resentful and sometimes even furious about almost any domestic task that presented itself: why was I supposed to endlessly wipe down the kitchen counters and lug bags of garbage out to the cans and set out the little plastic plates of steamed carrots and mashed bananas that the children touched only in order to hurl them onto the floor? Hadn't every essay I'd ever submitted in college come back with a little mash note telling me I was in some way special, a cut above, meant for something? Wasn't I designed for more important things than putting away Lego blocks and loading the dishwasher? I was! It was time. Cherchez la femme.
How did I find her? It was easy. The city is full of them. If you want to find a contractor who will remodel your kitchen sometime before the next presidential election without disappearing for weeks on end midway through the job or cracking the unsealed Italian marble you special-ordered from a catalogue, good luck to you. But if you want someone to take charge of your children, you can take your pick, and they can all start tomorrow. As Vicki Iovine, the author of the Girlfriends' Guide series (a collection of books about motherhood that I read so obsessively as a new parent that if every extant copy were destroyed, I could re-create her entire oeuvre in a week), reports, "Most of us find our nannies and sitters through the Girlfriends' Grapevine. We mention to a Girlfriend's nanny that we need help, and she sends one of her friends to us." It has ever been thus. The most engaging work of social history I have ever read is Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny. Describing the hiring process in Victorian England, he reports that so many women were eager for such work that finding a nanny was simple: "When everyone you knew had one, or generally more than one, you obtained your Nanny from a friend or relation who no longer had need of her." In the American segregated South nannies (called "mammies" or, more commonly, "maids") were passed among the members of an extended family with a casualness surely born of slaveholding traditions. Susan Tucker's Telling Memories Among Southern Women (another excellent and highly readable book) includes an elderly black woman's account of her experience working as a domestic for a white family in Depression-era Mobile: "They had two children, and one, that little old spoiled Clara, she was a teenager then. I still see her. She used to always get me about working for her, says, 'You raised me, and I want you to raise my daughters.'" During the Great Migration it was common for black women to find domestic work with members of an employer's family who had moved north.
Interesting facts, all of them, but the most striking comment comes from little old spoiled Clara. "You raised me," she said to her former nanny; "I want you to raise my daughters." If there is a signal difference between these nanny times and previous ones, it has to do with the intense anxiety working mothers feel about who, exactly, is "raising" their children. I know many women whose children are cared for almost around the clock by nannies, but those women would never be as honest about the fact as Clara. For that reason, and for a hundred others, the subject of nannies is a minefield. For many professional-class women like me, the relationship they have with their children's nanny is a source of the deepest and most painful kind of self-examination. The relationship is in many ways more intense—more vexing, more rewarding, more vital, more fraught—than a marriage. The precise intersection of many women's most passionate impulses—their profound, almost physical love for their children and their ardent wish to make something of themselves beyond their own doorstep—is the exact spot where nannies show up for work each day. There isn't a nanny in the world who has not received a measure of love that a child would rather have bestowed on his mother. The women's magazines—which have shrewdly staked out as their turf the inexhaustible guilt and anxiety of the working mother—will have none of this. Article after article insists that no one can ever replace a mother, and that a child's love for his mother is unequaled by his feelings for anyone else. Rubbish. To con oneself into thinking that the person who provides daily physical care to a child is not the one he is going to love in a singular and primal way—a way obviously designed by nature herself to cleave child to mother and vice versa—is to ignore one of the most fundamental truths of childhood. Just as women, often despite their fervent desires to the contrary, tend to fall in love with the men they sleep with, so do small children develop an immediate and consuming passion for the person who feeds and rocks and bathes them every day. It's in the nature of the way they experience love. I have often thought that the American preoccupation with rooting out cruel and unfeeling nannies—buying video cameras sewn into teddy bears, doubling back to the house to peer into windows, and so on—is really a somewhat hysterical reaction to the possibility of the opposite: nannies who share pure and wholly reciprocated love with their charges. This is dangerous territory for all concerned. Is it any wonder that so many nanny jobs end in blowups and abrupt sackings? On the other hand, if you are called out of town for a day or two (as I was for both of my parents' deaths, and—only once, but how thrilling! how important I felt!—for work), is there any more blessed, calming sensation than knowing that your child will be in the hands of someone who knows him and loves him almost as much as you do?
hat few will admit—because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each of which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities—is that when a mother works, something is lost. Children crave their mothers. They always have and they always will. And women fortunate enough to live in a society where they have access to that greatest of levelers, education, will always have the burning dream of doing something more exciting and important than tidying Lego blocks and running loads of laundry. If you want to make an upper-middle-class woman squeal in indignation, tell her she can't have something. If she works she can't have as deep and connected a relationship with her child as she would if she stayed home and raised him. She can't have the glamour and respect conferred on career women if she chooses instead to spend her days at "Mommy and Me" classes. She can't have both things. I have read numerous accounts of the anguish women have felt leaving small babies with caregivers so that they could go to work, and I don't discount those stories for a moment. That the separation of a woman from her child produces agony for both is one of the most enduring and impressive features of the human experience, and it probably accounts for why we've made it as far as we have. I've read just as many accounts of the despair that descends on some women when their world is abruptly narrowed to the tedium and exhaustion of the nursery; neither do I discount these stories: I've felt that self-same despair.
In my case, the despair was lessened—greatly—by a nanny. Without her I could never have launched a second career as a writer. Her kindness, her patience, and her many (and oftentimes extreme) acts of generosity have shaped my family as much as any other force. But the implications of this solution to my domestic problems are grave, and ever since I read Doméstica, two years ago, I have been turning over in my mind the high moral cost of my decision. Even if one pays a fair wage, hires a legal resident of the United States, and pays both one's own share of the required taxes and the employee's, so as not to short her take-home pay (all of which I do), one is still part of a system that exposes women to the brutalities of illegal immigration, only to reward their suffering with the jobs that ease our already comfortable lives.
It's easy enough to dismiss the dilemma of the professional-class working mother as the whining of the elite. But people are entitled to their lives, and within the context of privilege there are certainly hard choices, disappointments, sorrows. Upper-middle-class working mothers may never have calm hearts regarding their choices about work and motherhood, but there are certain things they can all do. They can acknowledge that many of the gains of professional-class working women have been leveraged on the backs of poor women. They can legitimize those women's work and compensate it fairly, which means—at the very least—paying Social Security taxes on it. They can demand that feminists abandon their current fixation on "work-life balance" and on "ending the mommy wars" and instead devote themselves entirely to the real and heartrending struggle of poor women and children in this country. And they can stop using the hardships of the poor as justification for their own choices. About this much, at least, there ought to be agreement.
Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. She is writing a book about modern motherhood.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2004; How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement; Volume 293, No. 2; 109-128.