The Mother's Dilemma

Caitlin Flanagan on parenting, home life, and the morally troubling nature of the mother-nanny relationship

Caitlin Flanagan's path to writing for The Atlantic was a fortuitous one. Just as her twin boys were starting nursery school, she received a call from her friend Benjamin Schwarz, who had recently been hired as The Atlantic's book-review editor, inviting her to try writing for the magazine. Flanagan didn't have much nonfiction writing experience—she'd been toiling away unsuccessfully at a novel for years—but Schwarz had heard enough of her spirited opinions on motherhood and domestic life at various dinner parties to know that he wanted her voice in the magazine. In the four years since, Flanagan has carved out a niche for herself in the books pages of The Atlantic, writing essays about, as she describes it, "the huge push-and-pull that women feel regarding domestic life. We don't want to be stuck with the cleaning and cooking, but we're really attracted to Martha Stewart and Williams-Sonoma. We want to be totally liberated to take jobs, but we really want children to have the same intense bond with us that they used to have with middle-class moms who stayed home." Atlantic readers have experienced Flanagan's sharp wit and bracingly frank opinions on such topics as the de-cluttering versus keeping house; old-fashioned housewives versus modern "at-home mothers"; and the cultural phenomenon of married couples giving up on sex.

In this month's cover story, Flanagan turns her gaze on "a relationship that is in many ways more intense—more vexing, more rewarding, more vital, more fraught—than a marriage": that between a mother and the nanny she has hired to care for her child. "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement" is an essay both personal and analytical in which Flanagan argues passionately that the liberation of professional-class mothers from the "drudgery" of housework and child-care has come at the expense of the women—often poor, often immigrants—whom they've brought in to take on what was traditionally seen as a mother's work. A particular target of Flanagan's ire is the feminist movement, "which 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." The professional-class women who hire nannies are in no way oppressed, Flanagan writes; rather, they need to recognize that they're part of a system that oppresses others—one in which people often hire illegal immigrants or neglect to pay the Social Security taxes that would help their employees qualify for government support in their old age.

Flanagan does not condemn the practice of hiring a nanny—after all, she had one for her own two children. However, she believes that women should face the moral implications of the decision, and accept the fact that whichever path they choose they will be giving up something important.

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.

That's all the more reason, Flanagan writes, to treat nannies in a way that "legitimizes these women's work and compensates it fairly."

Flanagan's essays for The Atlantic have twice been named as finalists for a National Magazine Award and have been included in both Best American Essays and Best American Magazine Writing. She lives in Southern California, where she is at work on a book about modern motherhood.

—Katie Bacon

You write that the relationship between a mother and a nanny is "in many ways more intense—more vexing, more vital, more fraught—than a marriage." Did you expect this to be a true when you first hired a nanny? Have you been surprised by the emotional freight that has come along with the decision?

When I first hired a nanny, all I could think was, I need some help here! And fast! I found myself completely unsuited to the task of running a household, which was a cause of shame for me. My mother had done it so gracefully, and the one goal I'd always set for myself was to be a good wife and mother, but I really felt I was flailing. By modern standards, I suppose, I was doing fine: I spent huge amounts of time with the babies and I delighted in them, but it was impossible for me to do that and also keep the place clean and cook and lead any kind of adult life. So I thought hiring a nanny would buy me some free time and some sanity, which it did. But once she came into the house, I realized that she was going to be so intimately involved in the aspect of my life that I cared most deeply about—my children—and that this would therefore be a very intense relationship.

Like a lot of contemporary women with nannies, I was never really sure how much of the childrearing I could or should hand over to her. What's the thing that makes you the mother? Are you the mother if you feed the breakfast? Or can the nanny do that? Are you the mother if you do the bath every night? Or can the nanny do that? That questioning never seemed to end. In this respect, kindergarten has been a blessing: I know which part of the job is up to the teachers and which part is up to me. I went to kindergarten; I understand it. But I never had a nanny when I was a child, so as an adult, I could never figure out how to blend that very new (to me) practice of childrearing with the kind I had myself experienced.

Only lately—now that the boys are in school—have I started to have a sense of authority and certainty where they are concerned. I think part of that is because I no longer have someone in the house, working beside me, who knows more about raising children than I do.

So you see this becoming less of an issue as children get older?

Certainly, but here's where the nanny-mother relationship is so morally troubling. In previous nanny cultures, nannies tended to stay in one family for a long time. They were "old family retainers"—the employing family took care of the nanny into retirement. But today, a lot of mothers are only too eager to get rid of the nanny once the children get older—in part to alleviate the expense, and in part to get rid of the rival for their children's affection. If a nanny goes from job to job (two years here, three years there, and so on), never building up a lifelong sense of allegiance and commitment in one family, and if those various employers neglect to pay her Social Security, then they will be guilty of a grave moral error—allowing her to sink into poverty in her old age, once they have gotten what they needed from her and have long since lost touch with her.

You mention in the piece that sometimes there are other issues—that nannies don't want to be paid Social Security.

It's not so much that they don't want to be paid it, it's that they don't want to pay their half of it, which would short their take-home pay. Think about it: most of these people aren't American; they don't understand Social Security. They have no idea that Social Security payments can protect them in old age or in the event of some kind of personal catastrophe. They don't understand how our laws work. These people are ripe for the picking, if you want to be unscrupulous.

Going back to your point about nannies being let go after two or three years, I would think that if a nanny knows she will only be at a certain job for a shortish perioud of time, that would affect how attached she would let herself get to the child.

One of the things I most underestimated about nannies is how much they love their charges. I used to teach at a private school, and the parents thought I loved their children. I did not love their children! I liked them well enough, but I was always delighted to see them go off for summer vacation. But with nannies it's different. Raising a small child is so intimate, and the care itself produces a bond of tremendous intensity. Again, that's what's so morally vexing about this: professional-class women are buying this love when they need it, as though it were a commodity, and then firing the nanny when they don't need her service, her love, any more—how can that be right?

I wonder if there's any solution to it. It does seem like in certain situations having a nanny can be good for the children and good for the mother. But I wonder if there's also always got to be a downside to it.

There are possible solutions to parts of the problem. There is a domestic worker's association in Los Angeles and in many other cities, and it could be possible for these women to organize in huge enough numbers to change the brutality of employment practices. But this issue is so enmeshed with immigration that it's hard to imagine. How can an illegal immigrant, terrified of being sent back to her country, be expected to lose wages and expose herself to immigration officials by taking part in an organized strike? I don't know.

As for professional-class mothers, there's always going to be anxiety. The minute you have two Princeton graduates and one of them stays home with her children and one of them goes to work, you're always going to have the sneaky, unspoken assumption: the one staying home is the one who loves her children more. On the flipside, the Princeton graduate who stays working will always have the intellectual engagement and the social cachet of someone involved in the very adult world of work. It's hard to be a beautifully educated woman, used to the power and autonomy of work, and suddenly be plunged into the Romper Room of round the clock mommy-hood. I must confess—and you're never supposed to say this—I'd rather sit next to the working mom at a dinner party than the at-home mom. The working mom would have more to say that would be of interest to me. To the extent that all of this is a problem, it's an unsolvable one. Both women are always going to miss out on something of great value.

When talking about the practice of hiring a nanny, cynical people might say, "Well, isn't it natural to have a multi-tiered economic system? Aren't we always going to have a system where people are working for others in different capacities?"

You need two conditions to co-exist if you are going to have widespread use of nannies: a huge, booming middle class and an equally huge and pitiably struggling underclass. That's what you had in Victorian England, in turn of the (last) century New York, in the American segregated south, and in the great American port cities today, all of which are cultures notable for their huge use of nannies. Wherever those two classes of people exist cheek by jowl, they will always figure out what to do with each other. There will always evolve a servant class, based on the exploitation—often brutal—of the poor. Yes, there are people who think this is simply the natural order of things, but I do not think highly of those people.

Obviously, you've had to wrestle with this question, since you hired a nanny yet you argue that the system is exploitative. Have you come to a place where you feel a modicum of comfort with the system, provided that all the necessary taxes are paid and people are treated with respect? Or is it something that you could never come to terms with really?

I come from an immigrant culture. I'm only a couple of generations away from having been a servant girl myself. Think of how far the Irish-Americans came, and how fast—in a very few years we went from being the poorest peasants in the most marginalized country in Europe to being at the center of everything in the most powerful country in the history of the world. And part of that had to do with the women who started out as servant girls, who sent money home and brought male relatives over and went on to be the mothers of the famous lace-curtain householders. I see the same thing happening with the Mexican and Central American domestic workers I know. They are moving upwards, and quickly.

I also think that caring for children and households is honorable work and that there is no shame in it, nor is there shame in hiring an employee to do it for you. However, in this regard I feel morally inferior to women like Barbara Ehrenreich (who is a hero of mine), who say that they refuse to have someone else clean for them because—in Ehrenreich's impressive phrase—they just don't want to have that kind of relationship with another human being.

I'd like to ask you about the book Doméstica, which, as you write, deals with the "lives and working conditions of Central American nannies and housecleaners in Los Angeles." Could you talk about the effect it had on you? How did it change the way you think about mothers and nannies, and the choices that mothers make when they go back to work?

Everyone has a book that changed her life. Doméstica is mine.

I grew up in Berkeley in the sixties, and I was so proud of my parents' politics, which were liberal. My mother was very involved with Cesar Chavez's work on behalf of the migrant farm workers in California. We had a Huelga bumper sticker and the Huelga buttons, and it wasn't just for show. My mother suited action to word. She boycotted table grapes for years, sometimes lettuce, sometimes Gallo wine. She always knew which crops were being struck at which time, and we didn't eat those foods. In her own way, given her resources and options, my mother was a moral giant: she saw exploitation, and she worked to end it. We packed up old clothes for the workers. We demonized the growers. When we drove past the farms of the Central Valley and saw the Mexican men and women doing stoop labor, she felt such sorrow for them, and we imagined the growers as big, brutal white men forcing inhuman conditions on poor laborers.

Then I read Doméstica, and I felt ashamed in a way that no book has ever made me feel ashamed. I realized that I'm not like my mother, someone fighting for social justice for California's immigrants. I'm like the growers—someone taking advantage of the poverty that sends Mexican and Central American people to this country. That's when I started making some changes in my life—some of which were hard to make—and that's when I started writing "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement." For the past couple of years, I've been trying to write an essay about my mother's effect on my life, but now I realize that—in a private and complicated way—I've done that with this one.

I want to switch gears for a second. Throughout the article, you talk about the professional woman's dilemma—whether to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of the children. Stay home or go to work. Do you ever see a time when the issues you raise in the article won't essentially be women's issues?

The hot new thing in feminism these days is maternal feminism. It was launched at a big conference at Barnard College a couple of years ago, attended by some of the major feminists of our time, including Ann Crittenden and Sylvia Ann Hewitt. The crux of their argument is that mothering—as opposed to fathering, or parenting, or care giving—is something unique, and of inestimable value. That the bond between a mother and her children is different from any other kind of human bond, and that it should be revered and respected. You won't get an argument from me about that. But the second that one implies that—in part owing to this unique and sacred bond—the hard work of raising children belongs more to women than to men, these same women start squealing like stuck pigs. They can't have it both ways: either mothers are uniquely designed for the care and protection of children, or they aren't. End of story.

Ironically, the people in this country who most revere that mother-and-child bond are fundamentalist Christians, who make huge sacrifices so that moms can stay home with their children. Many of them home-school their children, because they're convinced that mothers are the best teachers of children and that the public school system in America immerses kids in cultures and values antithetical to the kind of reverence for family life—and especially for motherhood—that so many Christians have. The maternal feminists might like to learn more about the fundamentalist Christian life style; it is one with the highest possible regard for motherhood, and it might be appealing to them.

It's striking how people fall into traditional roles when they have children. But you also do see people splitting responsibilities these days.

Fathers are much more involved with their children's lives today than they were when I was growing up. I see many dads at the school dropping off their kids, and chaperoning them to birthday parties and so forth. Particularly among the young parents—those in their twenties—the fathers are deeply involved in the day-to-day realities of raising the children, and I think that's wonderful.

But the interesting thing is that when you talk to moms about this, over and over they will tell you that no matter how equitably they divide the work with their husbands, they always feel that they are shouldering the larger burden. The mother is the one who's really got her eye on the ball, in terms of the dental appointments and the costumes for the school play and the cookies for the class party, and which child wants his sandwich cut in rectangles and which ones want it in triangles. A lot of moms—even some of the ones with super-involved husbands—feel that they're just not getting enough help, or the right kind of help from their husbands. A lot of moms feel angry about this.

Do you feel like there's any tension between working and non-working mothers over the respective choices they've made?

You better believe it. The other day, I was early to pick the boys up from school, so I went to the parents' lounge to read a book. Slowly the room filled up with five or six other mothers. They were all at-home moms, and they were all in charge of a class Valentine's party. They were talking about the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches they were going to make, and the heart-shaped cookie cutters they were going to use, and they were talking about how to deal with the teacher's decision that they couldn't bring any candy to the party. Listening in on the conversation as an outsider, I could see how a working mom might make fun of them—it certainly wasn't the kind of conversation you hear at important places of business or in hospitals or universities. It also made me see very clearly why some women say they simply have to go to work or they would sink into depression. (Although if the moms in the parent lounge had asked me to make some of the sandwiches, I would have been on it in a heartbeat! I'm a demon with those cookie cutters.)

On the other hand, sometimes I'll talk to a working mother (one with a real job, not a writer!), and she'll casually mention that she got home from a business dinner after the children were asleep, and right away I'll envision the children without their mother at bedtime, and I'll feel a pang. I have the most wonderful memories of my mother tucking me into bed every night, lying beside me and reading to me. She used to always fall asleep when she was reading, which used to drive me crazy! We would read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series over and over again; it was like Finnegan's Wake to us. There was a picture of Mary Ingalls dressed up in her traveling outfit to take the train to the school for the blind, and we would look and look at that picture. We thought it was beautiful. I'm glad my mother wasn't at business dinners all those nights.

You admit that you were fortunate enough to stay home and have a nanny help care for your kids, which made it possible for you to launch a second career as a writer. I'm just wondering, if you hadn't been able to do that, would you ultimately have stuck with staying home?

Yes! They're the only children I have. I love being with them. I think the only thing my son Conor does at school is make me little love notes. I open his backpack, and it's overflowing with them. I miss my mother very much, and I feel closest to her when I have dinner in the oven and the children are nearby playing and I'm reading a book or doing some little project. However, I must tender a caveat to this: I was not trained for a glamorous career; I was a schoolteacher. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I'd been an attorney or a physician or (one of the secret ambitions of my childhood!) a TV weather girl. But I don't miss clapping the erasers and marking the grammar quizzes too much. And now, in this unplanned-for way, I've become a writer, and that's very engaging and interesting.

Making a home for my sons—one where the parents love each other and treat each other kindly, and where they can learn good values, and know that they are important and that our family is strong and unshakeable—that is the most important and honorable work I can do. My husband fully supports me in this. He's proud of me, and he always tells me what a great mother I am. If I ever said I was going to take some big job outside of the home, he'd say, "Wait just a minute, here; that's not going to work for our family." And I'm glad about that: he fully believes that my work here at home with the children is important. I guess he's a maternal feminist.

You do say in the article that this is what you've always dreamed of—being a wife and mother. Do you find among your friends who have children that they have a similar point of view, or do you find yourself unusual in that regard?

I guess I missed the memo about work being the most important thing in life. Hard work: frankly, I try to avoid it. When I was in high school, I didn't even plan on going to college. I wanted to go to community college, live at home, and then get married. I like being home! You can read and have snacks and go out to the garden and watch Hot Topics on The View. I come from a family that considered home life one of the great rewards and pleasures of life. I sort of drifted along from one thing to another: college, graduate school, teaching. And then I had babies and started making a home—and that's when my life really began.

Look at the great books—what does Odysseus dream of? Going home. If you don't have a really great home life—if you're not loved and cared for and wanted at home—you don't have anything at all. Whenever my husband walks through the door after work, I always make a point of saying, "We're so glad to see you!" Because work is hard and draining, and home should be a pleasure. People are so confused about this—they think work is the pleasure and home is the burden.

You alluded to this a bit in the article, but in your view, is there anything wrong with working for reasons of professional fulfillment, as long as women who choose to do this acknowledge that their choices affect their children as well?

In the past three decades we have seen women enter the traditionally male-dominated professions in huge numbers, and this has been a boon for our society. Many important fields, such as women's healthcare, have seen significant advances because women worked in them, and because those women cared about things that men often did not. But a person can't be two places at once, and women tend to experience separation from their children very differently than men do.

We remade American cultural life on the most profound level possible when we had the women's movement. We're still dealing with the ramifications of this revolution—we haven't worked everything out yet. But the very least we can do during the search for the ever-elusive "work-life balance" is be mindful of how we're treating the domestic workers who help us achieve it.