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Childcare on Trial
"One Less Baby, One More Volvo"
-picket sign, 1997 trial of British au pair Louise Woodward
Seventy percent of all mothers in the United States work outside the home. Most rely on some form of paid childcare. Despite these realities, the American public remains ambivalent toward mothers who leave their children in the care of others. Reactions to one subset, women who could ostensibly afford to stay at home but do not, are especially intense. When Court TV provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial of eighteen-year-old Louise Woodward, a British au pair, for the 1997 death of baby Matthew Eappen, viewers nationwide were mesmerized. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion; public sentiment was divided as to whether Woodward was innocent or guilty. There was remarkable unity, however, in the public's vilification of Matthew's mother. Picketers marched daily outside the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts, often holding placards picturing baby Matthew's face. A sign carrying the slogan given in the epigraph to this chapter captured the hostility I heard expressed over the airwaves and in conversations on subways and buses concerning who was really to blame for baby Matthew's untimely death.
Deborah Eappen and her husband, Sunil, had employed Louise to look after their two children while he worked full-time as an anesthesiologist and she worked part-time as an ophthalmologist. Putatively not a suspect in the murder case, Dr. Deborah Eappen was put on trial in the court of public opinion and found guilty. Regardless of who was directly to blame for Matthew's death, it was the baby's mother who was deemed ultimately responsible. She was seen as derelict in her maternal duties because she had hired an au pair so that she could work three days a week outside the home. Deborah Eappen noted in an interview, "People write to us that we are greedy, that we did it, that we made poor decisions, that I am at fault. I am shocked at the way people have been to me and that I have to defend myself." The vehemence of these attacks was directed not just at Matthew's mother, but at all "Volvo-class" working mothers: women who presumably were married to high-earning husbands and also presumably could afford to stay home.
The year before the Woodward case became front-page news, I was in the Boston area conducting interviews with mothers and nannies for this book. A Caribbean nanny recounted an experience that spoke to the caregiver's side of the public vehemence expressed at Volvo-class working mothers. Celine, a forty-two-year-old nanny from Trinidad, was running errands with her two-year-old charge, Gregory. As she chatted with a friend, the cashier at the local drugstore, Celine remembered that she was nearly out of baby wipes. She asked her friend to watch Gregory (who was seated in his stroller) while she ran to the aisle to get the wipes. When she returned to the checkout stand, she was accosted by a white woman who identified herself as an "at-home mom." The woman began to yell at Celine for leaving the toddler unattended. The more Celine protested ("I would never leave my Gregory with a stranger!"), the more heated the other woman's language became. Finally, she said, "I don't blame you-I blame your employer." Celine's friend tried to intercede, but to no avail. The argument escalated, and, Celine told me, the other woman "called me a nigger. Well, that was it. I got really mad, and then the manager told us to leave." Both women exited, but they continued arguing outside the store. Eventually, the police came, separated them, and sent them home. For Celine, the drugstore encounter was proof of the "really racist" attitude of people in the community where she worked. No doubt it was, but the vehemence with which she was accosted suggests an additional trigger. Caregivers who are visibly different from the children in their care learn to expect to be censored by strangers-although this usually takes the form of hostile stares and whispered comments rather than dramatic confrontations. Unlike their peers who can "pass" as their charges' mothers, these nannies signal to the public that some mothers have chosen to shirk what many consider to be their most important adult responsibilities.
Although neither the Woodward case nor Celine's experience at the drugstore are commonplace events, both reflect a continuing ambivalence the American public feels about what constitutes "good enough" mothering, especially among a certain class of mothers. A nationwide poll reported in 2003 that 72 percent of respondents agreed that children already spend too much time in daycare or with babysitters; in a poll conducted in 2005, 77 percent agreed with the statement that although "it may be necessary for the mother to be working because the family needs money, it would be better if she could stay home and take care of the house and children." This judgment is clearly linked to social class; working mothers like Dr. Eappen, women who seem financially able to stay home, are the most stigmatized for working. At the other end of the class spectrum, poor women who rely on public assistance while they stay at home to raise their children are judged as negative role models for those children. Although the belief in at-home mothering is strong, so is the belief in child improvement. Some children, it seems, are better off with their mothers whereas others would benefit from professional care, and these children are categorized by race and class.
Never before have the daily lives of so many American mothers been so at odds with prevailing beliefs about children's needs. This historical period is particularly significant in that it is white middle-class women whose approach to parenting is viewed as deviant. At the time of my interviews, in the late 1990s, 63 percent of college-educated mothers of infants worked outside the home. Parents are also working longer hours away from home; among families with dual earners, the average number of hours per week the two parents worked away from home peaked at 115 in 1999 and has not declined significantly since then. Despite these realities facing working families, our ideas about how best to raise children remain firmly built on the ideal of the ever-present, continually attentive, at-home mother. Advice books, parenting magazines, and general cultural sentiment have converged to "raise the bar" of expectations for mothering young children so high that even full-time at-home mothers would be hard pressed to meet them. For mothers who work outside the home the task is literally impossible: meeting these expectations requires the presence of a full-time mother as the primary caregiver. Some resolve this dilemma by redefining mothering so they can delegate certain aspects to a carefully chosen stand-in. In-home caregivers help maintain or even extend this redefinition of "mother-work" as they negotiate with their employers who does what aspects of childrearing and what the resulting division of labor means to each party.
Celine's story, reactions to Woodward's trial, and the subsequent polling data are evidence of the deeply held and conflicting opinions surrounding motherhood, work, race, and social class. At the time of Woodward's first trial, I had just completed interviewing the fiftieth woman in a research sample that ultimately expanded to eighty women: thirty mother-employers and fifty in-home childcare providers. I was surprised by the media portrayals of women like those who were participating in my study. Although I found tension, sadness, and occasionally difficult working conditions in these women's relationships, their problems did not result from the fact that the mothers worked, nor did they arise from the kinds of childcare workers they employed. Instead, these problems, ironically, stemmed mainly from the same set of beliefs about mothering that generated the public outcry at the Woodward trial. Both sets of respondents, mother-employers and their childcare providers, believed in the value of at-home mothering. Contests over the definition of the "good mother" and whether the mother-employer or the mother-worker was ultimately the better caregiver lay at the root of most mother-nanny conflicts.
This book analyzes the micropolitics of interactions inside these linked lives. By micropolitics, I mean the ways that "power is relayed in everyday practices": the "small wars" that go on in everyday life as individuals and groups jockey for position. This is a particularly apt approach to understanding the division of labor in the contested terrain of mother-work. As the journalist Caitlin Flanagan points out, "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." Inside these relationships, we see how both mother-employers and mother-workers view what it means to be a "good mother" and what it means to commodify portions of this role.
The conflicts I observed between nannies and employers over seemingly minor activities such as naptimes, play dates, and "time-outs" reflect not only their competing views on mothering but also the constraints placed on both sets of women by larger structural forces-for example, the nature of "all-or-nothing" careers (for the mother-employers) and the assumption that domestic workers are "part of the family" (for the mother-workers). They also reflect deep-seated differences in class-based beliefs about parenting. Although these larger cultural and institutional forces are evident in many areas of public and private life, they crystallize in the employer-nanny relationship.
During the interviews I conducted with mothers and caregivers, I searched for answers to some simple but provocative questions. What kinds of caregivers do mother-employers seek? What are the implications of the race, class, age, legal status, and education of the childcare worker in how each of the two parties defines the work? How do professional-class working mothers interpret their own status as mothers in light of the fact that someone else does the bulk of the day-to-day care? From the perspective of the mother-worker, what does it mean to be paid to love someone else's children? Do childcare workers enter the relationship with agendas that contradict or compete with those of their employers? What are the costs and consequences of the kind of emotional labor in-home childcare providers perform? How is the paid caregiver's role within the family and within the children's lives defined by both parties? How do both parties define and maintain the boundary between mother and "not-mother"? In answering these questions, this book sheds light not only on contemporary understandings of motherhood among middle-class women, but also on the changing boundaries between family and community, home and work, and love and money.
Mothers employed outside the home, commodified childcare and housework, work-family tensions: none of these are new phenomena. Sociologists, policy analysts, and feminist theorists have been writing about the challenges facing dual-earner families, the politics of contemporary motherhood, and the working and labor market conditions of domestic workers for many years. This book benefits from this research but also significantly extends and frequently challenges the insights this research provides, placing childcare at the center of the analysis of contemporary family life. In what follows, I outline the broad contours of the research most relevant to understanding the micropolitics of mothering in the context of commodified childcare.
Doing the "First Shift"
This book directs attention to the division of childrearing labor during the "first shift" in family life. Existing research reflects continuing ambivalence concerning the role of childcare workers in the lives of working families. Work/family researchers have long focused on increased male participation in the "second shift" (i.e., the housework and parenting that takes place at the end of the workday) as a panacea for the dilemmas facing dual-earner families. Many studies indicate that a more equitable division of labor in the second shift would solve problems facing working mothers, including lack of sleep, inadequate leisure time, marital stress, and unequal access to career advancement. In practice, though, for dual-earner families, increased paternal participation is only a partial solution. In recent years, men's involvement in childrearing has risen, but husbands still lag behind their wives by eighteen hours per week. Aside from those parents who provide childcare themselves by working complementary shifts, most working families must rely on someone outside the family to provide childcare during at least some part of the working day. The exclusive focus on fathers' housework and childcare ignores the critical role of "friendly intruders" in the lives of children.
How working parents negotiate the division of childrearing labor during the hours they are at work remains poorly understood. Much of the literature on dual-earner families treats children as if they exist in a state of suspended animation while their parents are away. By focusing primarily on how fathers can assist at home, most of the existing research reinforces the notion of the nuclear family as an isolated unit that limps along on its own limited resources. In contrast, I argue that a realistic view of family life in dual-earner households must include the role played by caring adults from outside the immediate family.
This book also brings the role of paid childcare workers into debates about the meanings of mothering. Feminist scholars have documented the cultural lag between beliefs concerning good mothering and actual mothering practices. These authors argue that middle-class American mothering ideals, and the beliefs about children's needs that accompany them, are cultural and historical remnants that are no longer realistic. Feminist researchers call for a redefined and expanded notion of "the good mother" that moves beyond "the sacrificial mother" to include working as a way of supporting the family economically and of modeling for children the value of work and independence. Although most agree that any new model of good mothering must include a flexible workplace and coparenting partners, few feminist scholars address how paid childcare workers fit into this redefined notion of mothering.
Specifically, and most obviously since the nineteenth-century switch from father-centered childrearing to mother-centered childrearing, U.S. discourses on mothering have insisted that the mother "take entire care" of her children. Middle-class mothers were exhorted to dispense with servants; those in the classes below were urged to give up working outside the home. This ideology of "intensive mothering" was (and continues to be) class-based in other ways as well. Traditionally, the policies and professional advice aimed at mothers have been differentiated by social class, and women from different classes typically interpret these mothering messages in different ways.
In particular, concerns about how the middle and upper classes will reproduce themselves, and mothers' role in that status attainment, express the tensions between the career aspirations of middle-class women and the assumption that these strivings are in direct conflict with their children's needs. This is a dilemma of long standing. For example, more than a hundred years ago, when women were finally being admitted into the halls of higher education, this change was framed as a way to make them better mothers, not as a route to joining their male peers in the professional labor force. The broad concerns about the fate of white, middle-class motherhood were voiced by S. Weir Mitchell in the somber warning he delivered to Radcliffe students at the beginning of the twentieth century: "I believe that if the higher education or the college life in any way, body or mind, unfits women to be good wives and mothers, there had better be none of it. If these so affect them that they crave merely what they call a career as finer, nobler, more to their taste than the life of home, then better close every college door in the land."
Nonetheless, the number of college-educated women continued to rise, and they married in ever greater numbers and continued to produce smaller families. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, the number of working women showed a steady increase, but it was not until the last few decades of the century that Dr. Mitchell's nightmare became a reality: the majority of college-educated women with young children were in the workforce. They are now there to stay.
But these mothers, and the millions of others now in the workforce, have not decreased their hours of childcare. In fact, contemporary mothers spend more time interacting with their children than their own mothers spent with them. They have offset their higher hours of paid work and greater amount of time with their children by spending fewer hours cooking and cleaning, lowering standards in the latter and outsourcing much of the former. They have also cut back on sleep, leisure, and time with their partners in the hope of meeting increasingly strident, and increasingly mother-centered, cultural expectations regarding childrearing. These intersecting tensions form the broad context for the social pressures that face middle-class mothers today. Ours is a distinctive historical moment.
The childcare-employer relationships I describe in the chapters that follow are not inevitable; they are not the natural outgrowth of women's innate characteristics. They result from a confluence of historically specific cultural and ideological forces. As the psychologist Shari Thurer notes, "If an intense, one-on-one, exclusive mother relationship were, in fact, essential, we would have to conclude that except for a brief period in the fifties, most cultures, past and present, in its absence, produced damaged people." Given that they did not, the outsized worry aimed at children of mothers who work outside the home must result from a unique intersection of cultural and institutional changes. As the sociologist Anne Swidler has pointed out, during times of social and cultural upheaval, common sense often hardens into dogma. Cultural expectations regarding childrearing have become more strident precisely because of the profound shifts in mothers' labor force participation. As working outside of the home shifted from the provenance of poor or unmarried women to the norm, even for mothers with young children and for those who could putatively "afford to stay home," cultural criticisms of working mothers have become increasingly shrill.
This book challenges the assumptions of intensive mothering by asking why we assume childcare must be framed as a last resort for families who require a second (or first) income, rather than as the welcome addition of more loving adults into a child's life.
Commodified Care: Childcare, Housework, and Global Capitalism
This book also refocuses the typical understanding of paid domestic workers. A large body of research approaches domestic work, and to a lesser extent childcare, from the perspective of the care provider. With the formation of "global cities" comes both a wealthy class of knowledge-workers, who need and can afford domestic help, and a labor pool of predominantly immigrant women to fill those needs at low wages. These studies of domestics and other care-workers tend to describe a broad swath of workers who usually have been selected for study based on their race/ethnicity and national origin rather than on their job description.
There are some major drawbacks to that approach. Studying a single category that simultaneously includes day cleaners, nanny-housekeepers, mother's helpers, and maids with wide-ranging responsibilities overlooks the fact that there is a significant difference between delegated, commodified mothering, and delegated, commodified housework. Moreover, this distinction has crucial implications for how employers hire and manage childcare workers versus domestic workers. Critical differences in the demographic composition of the market in domestic labor emerge when the job is childcare-only rather than childcare-secondary.
Finally, within the single category of childcare, the age of the children is an influential factor. Intensive mothering ideologies are strongest in advice directed at mothers of preschool-age children. Servant-mistress tensions combine with mothering ideologies in the preschool childcare labor market in ways that shed light on broader tensions concerning childrearing for a wage. Arguably, the conflict between mothering ideologies and the need for paid childcare workers is the trip wire on the feminist road to gender equality. As Flanagan points out regarding the feminist professional caught between egalitarian ideals and her need for affordable childcare, "She had wanted a revolution; what she got was a Venezuelan."
The Public-Private Divide
This book's close examination of commodified mother-work challenges assumptions concerning the self-sufficiency of the nuclear family and the permeability of the public-private divide. Some scholars, and many parents, believe that work performed out of love and work performed for a wage are fundamentally incompatible. Many observers express a "concern that encroaching commodification threatens to irrevocably evacuate from motherhood all that is best and most powerful about it." The philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain speaks for most conservative critics of paid childcare when she writes, "It used to be that some things, whole areas of life, were not up for grabs as part of the world of buying and selling." Today, in contrast, "nothing is holy, sacred, or off-limits in a world in which everything is for sale." In fact, some scholars argue that labor with a caring component pays less than similarly skilled jobs because employers believe that keeping wages low limits the labor pool to those with truly altruistic motives.
Even feminist theorists like Barbara Katz Rothman voice concern over what is lost when the work of the family is outsourced: "Mrs. Smith's Frozen Pie Company is not an intimate experience, either for the consumer or for the provider of the service. Wiping a child's behind or nose, settling an after-school squabble between siblings, putting on a new Band-Aid, unsticking the zipper on the toddler's snowsuit-these are intimate services." As more women have entered the labor force, services formerly performed by mothers and wives have been taken over by service and manufacturing industries: laundry, the production of food and clothing, cooking, and cleaning. In general, we view these products and services as labor-saving conveniences, and consider the frozen pie from Mrs. Smith's a fair substitute for mom's homemade recipe. Other services traditionally in the mother's sphere have been appropriated by professionals: education; care of the sick, the disabled, and the elderly. These professional services are generally viewed as superior to the informal care provided by wives and mothers. Of course, the distribution of these services-who can afford to outsource, who stays out of the labor force to provide them, and who provides them while in the labor force-varies according to social class. Whether delegated or family-provided, ensuring the quality of services otherwise known as "reproductive labor" remains women's responsibility.
In much of the scholarly literature, and in the minds of the general public, childcare is the last remaining area of women's "sphere" in which mothers are viewed as irreplaceable. According to the sociologist Viviana Zelizer, that view is misguided. She argues that exchanges of affection and intimacy have long coincided with monetary exchange, and that "people devote significant effort to negotiating meanings of social relations and marking their boundaries. They do so especially when those relations involve both intimacy and economic transactions." In her view, maintaining these boundaries requires "relational work" that involves "distinguishing those relationships from [ones] with which they might become confused," and constantly renegotiating and repairing relationships when confusion does arise. This book builds on Zelizer's insights by examining the intimate and economic negotiations between mother-employers and childcare providers, the relational work they entail, and the consequences of failing to navigate them successfully.
The majority of mothers in the United States are not full-time, stay-at-home parents. But because the American public remains haunted by the ghost of June Cleaver, ever-present for husband and children with pearls firmly in place, social policies more often reflect this sentimental vision rather than the realities of dual-earner families and the enormous pressures on mothers who work outside the home. The United States lags behind all other industrialized nations in supports for working parents and other adult workers who must care for dependents. It is in this moment of misalignment between cherished ideologies and daily realities that we enter the lives of the mothers and nannies in this study.
This study examines the delegation of mother-work, not the division and delegation of other aspects of motherhood, such as conceiving, gestating, and bearing children, the creation of family ties, or the economic support of children. I define mother-work specifically as those daily tasks involved in the care and protection of small children. For example, in interviews with mother-employers and with the caregivers they hired and supervised, I asked about various mothering practices, including feeding, diapering, bathing, disciplining, and playing with children. I also asked about the relational tasks involved in mother-work: the soothing, stimulating, and forging intimate connections that are part of the everyday practices of raising infants and toddlers. Although separate from motherhood as a social role or identity, mother-work represents a significant component of what it means to be a mother. Therefore, the practice of delegating mother-work to a paid caregiver could be expected to challenge fundamental understandings of motherhood.
My findings are based on data collected in the mid to late 1990s, during interviews with thirty mother-employers and fifty caregivers. The mother-employers were employed at least thirty hours per week outside the home and had at least one child younger than school age during the period in which they employed in-home care. The majority held high-status positions as doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers, teachers and professors, artists, and writers. The interviewees included single and married mothers, mothers with one to five children, mothers with children at various stages of development, and mothers from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Of the thirty mother-employers interviewed, eight were women of color.
The childcare providers represent the range of in-home caregivers: I interviewed ten European au pairs, fifteen U.S.-born nannies, and twenty-five immigrant caregivers from all parts of the globe. Fourteen caregivers had children of their own and viewed their mothering experience as their job training; twelve had some formal training in early childhood education. Three of the immigrant workers had been professionals, either medical or educational, in their home countries. Of the fifty caregivers, fifteen worked on a live-in basis and thirty-five lived out. The live-in caregivers earned salaries ranging from $100 to $300 per week, plus room and board, and the live-out caregivers earned from $80 to $500 per week. The caregivers worked from thirty to seventy hours per week.
Thirty-two of the interviewees were part of mother-caregiver dyads. Therefore, almost half of the interviews represent two perspectives from the same household, providing a unique opportunity to analyze divergent interpretations of each mother-caregiver relationship. The women who were not part of mother-caregiver dyads offered equally valuable perspectives in that they were less likely to perceive their employment relationships as successful. Finally, I supplemented the perspectives of the employers and employees with information gleaned in interviews with twenty nanny and au pair placement agency owners and managers. These informants sketched the broad outlines of nanny and au pair contracts for me and explained how placement agencies participate in negotiations between employers and caregivers. Ultimately, I conducted in-depth, tape-recorded interviews with a total of one hundred individuals.
I chose to study childcare in the employer's home, as opposed to daycare provided in an institutional setting (center daycare) or in the caregiver's home (family daycare), for several reasons. First, it is a one-to-one relationship between employer and employee. Because I was interested in how women negotiated commodified childcare, I sought a childcare arrangement that resembled the "ideal type" of mother-provider negotiation. An ideal type is a heuristic model that allows the researcher to construct a model that accentuates the critical characteristics of the phenomenon under study while deemphasizing other aspects. Although not statistically typical, the mother-nanny relationship emphasizes the kinds of direct negotiation concerning the division of mother-work that I sought to understand. In the more common forms of childcare, the caregiver-parent interaction is shaped by center or owner policies, by the needs of multiple children and their parents, and often by the needs of multiple employees. Conversely, in her own home, a mother has (or is believed to have) the power to choose and direct care so that it meets her needs and those of her children. Thus, how she selects and manages in-home care reflects what does and does not matter to her as a mother-and what does and does not matter reflects her mothering ideology.
Second, professional-class working mothers who employ in-home childcare workers generally have the financial resources to choose among competing types of care. I wanted to explore how women who are able to select any kind of care arrangement go about creating a personally satisfying division of mothering labor. Professional-class mothers are also of interest because they are especially aware of and influenced by the dominant cultural expectations surrounding childrearing. In delegating the labor of mothering, their decisions are likely to be shaped by the middle-class childrearing paradigm and its expectations regarding children's psychological, emotional, and cognitive development.
Third, I was keen to understand how women who had broken so many traditional barriers to equality in the workplace dealt with traditional mothering ideologies at home. To be clear, I had no intention of trying to position professional-class women as "the norm," a practice that has justifiably been criticized by work/family sociologists. Rather, I sought to understand what professional-class women who had succeeded in all other areas of their lives could reveal about childrearing and delegating childcare. Seventeen of the thirty mothers I interviewed could be considered true trailblazers at work: they were either the first or the only women to have reached their positions in their particular firms or lines of work. Most were overtly feminist in their orientation toward work and marriage. I imagined that they would be the group, if any, who would bear witness to the emergence of "postgender" parenting strategies. As it turned out, they were not, but this was also an effect, ironically, of their career success and resulting social class.
Finally, my research choices were influenced by broader structural conditions and events. As I was carrying out the study, public concern over children being deprived of adequate parenting, over gender equity at home and at work, and over immigration and the potential exploitation of low-wage immigrant workers rose. Anger over the widening gap in earnings and social class grew as well. When I first began the research, the Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood scandals were breaking news. By the time I completed the first wave of interviews, reactions to the Louise Woodward case, as well as numerous nanny references in popular culture, had made it clear that Americans' ambivalence about childcare was crystallizing around professional women and their nannies. Although not the statistical norm, the childcare arrangements of professional-class working mothers had come to represent a politically and emotionally charged cultural symbol. It seemed to me that a satisfactory understanding of the mothering and employment strategies attributed to this now-iconic form of childcare required going inside it-exploring what mattered to the two sets of women involved-rather than taking popular-culture portrayals at face value.
Because most nannies are paid under the table, available statistics on their numbers and their racial and ethnic distribution in the labor force are unreliable. Thus, in designing the sample, I did not aim for random generalizability; instead, I used a strategy of "maximum variation sampling." Within the boundaries of the population I wanted to study, I sought as many different types of arrangements as possible. I had assumed, based on other research, that the majority of nannies would be undocumented immigrants, but I quickly discovered otherwise. Boston-area childcare workers cluster in three main groups: immigrants, au pairs, and American-born women. I recruited care providers from each of these groups and then sought to interview their employers.
These interviews elicited rich and detailed accounts of explicit rules and implicit expectations, stories of the "nanny from hell" as well as accounts of the "angel who holds us together." I asked the nannies and au pairs what brought them to childcare work, what they looked for in a prospective employer's family, and how they felt about the conditions of their work. They responded with often poignant, sometimes humorous narratives of what it feels like to be the cornerstone of family life and yet often be denied adult-level autonomy and authority.
Mother-employers generally expressed satisfaction with their current childcare providers and with the quality of their children's care. Not all of the fifty caregivers were satisfied with their employers, but they all expressed a deep commitment to the children in their care. I was able to directly observe their affection for and pride in their charges, since many of the interviews took place with the children present. Likewise, the mothers strove to be conscientious employers.
My respondents' attitudes and actions may reflect self-selection; nannies who were abusing their children or employers who were abusing their nannies most likely would not have agreed to be interviewed. The situations I observed did not, for the most part, include evidence of nanny abuse or of the stereotypically heartless employers and childcare providers that often are portrayed in the media and in some research. Both sets of women in the study tried hard to make their relationships work. The problems they experienced were, therefore, more subtle, more intractable, and in many ways more heartbreaking.
The book's remaining chapters are grouped into four thematic sections: cultural and structural constraints that shape the mother-nanny relationship; resolving the ideal mother/ideal worker conflict; nannies' perspectives on their employers' management strategies; and alternative models of the mother-nanny relationship and avenues for change. Each is described below.
Cultural and Structural Constraints
The mother-nanny relationship is not shaped by free-floating, unconstrained actors. The first section (chapters 2 and 3) outlines the cultural and structural constraints that shape the needs and expectations mothers and nannies bring to their employment relationship.
Chapter 2 discusses the contradictory forces shaping the mother-employers' lives. Although trailblazers in male-dominated fields, they find themselves in the awkward position of having to continually prove their devotion to work. They find they must constantly pass "the test of manhood" to confirm their career-orientation, a test that becomes more difficult once they have children. They simultaneously, and perhaps paradoxically, embrace the tenets of intensive mothering. Reading volumes of advice literature, they evaluate their own mothering practices as falling short of the "ideal mother" norm, and they seek in-home childcare as a way to approximate mother-care while they are at work. They experience what I call "blanket accountability," the sense that they are responsible for everything that happens in their children's daily lives, regardless of who provides the actual care. They are consequently torn between hiring an at-home mother to support them as they pursue their demanding careers, and the desire to be that at-home mother for their children. It is this conflict that feeds the mother-employers' deep ambivalence and guides their strategies for managing their childcare workers.
Chapter 3 introduces three types of nannies common in the Boston area and describes their different routes to nanny work, as well as the problems they face in an occupation that is legally and socially defined as being "part of the family" rather than as doing skilled work. The caregivers I interviewed work with very young children in childcare-only positions. They consider themselves more skilled than other domestic workers; they also take pride in the quality of care they offer, especially as compared to care offered at daycare centers. Nonetheless, their identities as professional mother-workers trap the nannies in conflicts over whether their work should be governed by market norms or by more flexible, but potentially exploitative, family norms. They also embrace mothering as a work ethic, a cultural norm that binds them ever tighter to the children in their care and, paradoxically, leads them to negotiate against their own economic interests.
Resolving the Ideal Mother/Ideal Worker Conflict
The second section (chapters 4-6) analyzes how mother-employers attempt to resolve their "ideal mother/ideal worker" conflicts by hiring, managing, and monitoring nannies. The most common coping strategies involve managing the nanny as if she were an extension of the mother herself: a shadow mother. Managing the nanny to produce shadow motherhood begins with screening and selecting a caregiver. Chapter 4 outlines the logics working mothers use to find and hire the employee who will provide the right "fit" for their child and for their child's developmental stage.
Chapter 5 presents management and monitoring strategies put in place after the caregiver has been hired. The mother-employers use nanny management strategies that range from micromanagement to benign inattention that assumes the existence of an intuitive connection between employer and nanny. Each of these seemingly polar-extreme approaches treats the caregiver as an extension of the mother, rather than as an individual with her own distinctive relationship to the children. In both management strategies, the goal is to orchestrate the daily lives of the nanny and children to mirror the employer's image of the care she imagines she would provide if she were an at-home mother herself.
Chapter 6 focuses on a different kind of management strategy: managing both the image of the mother-nanny division of labor and what that division of labor means. The employers I interviewed believe strongly in the ideal of "being in the mother-appropriate places at the mother-appropriate times." This leads them to devise a complex supervisory subtext that delineates what aspects of childcare the nanny is to engage in and what aspects are "mother only." Care in hiring and daily management can transform an in-home care provider into a trustworthy channel for her employer's childrearing practice. The makeover to shadow mother is not fully realized, however, until the nanny not only acts as a mother-extension but also fades into invisibility when she is not needed, and carries out her responsibilities in ways that provide no threat to her employer's image as the child's primary attachment.
The third section (chapters 7 and 8) presents nannies' perspectives and their responses to employer management strategies. Most of the nannies and their employers interpret what it means to be a "good mother" differently, and most have strong opinions regarding who is best at fulfilling that ideal. Since the everyday actions and expectations of the two sets of women are rooted in their (separate) understandings of ideal motherhood, their competing ideologies become the battleground on which employer-employee tensions emerge. Chapter 7 describes the working conditions, including employer attitudes and family atmosphere, that nannies report wanting most. I term this much-desired scenario the "third-parent" ideal. All the nannies long for their employers' recognition of the important contribution they make to family life. Few receive this recognition. Chapter 8 examines the ways in which nannies accommodate and/or resist employer-imposed definitions of their role and limitations on the bond they forge with the children in their care. Ironically, a key form of resistance involves attempting to "outmother the mother." In this sense, the notion of the ideal mother holds both sets of women in thrall. They each comply in their own, albeit very different, kinds of subjugation to the same unrealistic, culturally defined ideals.
Alternatives and Avenues for Change
The final section (chapters 9 and 10) examines alternative employer-childcare provider relationships and explores avenues for change. The initial fifty-eight interviews I conducted for this study indicated that most of the working mother-nanny relationships were distorted by a "recognition deficit"-neither party could recognize or validate her own contribution to the childrearing endeavor without simultaneously negating that of the other. Some of the relationships, though, showed glimmers of mutuality, respect, and cooperative childrearing. These exceptions suggested that mother-employers who were not straining to meet ideal-mother and ideal-worker standards might approach managing childcare differently and be less likely to rely on shadow-mother strategies. I interviewed an additional twenty-two women, recruiting mothers who worked part-time or flextime, and those who had been raised by mothers employed outside the home, with the idea that these women might offer counterhegemonic approaches to managing childcare.
Among this group, partnership strategies prevail. These mother-employers treat childcare workers as individuals whose relationships with the children are distinct from the mother-child bond rather than extensions of it. Similarly, in this group husbands and wives share childrearing responsibilities more equally. Partnerships also are the only employer-employee relationships that explicitly challenge the ideology of intensive mothering by acknowledging the contributions paid caregivers make to childrearing and family life. Chapter 9 describes these relationships and shows that paid childcare can be incorporated into family life in ways that benefit all the participants.
In chapter 10, I apply the insights found in this study to other forms of childcare. Across the childcare spectrum, caregivers seek to be valued with both fair pay and recognition for their caring and altruism: a tension that is central to the frustrations of the nannies I interviewed. Furthermore, intensive mothering is inherently class-based. Not only are mothers' specific concerns shaped by social class, but also the conflicts between nannies and mothers arise primarily from the class-based nature of mothering ideologies. Class transmission is work, and it is women's work. Negotiating this gendered work between women of different classes is a central problem facing those I interviewed. In my concluding remarks, I argue that concerns for the dignity of care should transcend anxieties over the maintenance of status.
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