Friday, February 5, 2010

random thoughts on paid childcare

I'm surprised that this NYTimes article about nanny-mother communication didn't mention, at all, what to me seems to be the heart of the issue: women paying other women to do what is traditionally women's labor. I'm neither a mother nor a nanny, but it seems obvious that the troubles relayed in the article belie a deep uncomfortability with paying someone to take on what may have been conceived of, initially, as love-labor.

I suspect that there's a strong cognitive dissonance between what any mother experiences as a mother and what she experiences as an employer: She presumably has children out of, in part at least (I hope) love, and introducing paid work into the equation makes it clear that it's not just love-work, it's work-work. The mother is simultaneously handing over one of the most important things in her life and reducing it to figures. The article doesn't mention fathers, and that seems deliberate: While I'd like to think that many fathers deal with nannies too, that simply might not be the case--and even in households where it is, the fact of woman-woman communication in a traditionally female realm is what complicates the issue.

In this context, Clay Shirky's recent call to arms to women--we need to act like dicks, he says--is exposed for the (somewhat) empty entreaty it is. Yes, mothers (indeed, all parents) and nannies should have clearer communication; I'm sure many a nanny could benefit from being more aggressive with her employer, especially given the race, class, or age dynamics often present in these relationships. But aggressive approaches aren't as effective outside of non-corporate work environments. Paid labor that complements love labor is no less a job than any other, of course, but the tactics Shirky recommends women adopt to get ahead in the workplace apply to men's work spheres (in the traditional sense--the outer sphere--not, say, Chippendale's), not women's. I want every qualified nanny to know her worth; I want every woman hiring that nanny to articulate her needs--and nowhere in there would I ever want a nanny saying she knew how to prepare nutritious meals if she didn't, or have a mother acting like a blowhard when negotiating the care of her child.

To ignore the love part of the love-labor that is being paid for in a nanny-parent relationship is to reduce an enormously important job to its parts instead of looking at it as a whole. Excuse me for being a hippie, but this is what utopian visions of collectivized child care take into account that the nanny arrangements described in the article seem to be trying to avoid: That when both parents wish or need to work outside the home, the day-to-day care of a child, by necessity, requires labor that is fairly compensated and that allows the caretaker to use skill, intuition, experience, and whatever version of love there may be involved to do the job.

I'm babysitting this weekend for very close friends of mine. In the various times I've come over to learn the bedtime routine, my friend has asked me if I'd like to change the child's diaper so that I can get hands-on experience. Besides the fact that changing diapers is generally unpleasant, I've hedged on this. Now, I probably changed my first diaper when I was 11 years old and got my first babysitting gig. (The thought of anybody hiring a sixth-grader to care for their children seems wholly absurd to me now, but it subsidized my Mike & Ikes throughout junior high, so.) Part of my hesitancy stems from simply not wanting my friend to see me be "all thumbs," as one of the mothers in the Times article describes; I would also feel foolish having her watch me install an air-conditioner for the same reason. But the thought of being watched--even by a dear, loving friend--at this task in particular makes me uneasy, because there's this idea that somehow I should naturally be good at this. I feel pride when I am able to soothe my friend's son when he gets fussy; it somehow makes me feel like a better person, as though I have some magical, mystical ability. I don't want to be caught in the act of totally not knowing what I'm doing--even though I do--and I wonder if it's because I've carried with me the idea that it should come naturally despite not being a mother myself, or wanting to be one.

A night of caring for my friends' child is, for me, a labor of love, and were I a professional (beyond junior high, that is), I would likely have the skills and confidence that would allow me to not give a shit (heh) about having anyone watch me change a diaper. The mild feelings of mild unworthiness as a woman--and those feelings are indeed mild, and something that I recognize as a holdover from my mother's era, not from expectations put upon my demographic of 30something New York professional unmarried women--can, for me, be fleeting, because my labor is valued elsewhere. It's a lark, a date with my favorite nine-month-old. But were it anything else, I would hope that the peculiarities of paid childcare within a labor context were evaluated holistically instead of being parsed in the way the subjects of this article seem to do.

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