Nannies etc.

by Harry on February 20, 2004

Now that my cover is blown I feel inhibited from saying much about this (and looking after my 3 year old daughter means I don’t have time today anyway) but there’s lots of interesting stuff about childcare, nannies, and the mommy wars out there. Caitlin Flanagan’s rivetting piece in The Atlantic is finally online, and a follow up exhange of letters with Barbara Ehrenreich and Sara Mosle is very interesting. Laura at Apartment 11D has several posts on the debate which vary in temper but are all worth reading. Her initial take on the Barbara Ehrenreich letter is that it is defensive, and biased against stay-at-home moms, but I think she is misreading it — so, I think, does Russell Arben Fox, who takes Ehrenreich to be inserting the signifcance of class into the debate. I don’t think Ehrenreich is biased against stay-at-home-moms, but I do think she buys into a more productivist ethic than Russell and Laura (and I) subscribe to. Good stuff all.



dsquared 02.20.04 at 5:19 pm

ATEOTD, a nanny is a servant, and if you employ a servant, then you may do so for all sorts of very good reasons, but the one thing you can’t complain about is the fact that you may find that some people on the Left don’t treat you particularly nicely. Fer chrissake, what’s the Left for if it’s going to say that there’s no problem at all with having servants?


Russell Arben Fox 02.20.04 at 6:00 pm

You read me correctly Harry. I think Ehrenreich is fundamentally on target in looking at this from a class perspective–but I also think she does, as you say, kind of assume (and perhaps this is simply generational) that the consequences of her critique will be manifest in rather more “productivist” forms than otherwise. That is, her radical critique (attacking the sort arrangements that make certain women feel obliged to have nannies in the first place, or consider themselves deprived if they can’t afford one) is correct–but the consequences of that radical critique are broader than I think someone like Ehrenreich (who is a working mother, and frankly probably thinks every woman should be) may be able to acknowledge.


Steve Carr 02.20.04 at 6:08 pm

I realize I’m being willfully obtuse here, but what is the difference — from a Left perspective — between being a nanny and being, say, a hairdresser, or doing any job that requires you to service the needs of other people all day long (which would include everything from people who give bikini waxes to people who work at McDonald’s)? Is the Left really against people working in service industries? Practically my entire life depends on the skills and work of other people, to whom I give money in exchange for their time and labor. I don’t think of them as my servants, but it’s not clear to me why it would be morally worse if there were people who worked only for me instead of serving many different customers.


maurinsky 02.20.04 at 6:21 pm

“The Left” is a meaningless term, IMO. I mostly see the term used by conservatives when they need someone to take the opposing position: “The Left” hates rich people, “The Left” are all communists, etc.

I’m pretty liberal, and I don’t care if someone has a nanny because they work outside the home or if they have a nanny while they go out to lunch with their girlfriends. My only concern about the nanny subject is whether or not the nanny is getting a living wage.


rr 02.20.04 at 6:48 pm

when does katha pollitt find the time off from google stalking her old boyfriend to churn out the shit she writes?


Russell Arben Fox 02.20.04 at 7:02 pm

Very simply Steve: because the home should not be a site for a service industry.


Steve Carr 02.20.04 at 7:28 pm

Russell, I understand your argument, but there’s certainly nothing Left about it. On the contrary, privileging the home over the rest of the world is a traditionally conservative position.

In any case, your stance would also seem to rule out daycare as an acceptable profession, since it surely can’t be acceptable — in your moral terms — for kids to be cared for by non-family members outside the home but unacceptable for them to be cared for by non-family members inside the home. Again, that doesn’t mean your argument is wrong. But I don’t really see what’s Left about it. And to maurinsky’s point, the reason that’s an issue here is because that was dsquared’s point: for the Left to be the Left, it has to have a problem with “servants.”


seth edenbaum 02.20.04 at 7:35 pm

“Nannies, remember: You have leverage. Your employer’s children love you—that’s your power. If she’s a working mother and if you live in a city with a big need for nannies, she needs you more than you need her.”

Think about the implications of that paragraph. Understand the condescenscion.

What’s the diffeence between a liberal and a conservative?
-A liberal is someone who worries about the poor and treats the servants like shit.
-A conservative is someone who doesn’t care about the poor but treats the servants with respect.

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a worker or servant of one sort or another. Caitlin Flanagan can kiss my fucking ass.


wendy 02.20.04 at 7:36 pm

“Very simply Steve: because the home should not be a site for a service industry.”

What about plumbers? If we subscribed to this ethic, wouldn’t we have to do all our own maintenance, repair, and other forms of “work,” rather than exploiting workers by paying them to do it for us?


dsquared 02.20.04 at 7:38 pm

On the contrary, privileging the home over the rest of the world is a traditionally conservative position.

No, it’s in Marx. Commodification of existence, etc.

I have to say that I find it hard to believe that anyone who claims not to see a difference between the customer/service employee relationship and the master/servant one is being serious.


seth e. 02.20.04 at 7:42 pm

Remember, it’s “Aunt Jemima” and Uncle Ben.”
Did they have power too?


Russell Arben Fox 02.20.04 at 7:57 pm

Wendy: when I said “the home” I meant “the domestic sphere (and its attendant affairs).” Obviously plumpers can come into my house. Indeed, they better, because Melissa and I aren’t bad at electric wiring, but pipes completely throw us.

Steve: see what Daniel (dsquared) said. Also, what you’re picking up on is exactly what leads leftists like Harry to have a sympathy for the efforts of certain fundamentalist Christians–and why a (mostly) social conservative like myself finds the language of Marx and social democrats generally far more appealing than anything on the right side of the political aisle.

Seth: you need to go back and read what Laura and I have written about some of the attitudes on display in these articles. Their arguments are important and (mostly) correct; their attitudes, unfortunately, often leave much to be desired.


Steve Carr 02.20.04 at 8:25 pm

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben didn’t choose to work in the homes of their masters, so invoking them is meaningless.

dsquared, I’m not surprised at your response, but it simply doesn’t suffice to say “well, it’s just incredibly obvious that a nanny is more oppressed than a daycare worker or a hairdresser.” And Marx’s assertions about the commodification of existence and alienation from one’s own labor would apply equally well to a typical service worker as to a nanny. I realize you think that conservatives — and I don’t count myself as one of them — are just cold-hearted bastards trying to justify their own greed. But I’d be happier if you could come up with an argument for why “servants” — and this is your term, not one that anyone in the Slate dialogue, for instance, used — are particularly oppressed that’s more substantive than “they just are, you selfish nitwit.”


Mats 02.20.04 at 8:45 pm

mothers, mothers, mothers – are there no men in your country!? or are they just kept away from caregiving by some kind of religous laws!?


Jeremy Osner 02.20.04 at 9:12 pm

Steve — the casual employment in which domestic servants generally find themselves in the modern-day U.S. — without contracts, and paid under the table — lends itself to exploitation in a way that a hair-stylist’s employment at the beauty parlor does not. Would it be possible to formalize domestic-service arrangements? Possibly; Ms. Flanagan certainly believes it would be. But I am skeptical — a situation where there are many employers (with no legal licensing or recognition) each hiring one or at most two or three employees seems difficult to regulate. (One counterargument I can see is that this industry should be quite resistant to turnover, i.e. seniority should be quite important; but I don’t know that it really plays out that way.)


seth edenbaum 02.20.04 at 10:09 pm

The quote referred to the emotional authority of servants over the children of employers. Uncle and Aunt refer to the emotional authority of slaves over the children they cared for.


seth e. 02.20.04 at 11:51 pm

“The quote referred to the emotional authority of servants over the children of employers. Uncle and Aunt refer to the emotional authority of slaves over the children they cared for.” (Sorry, I had to go back to work.)
The operative term for both is condescension. Referring to house slaves as family or to servants as companions obscures the economic reality.
Friends of mine know a couple, very wealthy, who had spent years living the bohemian loft life in NY. At some point as they got older, they decided to switch gears. They bought a sprawling apartment on the upper east side, had it redecorated and set up house with a staff of 3 or 4. They encouraged the servants to be informal, to treat them as friends. After 6 months they had to let them all go and start again: you don’t pay your friends to clean your toilets. True conservatives understand both professionalism and noblesse oblige. Liberals understand neither.

And on Ehrenreich: I remember hearing her speak at a rally in DC about the abortion gag rule 10 years ago. Her line, went something like “you’re all here together, to meet new friends, new lovers…” that’s almost an exact quote. My friends and I were embarrassed. We were there surrounded by people with whom we had little in common, because all of us agreed on something that was important to us. Her hippy idealism was incredibly annoying. So yes, I don’t trust Ehrenreich, really any more than I trust Caitlin Flanagan, but she is the only voice I’ve heard to at least broach the subject of liberal hypocrisy within the context of liberal discussion.
Political discussion in the US, when it occurs, is a debate between moralists and drunks. Liberals are little more than guilty drunks.


seth edenbaum 02.21.04 at 2:01 am

There is a difference of degree from the public to the domestic, but everyone with a ‘career’ has servants, academics as much as anyone. Who mops the floor of your office? Who takes out the garbage? Who uses the freight elevator, even when their hands are empty? And importantly, how do you behave around these people who do the things you’re paid too much to do? Because that’s what they’re there for, to give you time, at your ‘career’ to do things that are ‘important’

When I walk into a building in Manhattan as a worker I get an informal greeting from the doorman or, if he’s got a stick up his ass, at least from the workers in the basement. When I walk in as a guest, if they don’t know me, everything changes. Servants treat their own differently than they treat their employers. It’s true in any building.

Another point. There’s a difference between a trade and a service. A trade is a skill. A service may involve skill, but cleaning bathrooms does not. But both are treated in society as if they’re in the same category. They’re both dirty.

I read a bit of Flanagan’s piece and it was enough. As with the rest, it’s not the conservatism that bothers me it’s the hypocrisy. It’s the feminism of Virginia Woolf, 70 years later.
Another reason to hate Manhattanites.


Jeremy Osner 02.21.04 at 2:38 am

But Seth, the people who mop the floors in your office, the doorman and super at your or your friend’s apartment building, etc. are almost certainly formal employees who receive a paycheck with withholdings and are qualified for unemployment insurance if they lose the job; indeed there is a fair chance they are unionized. There is a world of difference between this and the many domestic servants who do not, in the eyes of the government, exist at all as employed individuals.


seth edenbaum 02.21.04 at 4:09 am

I should have made myself clear, I’m not arguing that point.
The whole tenor of this conversation bothers me.
Unionized or not most of those who work for and around the men and women who have ‘careers’ -in whatever field- exist in the minds of those people as appendages. Workers are treated with indifference or contempt.
In a city where every foreign born cab driver or doorman speaks 5 languages and has been to at least 10 countries, I do not have to accept the arrogant self absorption and earnest self pity of their employers -or their wives’ employers- even if those employers are female, and have reasons to complain about the laziness of their boorish husbands. If anyone has a right to self pity it’s the cab drivers’ wives, who have to put up with rich white women all day and their own husbands the rest of the time.


andrew 02.21.04 at 4:39 am

As for the difference between domestic help and service industries:

When you pay someone to repair your car, cut your hair, do your taxes, or fix your plumbing – you are doing so because your time is valuable. It might take you twenty hours to file your income taxes or fix your car, while a specialist could do it in two hours. It’s efficient for you, twenty hours of your time-value vs. two. But it’s also efficient for them. You generally pay them more than your time-value for two hours. They are specialized, and more productive than you at their task.

But what does domestic help, like a nannie, do that you couldn’t do just as productively? Nothing. The only efficiency that is being exploited is the fact that your time is worth more than theirs. You go to your job for $70/hr., they give highly personalized care to your children (for 10/hr.), while their own children often receive less personalized attention (with day care or relatives). But your children are worth more than theirs, so it’s efficient.

This is simplified, since capitalist transactions fall along a continuum, but I think the nakedness of the arrangement is what offends here. I wouldn’t have a servant, but I would slap my kid in day care (since day care is more productive, at 20 kids to a room).

I, too, agree with Seth E.: I found the whole premise of Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed to be so condescending – hanging out with WalMart workers like she was on an anthropological expedition. I have been duly chastised for that opinion, though. I think we lefties are supposed to applaud her intentions.


Russell Arben Fox 02.21.04 at 4:57 am

Andrew, it’s not that Ehrenreich’s intentions alone deserve applause, it’s that her intentions are correct: questions of poverty and low-wage work and the social relationships between laborer and employer really are fundamentally class questions, and it is only by viewing the inequalities in security and power in a society through such a lens that we can appreciate the real costs (the “nakedness” as you put it) of certain arrangements, which otherwise might be spun as just one more lousy transaction. Furthermore, I completely agree with you about the limits of Nickel and Dimed–there’s a big hole in her comprehension of the working poor that she’s probably just not sympathetic enough to fill. I wouldn’t want her handling any welfare cases, that’s for sure. But I would like her hanging around, asking questions and making critiques about how they are being handled.


Steve Carr 02.21.04 at 9:50 am

Andrew, it seems fairly obvious that the attention a kid gets from a nanny is much greater than the attention that the same kid would get if he’s one of twenty kids in a day-care “class.” So saying the latter situation is more “productive” seems bizarre. I mean, sure, one day-care worker can supervise twenty kids, but in terms of what each kid gets out of it, it’s not the same. If it is, then surely the day-care worker is the oppressed one, since she gets paid about the same for watching twenty kids as the nanny gets paid for watching one.

More important, your argument about time would apply equally well to a host of professions. Take lawn-cutting services. They don’t really mow the lawn any faster than a householder with a riding mower can do himself. But he pays them because his time is more valuable. Why aren’t we offended by that? Or take an even more familiar example: eating out. The cook at my local diner is fine, but frankly most of the stuff he makes isn’t any better, nor is it delivered much faster, than I could do myself. But I’d rather pay him to cook so I can work or read the paper or whatever. Is that really an act of oppression? And if not, how is it different from the case of the nanny?

I think the opposition to nannies — and “servants” — is purely the product of visceral feelings about family and the private sphere. And while those feelings are undoubtedly real, I don’t think there’s any serious theoretical justification for distinguishing between people who work for another person inside a home and those who work for another person outside it.


mc 02.21.04 at 9:55 am

I don’t live in the US, and I’ve never know “the Left” considered nannies as oppressed servants! AFAIK, they’re considered professionals offering a service, just like plumbers, carpenters, waiters, cleaners. I don’t even get how there can be people who see them otherwise, and I don’t understand what the arguments about having or not having a nanny are about! If you need one, you get one, it’s as simple as that. Just like when you need the plumber, you call a plumber. Of when you need to give a big party and can’t be preparing food for all the guests, you call caterers.

People who don’t have the money to pay for these services try and find alternatives. Some countries esp. in Northern Europe have very good state subsidies and kindgergartens and daycare centers. Often in the workplace too.

As a kid, I stayed at my grandma’s during the day while my parents were at work. Which was great for all. My parents were both working class with not at all impressive wages, but they still managed to pay a person to do the housecleaning twice or three times a week for a couple of hours, to fill in the gaps. She was a friend of the family as well. I can’t even begin to imagine how she could be defined a “servant”! It must be a WASP thing, because I just don’t get it.


seth edenbaum 02.21.04 at 2:32 pm

How is it that one person’s time be more valuable than anther’s? It’s a rhetorical question, I’m not looking for an economics lecture, but economic value and social worth are connected, aren’t they?

I like the comment by mc. I would bet he’s from a community where social as opposed to economic bonds still have great authority. Money is dangerous only when it takes over social life. It is a WASP thing, and by the way, a technocratic thing: the vision of society as a productive machine rather than a network of otherwise ‘meaningless’ social connections, ensuring mutual survival.

There is very little social connection across class lines in the US. The only ‘glue’ is economic. That is what allows both Flannagan and Ehrenreich to be so casual and careless in their language. They are both liberals and both imagine themselves as well meaning, but they can not really imagine the emotional lives of those who are the objects of their discussion. They can not value them as the authors of complexity, Ehrenreich because her technocratic, ‘productivist’ sensibility, and Flannagan because of her own self interest.

But again, it’s not the self interest that makes things difficult much as the guilt. Self interest is a given.
But no whore respects a client who wants her to enjoy getting fucked in the ass, she respects a John who pays and leaves. It’s the same with me.


Marijo 02.22.04 at 9:09 pm

I’ve read through many of the articles and comments referenced here with great interest this morning. Thank goodness, I’m finally outside the loop– my children have grown up and moved out– but the state of the women’s movement remains an issue of interest. There are a couple of things that seem to be overlooked in all that I have read. One is that it is not only domestic work which is undervalued- it is all work which has traditionally been done by women. Your landscape workers and your plumbers are almost certainly paid more than your nanny, and they have worked out how to paid and to get their benefits, simply because these are traditionally men’s jobs. School teachers and social workers are paid less than men or women in the corresponding male jobs of professors and lawyers. Cleaners, people in food service, clothing assemblers, ‘secretaries’, and medical caregivers are paid the least of all, even though the world would more-or-less come to a halt if all of these people ewent on strike. Yes, some advances have been made, just as day-care is much more readily available now than it was in 1982, when I joined the work force. But in general, “women’s work” is viewed as unskilled and of less value. And wrongfully, so, I should add. It probably takes a good deal more skill to make learning exciting for a room full of 9-year-olds than it does to manage a college lecture hall. And contrary to someone’s comment above, there is some skill involved in cleaning a house efficiently and effectively– at least as much skill as there is in some construction jobs. This is part of the imbalance, I think, in both the attitude towards nannies and their poor pay.

Most people who comment also seem to be making the incorrect assumption that a mother (rather than an ‘outsider’) is always the best person to raise her own kids, too. This is not the case. Some mothers have little talent for working with small children, just as some fathers are very good at it. These mothers are right to get help, just as most parents want help when it comes to teaching science to their teenagers. In other words, caring for children is not an ‘unskilled’ job, either. It doesn’t take a lot of skill to change a diaper, but to keep an 18-month-old entertained through a 12-hour day is indeed a challenge.

I always thought that the woman’s movement was about increasing the choices that people had in their lives– not just about getting women out of the house to work and getting men to do housework. And, in fact, many people do make the choice for unsatisfying jobs– they find the meaning of their lives outside of their paid work(!)– they’re not working for the pleasure of the work; they’re working for the week-end. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

If you’ve made your choice and you value the choices of others as much as your own, than you have no reason for guilt. The problem is in this whole attitude that some work is better than other work, an attitude which is fundamentally based in sexism and racism. In fact, people are suited to different kinds of work, but all the work that goes to make a society function is valuable. “Sh*t work” used to be called “n*gger work”, and men used to be insulted by the suggestion that they should do any cleaning– it was beneath them. Those days were fading behind us, but they seem to be making a comeback.


adoherty 02.23.04 at 3:01 pm

Anyone who’s interested in seeing the nanny issue treated from an artistic POV might check out Lisa Loomer’s latest play, “Living Out.” (I saw it in NYC recently.) The end is a cop-out, and the play treats the problem as mother’s only, not the father’s. Despite the deficiencies, however, it creates a good portrait of the tensions inherent in the nanny/mother relationship. As someone who’s been a nanny employer in the past, I think those tensions are inherent. They cannot be removed, only managed.

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