Wednesday, January 18th, 2012
The Globalization of Childcare: The Consequences of Trading Love for Work
Globalization of childcare/ istock photo-© lubilub
Here in Los Angeles, there’s a listserv that features ads from people looking for nannies and from nannies looking for work. There’s the occasional reminder posted about the rules: a place where posts are restricted to ads. Another clarifies that conversation should be shifted to an alternative forum.
The rule was broken recently when a virtual riot broke out in response to a potential employer’s offer. She was looking for someone to work on New Year’s Eve for 15 dollars an hour and wanted some light housecleaning done once the kids had gone to sleep. Many people felt that the wage was too low considering the holiday and the request for cleaning. Someone responded that it was her right to offer whatever wage she liked and others right to refuse it. They mentioned that it was an opportunity that would be worth it for some people and could benefit someone sending money home to their families, fair wage or not. That started the real debate—the majority of nannies, immigrants themselves, chimed in on both sides. Some argued that you get what you pay for in terms of quality of care. Someone else insisted that that made nannies look bad—the love comes for free. We all have bills to pay so we can’t work for nothing. The truth is we often exploit ourselves when it’s the best option we’ve got.
It is no secret that migrant women move to first world countries for work, because either the opportunities don’t exist in their countries of origin or better ones beckon. They arrive to clean our homes and take care of our babies and elders, taking over the work that first world women abandoned when they left the home in pursuit of improved possibilities.
In my last column, I wrote about the Latina nannies I hang out with at the park and the similarities and differences between us. We are all aware that I am a well-educated, middle class, white lady and they are first generation, migrant women and that these things count in life. While we don’t talk about that subject, it is a known variable that doesn’t seem to carry resentment with it. It is taken for granted that we don’t all start out equal in life, even if we meet as peers at the playground. They seem to be grateful for the opportunities given to them as opposed to upset about the lack of them in their youth.
In the conversations about nannies online, it is similarly often framed as a win-win situation in which nannies get a leg up while employers gain an employee who is “like one of the family.” Generally unacknowledged are the families they’ve left behind—their children and their elders, mostly left in the care of relatives or each other (grandma raising the baby). While love is not a finite resource, face time certainly is and we therefore rob the developing world of “care” to feed our own needs. It’s a concept referred to as “care drain” or the “care deficit” which I was introduced to while reading the mind-blowing book Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy. GO GET A COPY! Never has holiday reading material so affected the way I view the world.
As hip as I think I am, I’ll be honest and say I had never really given thought to the idea that the love and care gifted to our kin is being “extracted” from people on the other side of the world who might otherwise receive it. I previously felt like we were all in it together—all women struggling together to make it work and that nannies and their employers share in common their choice to “let other women take care of their children so that they can give those children a better life.” But the feminist bonding stops there because despite the fact that the “globalization of childcare and housework brings the ambitious and independent women of the world together,” it does so in a way that leaves them on uneven footing, as “mistress and maid, employer and employee, across a great divide of privilege and opportunity.” The economic realities that encourage women to migrate toward domestic work make their decision less a personal choice than a coerced necessity. The consequences are what one writer refers to as “a dark child’s burden.” They love our children in the absence of their own, perhaps with more fervor. It is love “fostered by intense loneliness and longing for their own.”
Let’s say that on one level we knew this; maybe we knew it deep down but figured well, they are moving here to give their children back home opportunities and education they wouldn’t otherwise have and grandma probably does an okay job, even if she’s old and tired. But have we thought about the effect it might have on our kids? “We teach our kids that money can’t buy love, and then we go right ahead and buy it for them, hiring strangers to love them, because we have more important things to do.”
What does that mean for us as a culture? It’s simple supply and demand—they come because we need them. We are all out of “care” ourselves. We have prioritized making money and a sense of personal achievement over being present for those we claim to be closest to—our families. In the park, I have overheard working mothers say that they couldn’t stay home all day with their children, “I’d go crazy. I don’t know how my nanny does it.” The labor of “caring” can be heavy. It requires not only physical presence but emotional involvement, patience and joy, all attributes that our culture struggles to maintain. We go to yoga, meditate and make New Year’s resolutions to be present. We get caught up in status and consumption. We take vacations to poorer countries where the people seem happier nonetheless.
There are no easy answers to what some might see as the facts of the future, more inevitable than questionable. The answer isn’t to send all the working women of the world back into their homes. It might be some sort of global economic justice and ethical reflection, but I’m not holding my breath. The main solution offered in the book is acknowledgment. Better to know the real costs of the love we’re getting.
© 2012 – 2013, Kellen Kaiser. All rights reserved.
More Great Stuff You'll Love: