The Globalization of Childcare: The Consequences of Trading Love for Work


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.


  1. “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.” Them’s fightin’ words for hundreds of thousands of working women, Kellen. Are you suggesting we don’t love our children just because we work outside the home for 8 of the 24 hours in a day? While I certainly don’t think either migrant workers or nannies should be exploited I’m not clear about your argument. Not all nannies or childcare workers are migrant workers, or at least not where I live. Are you saying migrant work is a bad thing? Do you think paid childcare is wrong? Or are you saying you just don’t agree with migrant workers being paid to care for children?

  2. “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.” So eloquently said! Our once home-based daycare provider was from Mexico, and especially after her husband had to leave the U.S. due to illness (lack of affordable health insurance) I saw in her eyes how love and life was being extracted from her by the children she cared for. It did not help that my then 8 month old would have screaming fits. I also wonder what happens to the sense of attachment for those kids who have had something like 8 aupairs/nannies for the past 10 years. I know I am an uncommon type among working mothers but your article re-reminded me of the tired relief I felt having to leave my kids with our trusted aupair every week day, and how I still just could not get over how jealous I was of her job. I so wished that someone would pay me to take care of my children, or that my salary was either much more (to justify and give me enough to somehow make up for the loss) or much less so I could easily justify quitting. I have now shifted to part time, on state health insurance and home schooling with my husband. The home is a different place. We decided to trade in money and our fabulous insurance policy for our time that we knew cannot be bought back. I think we all seek security some how. But we go at it in various ways. Still I think it is safest to assume that nothing is ever guaranteed, even if everyone else around seem to do it that way. Perhaps the question boils down to “why did we have and want children in the first place?” I hope that your article sparks more discussion!

  3. Thanks for this super insightful article, it shows that you are a real citizen of the world and care for others. As an immigrant myself I had the experience of being raised by my grandparents in the absence of my mother who lovely provided money for us. I really think that that was a very personal decision from my mom and I respect it but I may say that what you say is true, how many times I wish that my mom was with us instead of those kids. I guess that will be the eternal struggle of the working class mothers, trading one thing for another but at least the people who pays for their services should have a little more gratitude and compassion and also be glad that they can choose to stay or not with their kids.

  4. Great article–the best you’ve written I think. Thought provoking and important. I live in a small town in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I’ve met many a child left behind by either father or mother (or occasionally both) and without a doubt the child suffers for it. In many cases, so much so that the little ecomonic gain made my having their parent away from could not possibly be considered worth it. There is a lot of presure to participate in consumerist society and so many people in the world jump to the conculsion that a TV and a dinningroom set are what give you dignity. Or that a child needs tennis shoes and a nintendo more than “emotional involvement, patience and joy.”

  5. Judy: First of all I should correct the fact that the quote in question is one from “Global Women.” However to clarify my feelings about migrant women and working moms, I support both. By no means am I suggesting that working moms don’t love their children, nor do I think migrant women are somehow in the wrong for pursuing opportunities available to them. I just think we have to have open eyes towards the system and it’s flaws. There are no easy answers here, but in an ideal world, the costs would be better mediated. Women would be paid fair wages, childcare would be subsidized, their children and families could be better supported. I just don’t think that we should turn a blindeye to the reprocussions of our current situation but the only change i’m demanding is awareness. Not only do I think paid childcare is a fine thing- it’s how I make my living. I am a nanny afterall- which means I definitely know we’re not all immigrants also, although I know a lot of great nannies who are..

  6. Thank you for writing this article, it brought back my own memories of my mother working 55-60 hrs as a Professional Nanny while I was growing up and how I missed her and resented the fact that she gave so much to the families she worked for and so little to me because she was always working and too tired at night to give me the attention that I wanted. As a Professional Educated Nanny myself I now understand now what I didn’t understand then that everyday she missed me and gave the love and attention to the children she worked for that she couldn’t give me because she was always working, but in reality she was loving me by providing me with a roof over my head, clothes and the ability to attend private schools she was making a better life for me then she had. I know she loved me and wanted to be there for me but she had to make some tough decisions and that meant having to work all the time in order to afford things. I don’t have a problem with the families I work for but I do have a problem with when families taking advantage of the situation and offer low wages and longer work hours and are inconsiderate to the mother who is taking care of their children. My biggest problem is what about those days when employers take the day off and do what they want to do and don’t take the time and spend it with the kids they say they are working so hard for. I know on far off chance my mother got a day off from work she was at home with me and it was always about me on those days, there was no trips to the health club, nail shop, going out with the girls for lunch or shopping. Her off day was for spending time with her children and doing things with us….Well Done Kellen Kaiser!!

  7. As a college educated white nanny in the DC area I see this often when I am at the park or groups. I am accepted by the stay at home moms and I am accepted by the nannies once I tell them I am a nanny too. I know that many stay at home moms do not include the foreign nannies in their groups. I often face comments from people “Why are you a nanny?” I think they beleive being a nanny is beneath me but I love it. Yes there are downsides to being a nanny, some people do not think much of you, you can get a really jealous mom, or even worse some try to make a slave out of you. I am often passed by many families when they are seeking a Spanish speaking nanny or they ask for a filiphino nanny because they plan to work them to death and pay very little. I use to hang out at the park with a lady who said she was the sole bread winner in her out she made $600 a week and she shared a four bedroom house with her sister and brother n law. Four adults and 6 kids in one tiny house she was forced to work for what ever she could find. Not only did she do the nanny work but spent half her Sundays scrubbing houses. So yes there is a difference in how different nannies are treated.

  8. What a great conversation! I LOVE this! I am a white, U.S. born full time nanny and can relate to much of this article. I like how this article got to the meat of the issue. No matter where you are from, if you work as a nanny, you are being paid to love a child in the place of her/his parents who have decided to spend their time elsewhere. That is a slippery slope and a good dialogue to have about what that does to a culture and to families. Many U.S. born nannies I know are also leaving their own kids at home to be cared for by grandma or day care. We have commodified love and expect working class and poor women to leave their homes, often their countries, to contribute to the betterment of families that already have more than their share of the world’s wealth. Good to publicly think about. I full appreciate this article.

  9. Wow, what a misogynistic article. Women who choose to work don’t love their kids enough to stay home with them, huh? What about the fathers? I notice you don’t once mention how men choose their careers over their kids…could it be because you know you will someday subjugate yourself to a man so he can bankroll you staying home with your foster kids someday? How convenient for you to lay judgment on all womankind when you will yourself require a working partner. Lucky it’s ok by you for a man to work (so you won’t have to).

  10. Great topic! It’s so important to consider people’s motivations. How much of what we do is striving to attain more ‘things’. Good to think about how everyone’s role affects one another.

  11. I do not think the issue is parents who work eight hours a day and come home and make the most of their time with children. I am a former nanny, now a stay at home mother so I see both sides of the issue. The situation becomes sad when one of a few situations arise. One being the parent who stays at home all day, doing basically nothing productive and wants someone to distract their children so they can have their own head-space. The other is when the parent puts priority in their jobs over their children, having the job for more than a source of income. I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting fulfillment from your job, but that shouldn’t be your sole concern or reason for working when you have children to be concerned with. I have, as a nanny, ran from both of these types of situations and they DO exist. However, I have also worked for families who work themselves half to death to provide for their families and come home and make a genuine effort to spend time with them. I think this article is more about exploiting low income women, who have families of their own, based on their desperate need for income and willingness to pour their souls into their work. If a family truly has the need for childcare, I think a nanny is the best choice. Certainly, frequent changes between day-cares is not as nurturing. Not to mention day cares as a working environment. The pay is often less, the children are not stimulated and nurtured in the same way and often regulations and rules interfere with the ability of the workers to really care for the child. It’s defiantly not a black-and-white situation where there is a clear right and wrong way to do things. However, it is important that we consider the implications for the children (of both parties involved) involved on an emotional and developmental level.


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