Subcontracting the kids

"Global Woman" co-author Arlie Russell Hochschild talks about how middle-class families rely on Third World women -- who often abandon their own children to work in the U.S.

Published January 27, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

In "Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy," Barbara Ehrenreich delivers another scrub-and-tell recounting of her experience working as a maid cleaning houses in Maine, in the mode of her bestselling book "Nickel and Dimed."

"One bitch would crawl under pieces of furniture to see that I had really done the floor underneath," she told Salon. "I'd see this woman's butt arching up from under the desk. I would never guess that she would have been agile enough to do that, but she was down there with her head in the carpet checking it out."

Not all people who hire maids are crusty rich matrons who get down on their hands and knees to monitor the servants, but there are a lot more such employers than there used to be. Ehrenreich reports that 20 percent of American families now use some kind of housecleaning service. Men and women have solved the problem of how to divide up the housework by handing it off to a third party. And increasingly, that third party is a migrant woman from a Third World country, who is doing the chores that used to be done by stay-at-home moms in middle- and upper-class households.

This solution has created a whole different set of problems, argue the essays collected in "Global Woman," edited by Ehrenreich and sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.

"Given how much upper-middle-class Americans obsess about their children, and whether the kids will get into Harvard and so on, there's been so little talk about the fact that kids are increasingly raised by nannies who are often from the Philippines or Mexico. That's never mentioned. It's very strange," says Ehrenreich.

In addition to reporting Ehrenreich's adventures as a cleaning woman, the essays in "Global Woman" explore the experiences of nannies from Trinidad working in New York, Indonesian maids working in Taiwan, Filipino children left behind when their mothers migrate to work, and 14-year-old girls sold into sexual slavery in Thailand. Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of the bestselling books about work and family "The Time Bind" and "The Second Shift," talked to Salon about how immigrant women have come to fulfill the caregiver roles in more and more American households -- as cleaning ladies, nannies and elder-care workers -- while leaving their own children back in their home countries.

What sort of "care deficit" do we have in the U.S., and who is stepping in to fill it?

Something like a third of American women in 1960 were working, and now it's two-thirds, and two-thirds of moms of kids 6 and under are working. Over half of moms with children age 1 and under are working. So, most moms are working.

Dads are doing more [domestic housework]. But with the increase in hours of work that we've seen in the '90s, this means there are fewer hands on deck at home for caring for small kids, elderly parents and sick or disabled members of the family. There was a call in the '80s for men to step up to the plate and help kids with their homework, co-cook the dinner, and realize how needed they are at home. But even with that, a lot of families are stretched thin. We know from studies done in the '90s that men are doing a little more housework and child care, but women are doing a lot less.

That's part of the care deficit.

Who's taking up the slack?

There are more services. People eat out more. They buy take-in more. They actually hold on to cooking, but do a lot less housework, and men are doing more cooking. [But] at the same time, with the tax revolts in many states, services for children and the elderly have been eroded. Library hours are down, and with the Bush administration's assault on any caring functions of the government, this is only bound to get worse. We can expect increased reductions in services that would help working families.

So, what's happened increasingly is that the demand for care workers and child-care centers and nursing homes and for the more affluent positions of nannies or au pairs -- that demand increasingly corresponds with a supply of female workers from Third World countries, and that creates a second care deficit.

Back in the countries where the women are from?

What we're seeing is that in many parts of the world an increasing proportion of all migrants are women. As one of our authors says, there's a move from braceros that come from Mexico to the United States to work in the fields to braceras who come from Mexico to the United States to work in houses. It used to be just men, and now almost half of the migrants are women. It's a big switch in the last 30 years.

What impact does this change have back in the women's native countries?

This is the least visible and understood part of female migration. In the 19th century we assumed that Irish maids that came to work in Boston were young single girls. They were not 25-year-old or 35-year-old mothers of four and five children. And if an Irish nanny got pregnant, the child was put in an orphanage, or fostered. But it's a different story today.

Because of financial duress, or because a husband has died or abandoned them, women migrate to support children. It leaves many children in the care of elderly grandmothers, or with an aunt who may already have a large family of her own. And sometimes children are left with other nannies. Or, failing that, they're put in orphanages. That's the last resort, but that does happen.

In Sri Lanka, there are whole villages where all the able-bodied women have migrated. And, so, there aren't any women left back in the village to leave their children with. The story of these children has really not yet been told. But when you ask these children, "Would you, when you grow up, become a migrant and leave your children behind?" they all say no. When you put the whole story together, this is a painful story. And it raises the question, "What do we want to do about it?"

And my answer to that is not to say, "Oh, nobody should hire a cleaning service." Here I may be different from Barbara. But I think that working mothers and working families may well need help. But just like American women want family-friendly employers to work for, so we need to be family-friendly employers, and not just in a private sense, but to get government immigration policies to be family-friendly as well. If we're going to use their labor, then let's not externalize the costs of that labor by saying, "Oh that's happening far off in Sri Lanka. Orphanage, not my business."

Just the way that when you go to buy a pair of jogging shoes, you want to know how many hours a person worked to make them at what kind of a wage. In the same way we need to supply a global conscience to the context of the services we use.

In your essay, you talk about this notion of exporting love. That's an odd concept to think about: love as a commodity that can be exported. Do you think that's what's really happening?

I'm going down to have lunch with a nanny in Redwood City [Calif.] on Saturday, who told me this. She said: I have two children back in the Philippines, and I love them. But I'm divorced from my husband, and the son is kind of taking after his father, and the daughter is staying with an aunt.

She said, I'm taking care of two little children -- 2 and 4 -- and I feel that I'm giving them affection, and I'm really feeling a love for them that I didn't give my own two children. And, she said, you know as a child, I didn't receive much affection from my own mother. She said, my mother had had two miscarriages, and one infant death.

There's a higher infant mortality rate in her village. So, the mother didn't quite dare bond with her baby, lest the baby die. She said: I love my kids the way I was loved. And I felt less toward them than toward the kids that I'm taking care of now. She said: I know it sounds terrible. She didn't feel good about it. But it described her experience. And then she said: I'm very lonely here. I don't know the neighbors.

And she watches on television how parents and children hug each other. In a way, she kind of put it together in this new collage, this new experience. She said to me: When I call up my daughter every week, I'll sign off by saying, "I love you." She said: my mother never said that to me, but that's what I say to my daughter. I learned it here that you're supposed to say that, and now my daughter says that back to me.

So, what really surprised me, I'm not sure how typical this is, but it was just fascinating to me, was that she grew up in what we would call a pre-modern family where children were quickly put to work helping on the farm. There wasn't a lot of affection. There were responsibilities, and there was fear of loss through child mortality. That was the kind of family that she grew up in. It was not your happy peasant family, although a lot of employers here assume that.

American parents romanticize this warmer, more nurturing culture that their nanny supposedly comes from?

You know, happy, family-friendly, strong family bonds, that's the kind of village that they grew up in, and they come to the United States, and they give us their kind of love. Well, that wasn't what I was hearing. I was hearing that they often came from situations of great difficulty, and were delighted to be here, and it was more benign here than there, and that they were in a way giving to the children they cared for here what they had not gotten.

So has this invisible class of Third World women made the influx of middle-class women into the workforce in the United States possible?

Yes, although I don't think that anyone quite meant it to happen like that. And we haven't quite copped to it.

In "The Second Shift," I talk about being stuck in a stalled revolution. That women have changed but not much else has really changed. Men haven't changed much, the workplace hasn't changed much. We work the longest hours of all the developed countries in the world. We outdo Japan, the vaunted workaholism capital of the world. We now have that dubious honor.

And now there are more demands on men. It's not so easy to be the "new man," when your boss is saying: "Well, your job is shaky, and we have these extra tasks to do." A lot of family-friendly policies are literally a fig leaf on a workaholic work culture, which covertly coerces people into long-hour jobs. So, 20 percent of the economy is now the care sector. And you don't hear reports on NPR about it.

Why do you think that is? Why do you think that this aspect of globalization is underreported?

One, it's women; two, it's Third World women; and three, what they're doing is caring for the least valued members of our society, and that is children and the elderly and the sick -- nonworkers.

We've put work front and central. That's our new badge of honor. The more you work the higher your status. And so all the people that don't work -- kids, older people, the sick -- those are lower status.

One of the essays talks about the personal relationship of these employer-employee relationships, and how a nanny will care for a child for seven years, and then suddenly there will be a blowout with the parents, and the nanny will be fired or walk out, and that's it. Why do you think that these jobs are imbued with that level of emotion?

The nanny-employer relationship is a neither-fish-nor-fowl thing. It's marketized, but it's within the family sphere. And if it was totally in the work sphere, you would have a union negotiator meeting with management and hammering out medical benefits. If it was really kin, a mother and a daughter or two sisters, you might bury the hatchet, because after all, we're sisters. But this is in the middle. It's not the workplace, and it's not kin. And so it doesn't have its own kind of solid basis for dispute resolution.

I think that it points to the need to value these services, and take care of the relationships. In the world that I want to live in, and I think in the world we should work to create, the consciousness of every employer would be raised so that they would think of the nanny as a child-care professional, and treat her with that respect. Not be surprised, know that it's a part of their obligation to provide medical benefits.

It's hard in the U.S., because parents are assuming a personal obligation for all of this, since we don't have lots of child care through the government or employers. You always hear these stories about women who say: "I went back to work, and then I realized that 75 percent of my salary was going to child care." You want to up the status of nannies, but then that puts more financial obligation on the parents.

I know. If you look at Norway, for example, the state takes the lion's share of financial responsibility for child care, and they have state-of-the-art child care as a result. We have, at this point, not come close to winning that battle. We should look to Norway, France and Sweden as models of states that are not what I would call "deadbeat dad states." We're really just turning a blind eye to this care deficit.

But with these state deficits now, and Bush wanting to cut our taxes -- this is really going to set this agenda back. When we oppose his tax cut, this is what it should go for -- kids, the elderly -- we want well-paid superb care for these people, and we don't want to take it out of the hide of the workers themselves.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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