"You know nothing about the author other than what she writes here. How dare you judge not only her, but all other women in her position?" Readers defend Debra Ollivier's essay about her nanny.

By Salon Staff
Published May 10, 2005 4:57PM (EDT)

[Read "Mother for Hire," by Debra Ollivier, and readers' responses to the story.]

I found the tone of many of the letters decrying Debra Ollivier's essay to be both nasty and over-the-top. Every Mother's Day we get a round of media coverage about what it's like to be a working mother; this coverage is inevitably followed by sniffy distaste for anything not universally relevant to whatever the critic regards as "real" motherhood. Please. Sure, hiring a nanny is an option only available to upper-middle-class moms, but Ollivier's essay was an interesting account of one mom's relationship with her children and their nanny, and I enjoyed reading it.

More insidious, to my mind, were the outraged calls for parents (read: mothers) to raise their children without outside help or forgo childbearing completely. Is the only point of having children to spend every waking hour with them? Gosh, I'm sure glad my mom didn't follow this logic -- her income, for many years higher than my father's, helped send me and my sister to college. She enjoyed her career and her family and her painting, and to my mind achieved a healthy work/family/life balance, which I will strive to emulate when I have my own children.

I never had a "nanny" per se (unless you counted the parade of teenage neighborhood girls who took care of my sister and me during the summers), but I was in day care from very young toddlerhood. I believe many women of all economic stripes would take advantage of affordable day care were it an option, but day care is expensive and difficult to find in San Francisco, where I live -- hence the proliferation of nannies for upper-class women. It's a shame that more child-care options aren't available. So how about a companion piece on the scarcity of day care with your next Mothers Who Think article?

-- Jessica Tashker

I was fascinated by the letters in response to the "Mother for Hire" essay. It seems as if many of those writing the letters were like the blind men in fables, describing an elephant -- correct in their perceptions, yet wrong in their conclusions.

I am the American-born daughter of Spanish-speaking immigrants who went on to marry an African-American. I have friends and family in both the working and upper-middle class, and I have worked closely with the homeless and working poor. It is very clear to me that class, income and race are the prisms in which Americans see themselves reflected.

And yet, regardless of class, what parent hasn't worried if one is spending enough time with their children? Who hasn't received a service, regardless of income, from an immigrant -- a manicure from a Vietnamese woman; doughnuts sold by a Korean baker; a friendly wave from a Mexican landscaping the median; a soda purchased from a Pakistani at the 7-11 -- and felt a sense of separateness?

Our experiences are simultaneously unifying and divisive. These are the experiences that make us all uniquely American. Maybe some Salon readers don't want to read about the concerns of an upper-middle-class mother, but examinations of challenging topics such as class, income and race in America in the context of one's personal experiences are the kind of thought-provoking material that makes Salon a must-read.

-- Maggie Robertson

I'm appalled that readers of a liberal magazine like Salon are telling a working mother to quit her job, stay home, raise her kid and shut up about it, because she can afford to. Did feminism never happen?

I'm a stay-at-home mom by choice, and I'll tell you the most important thing I've learned while raising my daughter: We are not meant to do this alone. And in a two-parent household where one parent works 60 hours a week or more to support the family, the at-home parent is, for the most part, doing it alone.

We're meant to live with or near our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and close friends. This is how we evolved and how we lived until the past century. Now that most of us live hundreds of miles from our families and don't know our neighbors, where can we go for help? We have to hire it. Whether you hire someone during the day so that you can go to a job that you find necessary, for whatever reason, or you hire someone one night a week so you can go out with your husband and remember why you got married in the first place, or one day a week so you can string two thoughts together without interruption -- help is necessary.

-- Erica Hughes

I read "Mother for Hire" and the subsequent letters to the editor and wonder, Where are the fathers in this debate?

Ms. Ollivier wrote that she has a husband, yet none of the letters criticizing her article mention him. He continued to work after their children were born. He presumably played some role in choosing to hire a nanny, and I doubt that Ms. Ollivier's income was the sole source for paying the nanny's salary.

One letter-writer said, essentially, if you are wealthy enough to hire full-time help, then you are wealthy enough to stay home. Well, sure -- but the writer directed this comment toward Ms. Ollivier -- not her husband. This writer assumes that the more money women make, the greater obligation women should feel to walk away from their careers. I'm also tired of articles re upper-middle-class angst. But, it shouldn't be all or nothing for moms -- without any expectation of sacrifice for dads.

If we stop treating women's employment as "the cushy, overpaid work they are used to" and start holding men more accountable for raising their children, then perhaps fewer women will feel compelled to write about this tension in their lives.

-- Suzanne D.

I want to echo the heartfelt frustration expressed by several writers about Ms. Ollivier's essay and others like it.

The echo chamber of articles about the American elite (and that's what it is) has crossed from tiresome into insulting.

Those of us for whom housing prices are not just scary but literally prohibitive, who keep an eye out for discarded bus transfers because public transit costs $10 a day, and who stay up at night wondering when our healthcare will cost so much that we need to get an even smaller apartment, would really like to see some articles that hit closer to home.

And we're the middle class!

Maybe someday we can even talk about those poor souls who don't have to worry about how to afford healthcare or tolerate their jobs because they have access to neither.

-- Sara Hinkley

Well I've been on both sides of the coin now; I was a nanny and now am a mom. I am a Mexican woman who was a nanny in Germany when I went there to learn the language, and am now a middle-class mom in the U.S.

The truth is, children just get attached to you if they see you more than they see their mom. The 4-year-old I took care of in Germany occasionally called me "Mom," knew all my friends and loved to spend time in my room. If I hire a nanny (which is not out of the question as it's just as expensive as day care) she's going to be my friend and we'll treat her as part of the family, not as a simple employee. Growing up back home in Mexico City, we had many nannies and I remember them all with love. The last one still goes to clean for my mom -- and she's in my wedding video and I think of her as part of my family.

Do you know what I think the true problem was for this woman, the "patrona"? She surrendered her home to Marta -- didn't even put up a fight because she liked the comfort. Also, she hired an alien, literally -- with the cultural differences between them both, they might as well have been from different planets and couldn't even talk to each other.

For those of you who think nannies are only for the rich let me tell you -- I am a middle-class working mom and I'd rather pay half of my salary to a nanny (or as I do now, to day care) and have the other half to pay bills than not to work at all not even have half of my paycheck.

-- Delina Malo-Juvera

Yes, yes, everyone's had it up to here, the minute that someone who makes $2 more than they dares to mention that part of their life is difficult. But if you attack the middle-class -- carefully modified in all these letters, I see, as "upper-middle-class" -- when they mention their difficulties, then you create a game wherein only the poorest on Earth are righteous. What's worse, none of these letter-writers sees that the sufferings of the middle class -- indeed the destruction of our middle class -- means that if you're poor, you're staying there. Your way out is being bricked up, and all you can do is bitch at those who are panicking because they were closer to the exit.

I'm middle-class and white, and I've never had children. Thank God, because since the middle class has been destroyed over the last few years, you know what? I think I'm just as poor as a lot of people now. So is my friend, a mother with three children. She tells me that child care costs about half of the wage she makes. If she finally earned enough to afford it, I wouldn't begrudge her a nanny, and if I were still poor, I wouldn't scream shut up! at her if she discussed the difficulty of being separated from her kids. And letter-writers think that if she could afford this child care, then she should also be able to magically quit her job and stay home with them? Bull. What the heck would she pay rent with?

I don't mean to be insensitive to the poor, either. It stinks. I'd lift you all up if I could. But the rich in this country, the loot-the-pension-fund CEOs that run this game, are purposefully destroying the middle class, to make it impossible for you to rise up to "nanny-employing" levels. Why else would George Bush be trying to allow more migrant workers in? Hint: It has more to do with lowering the minimum wage than with his great love for people of color. The rich are also taking notice that you're angrier at the middle class for complaining about it, than at the rich for impoverishing us. And don't think they're not using your outrage to drive both our classes down.

-- Andrew Horn

I've never considered canceling my Salon.com subscription. These days, I am. In the past, Salon was the source that slaked my thirst for more: details, nuance, substance, truth, and fact-finding regarding "hard news" merely mentioned by mainstream media. No longer.

Recently, Salon has been a very weak read. Fluff and stuff is the rule of the day; this evidenced quite vividly in the recent essay about educated, white women with lives so privileged, they have the luxury of agonizing over "dark-skinned women" they buy and insert in their dollhouse worlds, wondering why their children can't discern a real person/mother from dark-skinned chattel -- oops, I mean "nanny."

I've been trying to hold on, hoping that this tide of mediocrity and high ridiculousness would ebb. It hasn't. What makes these essays more offensive? There is ugly, real, relevant stuff happening to those who aren't living the gilded cage life, who aren't constrained by golden handcuffs.

Moreover, even those of us who could whine as freely (because we actually aren't jealous, we have six-figure salaries, amazing vacations, and health), understand that with privilege comes obligation to self-actualize and improve our world, not wallow in our neurotic, pampered, untested, tempestuous teacups.

-- L. Herbert

I, too, rolled my eyes at Ms. Ollivier's article, for some of the reasons others mentioned. But I must protest the readers who responded with that age-old and ever-so-shopworn diatribe of "if you can afford a full-time nanny, you can afford to stay home with your child." To that, I say baloney. (Actually, I say much spicier words, but not in print.)

Why are you presuming that Debra Ollivier's salary is the dispensable one? In my home, my salary is the only salary much of the time; to cut it out would be catastrophic. We'd be not only unable to afford day care, but we'd be unable to afford our mortgage, or rent on an apartment should we move, or food and clothing on a regular basis, for that matter. And if that were the case, then I'd be hearing from all of you about how, "if you can't afford to have a child, don't." Can I win? I think not.

Now, granted, I can't afford a full-time nanny; I can only afford to send my children to day-care/after-school child care while I work. But the point is the same. You don't know what the financial situation is in the homes of the women you denigrate and sneer at with these sorts of comments. You know nothing about these women other than what they write here. How dare you not only judge them, but all other women in their position? What do you know about Debra Ollivier and the choices she's made outside of a three-page essay? What do you know about me and the millions of other women like me? You know nothing. Trust me. You know absolutely nothing.

-- Lori O.

Lots of letter writers are complaining about the plethora of articles by privileged middle-class mothers and the dearth of fare from the more humble moms among us. This seems obvious to me, but I'll say it anyway:

The reason there are so many articles from upper-middle-class mothers out there is that they actually have the time to write them.

The working mothers who don't have live-in servants are much too busy to sit down and write 5,000 words reflecting on their mothering experiences. (I speak from experience -- I'm one of them and I barely had time to write this!)

-- Ivy Jiggens

I'm finding it quite odd that people are jumping upon the race wagon and thereby overlooking the deeper issues. Yes, in this case both the mother and the child were tended by women of a different race, but does that make the issues of the nanny-child relationship any less relevant?

Perhaps my background is so exceptional as to blind me to the "real world." I was an unexpected child conceived shortly after Roe vs. Wade. My father is Native American and is sometimes mistaken for Hispanic. My mother is white. However, when I was born we were a barely middle-class family -- more by virtue of my mother's profession (teacher at a small college in a rural area) than by economic status.

I was inconveniently born just at the beginning of the fall semester so my mother was given three weeks maternity leave, and even that was very grudging. My father left graduate school to get the only job he could find -- assistant manager at the local McDonald's -- but this was not enough to feed a family of three, nor was my mother's salary sufficient on its own. So there was simply no choice: my mother had to return to work when I was 3 weeks old.

Maybe I'm the only "person of color" around here who had a white nanny. A woman from my parents' church looked after me until I was potty trained and thus allowed into day care. Obviously at that age I don't remember much, but I thought of my nanny as if she were an aunt or another grandmother.

I am glad that many families have the options to tend their children without such intensive outside support. But I hope that the ranting letter writers can step outside of their prejudices long enough to see that the underlying issue about who raises your kids is not a question of race, nor is it limited to the upper echelons of the financial ladder.

My parents were certainly not making an easy choice, but I for one am glad that they chose the nanny route rather than abortion. I was inconvenient, unplanned and certainly a huge financial and time burden for which they were unprepared. So perhaps having a nanny is a luxury for the well-off, but don't forget that it can be essential for the struggling, too.

-- Juliann

I just want to thank my fellow readers for writing in to say "Enough with the plight of the rich Mommy." I'm sure it would make a great reality show, but it's boring as heck to read about.

I have two friends who have kids. Both make a good living. One stays at home to raise her kids, one works part-time. No nannies.

Please keep up the good work otherwise.

-- David

How fascinating that of the many letters that accuse Debra Ollivier of "not raising her children" by employing a nanny, not a single one levels a similar charge at the father of these children. I presume that he had a voice in, and benefited from, the child-care arrangement the letter writers decry.

Apparently, in some people's worldview, only the mothers who employ caregivers for their children "live off the blood and sweat" of other people. Fathers, it seems, are free to pursue careers and work and utilize child care without such stigma and scorn. "Cushy, overpaid work" indeed!

-- Karen Hirsch

I understand the perspective expressed by your readers, that Salon should try to represent more diverse points of view than the ones expressed in this year's Mothers Day features. However, the privileged background of Mrs. Ollivier does not prevent me from feeling compassionate and empathetic of her situation. It's disappointing to see that so many Salon readers find their hearts paralyzed when reading an essay by an affluent author.

In response to pleas for articles from poor, uneducated, and underprivileged mothers: I agree we need more. But it's hard to find a well-written essay that communicates that position intimately for all the reasons that make that sort of perspective important. Poor, uneducated, and underprivileged mothers don't have time to write compelling prose; they are out working and mothering, and taking care of more important things in their lives.

I'd like to thank Salon for providing its readers with an insightful article that was fresh and unique. I read Salon because that's what it offers, more offbeat and provocative content than your typical news source. I would much rather read "Mother For Hire" than a recycled story of single motherhood and all its hardships. My heart goes out to all mothers, rich and poor, who struggle with the most important and arduous task on earth.

-- Laurent Martin

I absolutely agree with the writers who are sick to death of rich, white people complaining. I, too, am sick to death of them complaining about their children, complaining about how hard it is to get pregnant, complaining about the cost of fertility treatments, then complaining about the trials of raising twins, triplet, quads, and quints that result from fertility treatments.

Gad! Let's hear about those millions of women, men and children who don't have health insurance, lack educational opportunities and good jobs, whether they are childless or child-full.

Give those who are "childless by choice" -- often for excellent reasons -- a break.

-- Linda Ofshevy

Salon Staff

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