Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Nannies and Autonomy

Laura over at Apt. 11D has spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks asking questions, and seeking answers, about the household economy, about who does the laundry, about fathers and mothers and others raising kids today. Frequently, in the midst of all these posts, she's pointed us to an article by Caitlin Flanagan (not available online, unfortunately) in the latest Atlantic Monthly. The article in question, "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement," takes a hard, painful look and the divide between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers, and how it has come to seem necessary--indeed, almost expected--for the former group to make use of nannies and domestic help in order to enjoy the benefits of the women's movement. Not a new story, of course, but well told, just the same: in the modern world, too often the material autonomy of women--who are and, until genetic technology outstrips us all, will remain the members of our species who actually bear children--depends not upon some mighty transformation of the marriage relationship (as necessary as that might be), but rather upon low-wage workers to change the baby's diapers and generally care for it, in some cases practically full-time. For enlightened liberal women, this arrangement is a scandal, albeit one that no one is comfortable talking about.

There's a lot my wife could say about this--we've never had a nanny (couldn't afford it, and never desired one anyway), but she worked as one for a while; even took our two children along with her when she tended someone else's. For the time being, I will note two things. First, an interview with Flanagan is online here. Read it: Flanagan has many challenging and difficult things to say, about her own choices and those of others, about how her reliance on nannies made her part of an exploitive economy, about her envy of traditional (even fundamentalist Christian) mothers who give themselves over to creating loving environments for their children, and about her reluctant acknowledgement that, envy aside, she could never do that: as much as she loves her children, the idea of being a full-time mom scares her to death.

Second, I'll put on my philosopher's hat, and note that the uncomfortable dependency that modern autonomy has on the servitude of others is not only not a new discovery, but one covered in detail by one of the most discomforting thinkers of all time: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who was pretty pathetic in the child-rearing department as well, for what it's worth). He writes: "What! Can liberty be maintained only with the support of servitude? Perhaps. The two extremes meet. Everything that is not in nature has its drawbacks, and civil society more so than all the rest. There are some unfortunate circumstances where one's liberty can be preserved only at the expense of someone else's, and where the citizen [substitute: mother] can be perfectly free only if the slave [substitute: nanny] is completely enslaved." (The Social Contract, Book 3, Chp. 15) Rousseau was talking about the way we delegate authority, the way we turn away from autonomy, because we refuse to countenance slavery. His point, however, was simply that being autonomous in a world of material dependency requires the constant exercise of that autonomy, and never letting it slide: if that means we need to find serfs to do the shit work, well...Rousseau isn't defending such an arrangement; he's just telling it like it is. Flanagan's moral sensitivity is greater than Rousseau's was, I'll warrant, but still: I'm sure she'd take the point.
Update: I've just discovered that Slate is running an online discussion between Sara Mosle, Barbara Ehrenreich and Caitlin Flanagan herself, discussing Flanagan's article, here. I'll be checking it out all week. According to Mosle, Flanagan is "an odd breed politically--a conservative on social issues and a liberal on economic ones, at a time when it's popular to be the opposite on both." Hurrah! That makes, oh, I don't know, about eight of us. Now I have to read more of Flanagan's stuff.