Thursday, February 19, 2004

Update to the Update (Talking Parenthood and (Relative) Poverty)

Laura is having a far more negative reaction to the Slate discussion of nannies and motherhood than I have had. Perhaps it's right that she does--after all, she's much closer to the environment which these writers (Caitlin Flanagan, Sarah Mosle, and Barbara Ehrenreich) inhabit than I am, and therefore is probably a lot more sensitive than I to the agendas lurking behind their words. Yesterday, I was pleased as punch to read Ehrenreich make what I thought was the crucial point about class in this whole discussion: that employing nannies simply enables upper-class mothers to abstain from the real struggle for decent childcare for all. But Laura has thrown a wet blanket on my thinking, and maybe she's right to do so:

"Good childcare for everyone would be nice. But I am not sure what it would look like. I've never seen it myself. My kids have been in okay situations that have not harmed them in any way, but they've only been there part time. Even if childcare was free for all, I don't think I would use it full time, but that's just me. I would like a little more childcare, more opportunities to work part time, a chance to return a full time career in a couple years, and more respect from feminists like Ehrenreich for my work at home."

Maybe Laura is misreading Ehrenreich; maybe she isn't. Ehrenreich, waving her old-fashioned (or is it?) feminist flag, does claim that:

"Our goal as 'old libbers'...was to share the childcare and housework among the adults in the household, boyfriends and husbands included. We lost on that one, or gave up the battle, or whatever...[W]hen women moved into the workforce, men never picked up on their share of the domestic work--and, speaking as a total fool for anyone under 3 feet tall, I would add domestic pleasures....[Don't] confuse feminism, which is a political movement, with the movement of (upper-middle-class) women into the workforce. There's a connection, of course: Feminist activism helped open up the professions to women, and many young female aspirants to the professions were feminists. But they're not the same thing. Feminism is not a particular lifestyle, defined by having your own job and checking account, for example. It is a moral stance and one that has always valued the stay-at-home mothers just as much as the corporate strivers. Hence, for example, the feminist resistance (coming from NOW and not just from lefties like me) to welfare reform in the mid-'90s. We felt poor women, like affluent women (and ideally men too), should have the option of staying home with their kids--that the work of caring and nurturing should be valued just as much as flipping burgers, sorting inventory, or cleaning offices at night."

See, I think this is strong, smart stuff. But it is also, of course, not a little revisionist and rigid. For NOW and other "old libbers" did, in fact, mock and deride the (often, but not always, socially conservative) women who chose to give up careers and activism for the sake of their children; Ehrenreich is correct to claim that feminism is a moral position, concerned with delivering autonomy to women in all positions in society, but it's a little rich to claim--especially when we look at the actual life choices of the sort of nanny-employing women who write books like Flanagan's!--that there hasn't ever been a presumption against child-rearing as a truly "liberated" form of empowerment. There is a sort of class bias present in their writing which Laura picks up on, a bias which discriminates, now that I think about it, against exactly the sort of off-the-clock, "slacker," give-up-on-ambition-and-submit-to-the-rhythms-of-ordinary-life parenting which Laura and I have praised. Laura has employed sitters, she's used daycare, she's seen elite nanny-centered families up close, and wants to be able to say that compromises in one's own life and family duties shouldn't be a badge of shame. And she's right: agonizing over how one should treat one's nanny, or how one can better argue for "universal" childcare, or how we can (as Mosle concludes) turn this all into a campaign to bring systematic reforms to the low-wage labor (i.e., nanny) market, hides some fundamental rationalizations; in Laura's words, a basic "unwillingness to take on even a part of the boring, messy business of watching kids." They avoid more simple questions, like (Laura again): "Is it worth it? Could one parent work less hours, make less money, and have less childcare?" And Laura's invective, even if I don't entirely agree with it, reminds me that such questions are, when it comes to dealing with you and your child (which is really what any debate over nannies or childcare should be about!), far more important than any others.

As I said before, we've never employed a nanny, because we've never needed to, wanted to, or been able to afford to even if the need or want was there. My wife has worked as a "sitter" (to use Laura's term), and she's seen the weird kind of envy, resentment, dependency, and judgments which follow from being, or being forced, to turn away for the length of a workday from one's own kids. So I've got no patience with those who rationalize and agonize from their upper and upper-middle class perches. But I still like what Ehrenreich has to say, because even if she's oblivious to how her position and attitude may compromise her message, at least she's sending it out. It's a message that gets at the heart of the issue of autonomy and equality, themes which I tend to think about philosophically, but which have a real practical edge to them as well. In a world of competition and material structures, there are ingrained patterns of inequality and dependency; some (the wealthy, the majority, the culturally dominant) have more autonomy than others. Figuring out how to redress that inequality is hard, much harder than simple redistribution of resources and opportunities (though that obviously helps!). I tend to read political contests and trends in light of these abiding, class-based, culturally manifest patterns, and I'm delighted when I see someone else discovering them in the context of otherwise unnoticed social phenomena (like in the maintenancece of public museums, or in this case, in the issue of childcare). I read Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed as soon as it came out, and thought she'd expressed so much truth so well. But to be sure, there were limits to the "truth" she was able to put into those pages. A concern for the institutionalized socio-economic patterns which exploit many does not translate into a complete sympathy for those exploited, or a complete understanding of the ways in which people may be "empowered." For example, I remember that Ehrenreich, towards the end of that book, allowed that it wasn't the case that the working poor with whom she'd spent several months were simply inhuman, oppressed machines; they carved out lives for themselves in the midst of exploitation. She mentioned that she'd known a fellow housecleaner who'd written a science fiction novel in her spare time. I wanted follow up: did Ehrenreich ever read it? Was it any good? Was it fan-fic, or what? Did Ehrenreich just take this information and file it away, or did she ever consider maybe entering into her coworker's social or imaginary world, validating and enriching it through her contributions? I doubt it; in all likelihood, her coworker's economic condition is all that mattered.

Poverty and deprivation of all forms is bad; I know that. And I know the solution must involve something larger than just paying nannies better wages; and I'm a fan of anyone who helps reveal the structures and social obstacles behind the wage which should be our real targets. But targeting those structures, class-based though they may be, is not simply a matter of economics; it is a matter of how (and if) we can achieve humane autonomy and recognition. Dependency takes many forms besides financial; conversely, empowerment can happen many places besides at work. It can happen in one's imagination, it can happen at home, and it can (and should!) most definitely happen with one's kids. We shouldn't ever shy away from the hard issue of labor exploitation in the home--to say nothing of how we husbands contribute to such!--but Laura was right to indirectly remind me that, should we (as perhaps these women do) frame that exploitation in ways which internalize our own perspective ("oh what can we, the sort of women who already prefer the sort of arrangements which entail employing nannies, do to make our preferences just?"), then our solutions to it will be limited indeed.