Why Mothers Must Unite

By: Katie B. Garner, PhD

A mother-employer with three school-age children recently asked on Facebook if she should comply with her nanny’s request for a raise taking her from $16 to $24/hour. She described her nanny as “no Mary Poppins” and said she felt she was being robbed. The post garnered fervent and copious feedback with many women agreed more or less, saying phrases like:

  • Holding you hostage
  • Playing on your fears
  • Extortion
  • I couldn’t afford that by any stretch
  • Too bad your boss isn’t giving you a comparable raise
  • Why work if your whole paycheck is going to the nanny?

Still more argued that they didn’t earn as much as a substitute teacher in charge of thirty kids, a nurse, or an architect. Several jokingly offered to quit their own jobs for the $24/hour gig, until one full-time nanny stepped in to explain that their comments were short-sighted considering the scope of responsibilities and expertise that being a good nanny requires.

As a mom and a scholar of feminism and domestic labor issues in the U.S., I see both sides. As an adjunct academic (another labor issue that is woefully under-discussed!), I make less money than I pay my sitter. I’m only “able” to work because I take on classes that overlap with my kids’ school hours. My husband often covers so I can grade and plan. I get that it wouldn’t make sense to pay our sitter more than what I make; however, the race to the bottom when it comes to salary isn’t the answer. Undercompensating someone because the employer doesn’t make enough money may be required sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t consider better options.

We currently have few options as parents. Childcare centers are too often either sub par or nearly as expensive as individual care while also being less convenient for parents. Individual care is more flexible, but sometimes less reliable and often more expensive. As many grandparents have continued working, do not want to take on another round of childrearing, and/or live too far away to help – Kincare is also becoming a rarity.

Carework, and more specifically childcare, can be and should be a cause that binds nearly all women, regardless of ethnicity, class, or even whether they are parents themselves. Currently, however, it divides us. Some may say it is naïve to claim that carework is an issue that could unite women. However, there are three key points that are overlooked here.

FIRST: First, the careworker/employer relationship is often one-on-one and can often be rather intimate. While the argument could certainly be made that the mother-employer holds all of the cards, as she is the one that cuts the check at the end of every week. Most women I know and have interviewed feel quite beholden to their careworkers — in good and bad ways. The comment above regarding the nanny “playing on the fears” of the mother-employer alludes to this as well. Few changes can be as upsetting as the sudden replacement of a nanny or beloved childcare provider. As a result, many women are quite willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the mechanics of their carefully designed system moving as planned.

SECOND: Like nurses and teachers, care workers are often resistant to abandon their responsibilities to their charges, even when their relationship with their employer leaves a lot to be desired. This can lead to exploitation. It also means that care workers often want the relationship with the mother to work, not only for their own financial gain but because they have developed a strong bond with the children they tend. As with a strained marriage, the kids can be the glue that makes a fair resolution more worthwhile.

THIRD: Last but not least, the mother-employer/nanny relationship is often symbiotic in the fact that each depends on the other to provide what is needed for her own family. It makes sense that this relationship may be antagonistic while simultaneously being a fruitful place of deep, progressive reform.

It is too easy to think of our resources as a cake in which a bigger slice for another person means less cake for us. We need to look for the ways in which both the mother and caregiver would be better off with substantial reform to our current model of childcare.

So, that’s why I’m here in my little corner of the online universe. My goal is to convince you to be better informed about your labor arrangements while also encouraging a shift in the conversation to one that is about what works for all rather than what isn’t working for many. You, dear reader, will hopefully spread the word in ever widening circles.