Mothers and nannies

In an interview, Caitlin Flanagan talks about her Atlantic article, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement”. It’s about the relationship between professional women and immigrant nannies.

Raising a small child is so intimate, and the care itself produces a bond of tremendous intensity. Again, that’s what’s so morally vexing about this: professional-class women are buying this love when they need it, as though it were a commodity, and then firing the nanny when they don’t need her service, her love, any more — how can that be right?

Flanagan urges “maternal feminists” to learn from Christian fundamentalists.

The crux of their argument is that mothering — as opposed to fathering, or parenting, or care giving — is something unique, and of inestimable value. That the bond between a mother and her children is different from any other kind of human bond, and that it should be revered and respected. You won’t get an argument from me about that. But the second that one implies that — in part owing to this unique and sacred bond — the hard work of raising children belongs more to women than to men, these same women start squealing like stuck pigs. They can’t have it both ways: either mothers are uniquely designed for the care and protection of children, or they aren’t. End of story.

Ironically, the people in this country who most revere that mother-and-child bond are fundamentalist Christians, who make huge sacrifices so that moms can stay home with their children. Many of them home-school their children, because they’re convinced that mothers are the best teachers of children and that the public school system in America immerses kids in cultures and values antithetical to the kind of reverence for family life — and especially for motherhood — that so many Christians have. The maternal feminists might like to learn more about the fundamentalist Christian life style; it is one with the highest possible regard for motherhood, and it might be appealing to them.

Flanagan, who writes from home, hired a nanny to help care for her twin sons. But she felt guilty about it. I think the essence of motherhood is guilt.

About Joanne


  1. I hired a young woman from Guatamala when my son was 18 months. She worked for me for 12 years, and is still close to all of us. My son went to Guatamala with her, my daughter has stayed over at her house many, many times–I’m godmother to her daughter. She’s married to an American-born guy, and now only babysits for her neighbors. Was she better with small kids than I was? Absolutly yes–more patient, more fun, and truth be told, more consistant. My kids loved her then as they do now. They wouldn’t be such good people if not for Teresa’s influence.
    I trusted Teresa with my kids’ lives. I paid better than average, wasn’t picky about most things, and above all–treated her like I would want to be treated. I paid her first, before any other bills.
    But I have many friends who hire and fire and hire again–and then wonder why their children don’t seem very happy.

  2. Richard Heddleson says:

    After his birth, Winston [Churchill] wasn’t fed by his mother and was turned over to a wet nurse. His mother, Lady Randolph, was too busy with the fashionable social life to have much time for her baby. Lord Randolph was also too deeply involved in politics, as a Conservative leader, to show more than a passing interest in the boy.

    Winston was raised by a Mrs. Everest, a nanny hired shortly after his birth. All the love and affection Winston received came from his nanny. He kept a picture of her in his bedroom until the day he died.

    The Lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.

  3. Richard Heddleson says:
  4. The complex Freudian stew we call the mother-child relationship requires sufficient qualities of guilt on both sides of the equation to make succesful parents and succesful children. Have you seen parents without a sense of guilt? Children? It is to shudder…

  5. I got emails steming from my post. Yes, I paid under the table (hell, that’s how I get paid, mostly). But I paid her health insurance.
    I never felt guilty about hiring Teresa as I grew up with hired men and hired girls–my own ancestors were indentured servants. Domestic service is a time-honored career–see Willa Cather. But being able to “keep help” is a lost, WASPy art.
    I realize that I hit the jack-pot and am grateful that this woman loved my kids as fiercely as I did. And the more folks who love you, the richer you are.

  6. jeff wright says:

    Well, IMO, it’s up to the parents. If they want to risk having their child bond more and perhaps love someone more who’s not even related to them, that’s their choice. There are tons of crappy books and movies focused on “upper crust” people that address this.

    My family is definitely poorer financially today because we went in the other direction. Our choice. We have never regretted it, something that’s constantly driven home to me by an accomplished, professional 32-year-old woman with a six-figure-income.

    Choices. Can you really have it all?

  7. No one in my or my husband’s family was ever (and I mean EVER) financially able to afford nannies or any ‘outside’ help. What a nice euphemism. Both women and men worked in our families and also (before it was against the law) many children. There was never any choice in the matter. Reading my husband’s grandmother’s great unhappiness at having to leave school after the first grade (she was 7!) to go to work was eye-opening. She was a good student and learned to read anyway. As for fundementalist Christians being the only ones who sacrifice to stay home with their children, I’d like you to come meet all the ‘nice’ Jewish parents (some are fathers, what a shock!) who do the same thing here. Also, lots of parents (both mom and dad) sacrificed in the military (some were stay at home spouses) when we were overseas. It’s nice that the Christians are patting themselves on the back again, but they aren’t the only ones that sacrifice for their children. I’ve met plenty of people that subscribe to other belief systems that do the same. It’s always nice to be rich though.

  8. Heck, if I had twins, I’d want to hire help (not that I could afford it). Though, as they’d get older, I suppose they’d play with each other rather than demanding parental attention. Hmmm..

    As it is, I’m left wondering what’s so special about mothers other than the physical acts — which is pretty special in its own right. But I really don’t understand why a mother’s care of a child is considered superior to the father’s. My husband is doing the heavy-lifting of the child-rearing, and he’s much better at it than I am (since he has previous experience); I don’t feel guilty or inadequate. I think it’s enough that I went through the pain of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing.

  9. Yes, there’s definitely a class thing going on in this article, although it was an interesting read. The downside of being a working mom, supposedly, is that due to (elegant, stimulating) business dinners you don’t get to put the kids to bed. Please.

  10. I think that the demands of motherhood are difficult enough without the added stigma of staying home or working outside of the home. Both sides of the debate make valid points, yet both are guilty of arrogance and condescension towards the opposing view. It seems to me that if parents focus on putting the needs of their children above their own wants (note the distinction of needs vs. wants), then that family is more likely to produce successful, well-adjusted children.

  11. Kris Hasson-Jones says:

    The smug tone of the stay-at-home moms is divisive. Some moms must work to provide the basics (and I do mean bare shelter and food, not luxuries like cable tv or new cars)

    I happen to think the more loving adults a child can bond with, the better. My kids have lots of models of what it’s like to be an adult: how to express anger and happiness, how to manage a work life and a home life. They’re not just like me, and only knowing my way of being an adult would have limited their options.

    I’ve failed to find any obstacle to being close to my kids from using daycare. My sons are both teens and still hug and kiss me at bedtime (their request, not mine).

  12. Come on now, guilt does not have to be a part of parenting. Love, not guilt, should motivate what you do for your children.

    Everyone is so used to arguing about stay-at-home moms versus working-moms that you missed the point of this article. For a long time feminism essentially told us that to be real liberated women we needed to go out into the workforce and be just like men.

    Women were told, more or less, that raising children wasn’t really all that important and that anybody could do it.

    American society pays lots of lip service to the importance of motherhood and childrearing. But when the rubber hits the road I don’t think we really appreciate how special and unique motherhood and childrearing are. I know I don’t and I chose to make being a wife and mother my only profession.

    Please note that I did NOT say that women who work outside of the home don’t love their children which is all some people seem to hear when this issue is discussed.

    There is no cookie cutter way to be a mother. But some women are starting to think that maybe the oldfashioned way of doing it wasn’t so bad after all. What any other woman decides is up to her and her family but sometimes it’s nice to know what works for other people isn’t it?

  13. As we did for our children’s educations, my wife and I also did for childrearing: make a good choice and change when we needed to. There’s no ideal formula for all parents and children (something those fundamentalists would be loathe to admit). I’m a libertarian atheist who works while his wife raises the children. We did this because it works for us, not to make a point.

    We struggle with bills, have only one car (a minivan,actually), pay higher rent to live near my work, don’t have a lot of money for extras, and don’t have any significant savings. But we do have a simple and happy life and the contentment that comes from being around the best children on the planet.

    We could complain about the people that don’t do as we do, but that’s ridiculous. Not everyone would be happy with our choices. Some need cable television, new clothes, two vehicles, a big home, vacations from their children, large retirement funds, higher incomes, and a host of other things (ranging from frivolous to vital) to be content. And unhappy parents aren’t as likely to produce good children.

    I read the article in question and had a number of reactions, but I was most of all content with the choices my wife and I made. Hopefully, most other parents and would-be parents would have similar feelings.

  14. Even through the feminist years, there have always been women who stayed at home with their kids because they could and they wanted to. I don’t think it’s the case that now women are realizing that it’s an option.

    I’m with Kris. My child was in daycare, she’s a teen now, and she’s just fine.

    And I wasn’t working for two SUVs, cable TV, or the fun of going to business dinners either. My daughter has vision problems that required updating her very expensive eyeglass lenses twice a year during elementary and middle school. If we could have even survived on my husband’s pay, that would have been out of reach. Given that I had to work, I never saw the need to do it in sackcloth and ashes. I’ve enjoyed my jobs, I still do, and I refuse to feel guilty about it. In fact, I feel a certain amount of pride for being able to support my family, especially during the 9 months last year when my husband was out of work.

  15. Steve LaBonne says:

    As a very involved father with a wife who would be the first to admit that she’s a less competent and less involved parent than I am, I never know whether to laugh or cry at all the moist sentimentality about the “mother-child bond” that inevitably pervades such discussions. News flash, folks- after the first 9 months plus possibly a year of breast-feeding (the latter being optional), fathers do everything that mothers do.

  16. Steve,

    I don’t agree that “fathers do everything mothers do”. I would agree that “many fathers can do everything that mothers do”. It’s a small point but it matters, because I’m not as good a stay-at-home parent as my wife is. She could get a job while I watch the children, but the results wouldn’t be as good as they are with our current setup. On the whole, the average woman would do a better job than the average man at many of the skills you and others have fine tuned. It’s a sexist generalization, but like many generalizations it holds up to scrutiny.

    And congratulations on doing a job I really am not good at. Best of luck to you. I hope you love it as much as my wife does.

  17. jeff wright says:

    Steve, guess you missed all of the studies about the differences between mothers and fathers in the child development process. Equally important, but different. I could not disagree with you more.

  18. Feh. =dismissively waving my hands at the men trying to get out of child care=

    I’m with Steve LaBonne on this one. It is entirely possible that a father can provide better child care than a mother. Now, yes, the relationship a child has with her mother is different than that with her father, but that’s how it is with all people. Yes, I have a different perspective about my child who came from my body from my husband who watched her come from my body.

    But that doesn’t mean the day-to-day feeding, dressing, cleaning, teaching, playing, etc. while the other parent is at work is better done by the mother than the father, as a default option. Alot of the skill in handling kids comes from experience — (and babysitting is not experience enough to figure this out.) My husband has cared for children for longer than I have, and is much more skillful than I in dealing with our daughter.

    I was happy to have my mother at home when I was young, and I wanted the same thing — a parent at home — for my children. The main difference between my and my parents’ situation is that I actually do some of the nitty-gritty child care (I’m pretty sure my dad never changed diapers).

  19. Wacky Hermit says:

    My husband was raised by a stay-at-home father and a working mother, and he’s turned out to be a great guy. He does dishes and housework without feeling like his masculinity is threatened. It worked for him and his family. I was raised with a stay-at-home mom and a frequently-not-at-home father. I turned out to be strong and assertive. It worked for me and my family.

    Our family together, though, is different. My son seems to need both of us parenting to achieve balance. (My daughter seems to be OK no matter which of us is parenting.) Without both parents, Son gets fierce and agressive. When Mommy’s gone, he picks on anyone he thinks is weaker, and when Daddy’s gone, he literally beats himself up.

    So I don’t think we can say definitively that any particular family configuration (mother at home, dad at home, equal time, or kid in daycare) works best for all families. But I think we’re safe to say that each parent has an influence on a child’s life and development, in some cases a very profound influence.

  20. Wacky makes a great point, and here’s something that I have observed in some (not all) of the families I’ve known with Mom at home: Mom distances her husband from the kids, and vice-versa, by relaying messages back and forth and removing her husband from decision-making about the kids. She keeps up with soccer schedules and doctor’s appointments, signs report cards and deals with the teachers, and the husband’s contribution is that he brings home the bacon and occasionally doles out punishment when directed to. The husbands let this happen because they think it’s supposed to be that way. Fathers and children lose out.

  21. Heh. I do all that and I work.

  22. Steve LaBonne says:

    So do I, Rita.

  23. See how much we have in common, Steve?

  24. My wife’s opinion is that you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game (well, once the child is born).

    If you work full-time, you feel guilty for neglecting your children, if you don’t work, then you feel you’re setting a bad example for independent children, and if you work part-time, your doing both badly. Motherhood = guilt.

  25. I love my daughter dearly. I wanted her, and I can’t have any more children. But if I were a stay-at-home mom, we’d drive each other nuts. I know, I tried it. I love to work outside the home, and I’m very happy in my professional career. And I make no apologies for it – it’s the best choice for me personally, and for my family. I don’t feel I have to qualify it with stipulations (oh, I’m not working for the SUVs and the vacations; oh, we really need the money). We could manage easily on my husband’s income, and we have organized our lives and our finances so that we could. It’s nice to have that luxury, and we both worked damn hard to get there, so again I make no apologies for our success. We both came from lower-middle class families where we were the first to go to college. We put ourselves through college, because all our parents could provide was room & board.

    I want my daughter to grow up strong and decide for herself what she wants in her life, without feeling she has to apologize to anyone for her choices. They’re HER choices, and she’s the one who has to live with them. I love her dearly, I’m enjoying watching her grow up, but my ambition is to have her become a mature and independent adult and out on her own. I made an 18-22 year commitment when I had her; I don’t feel I am missing anything or giving up anything by focusing on her needs as a priority (but not the only priority) while she is growing up. Then once she is out of the house, I intend to enoy my life with her dad, preferably in someplace that is not hot, not humid, not flat, and doesn’t have mosquitoes that can carry you off.

    I don’t particularly care if people approve or disapprove of my choices. If people spent the same time minding their own business as much as they do minding and tsk-tsking over others’ business, this would be a happier world.