The Working Mother’s Dilemma

Dear Barbara (and Caitlin),

I heard about Caitlin Flanagan’s cover article about the “Nanny Wars,” in the new issue of the Atlantic Monthly, last week, on my second day back to work after the birth of my first child. (Sadly, the piece isn’t online, but an interview with Flangan is.) I’d been invited to an informal gathering over lunch of working mothers. Flanagan’s piece was Topic A. Flanagan argues that many of the gains of feminism, particularly for professional-class women, have been “leveraged on the backs of poor women,” namely nannies. Had her article appeared a week earlier, I would have missed it entirely, so sheltered was I in the insular cocoon of new motherhood. Last week, of course, I had just hired a nanny of my own. And now I have to ask: Am I exploiting my nanny?

Flanagan isn’t against having a nanny. She has one herself. But her diatribe is animated by the hypocrisy of middle-class feminists who she claims have freed themselves from one kind of inequality only to partake in another—even as they continue to believe themselves “oppressed” by a culture that looks askance at their choices. But hey, Flanagan asks: Isn’t one woman—the employer—in an inherently different position from the other woman—the nanny, who has few choices? (Her emphasis on hypocrisy partly explains the striking absence of men from her piece; although husbands surely benefit from the presence of nannies, men have never purported, as a group, to care about social justice in the same way the early feminists did.)

I don’t agree with all this. But as a piece of rhetoric, Flanagan’s piece succeeds brilliantly. She gets the affluent readers of the Atlantic Monthly to think about low-wage workers in ways they probably wouldn’t normally by writing a piece about what they really care about: themselves! But I’m not sure it much matters to poor working women whether their bosses are intellectually hypocritical. It doesn’t relieve the suffering of an underpaid maid, for example, to learn that her employer is an Adam Smith free-market type, who should therefore be forgiven for thinking a nanny’s wages should stagnate at $6.50 an hour just because he sincerely believes that’s all, in a global marketplace, the market will bear. Likewise, I’m not sure it diminishes the comfort of a nanny who believes herself to be in a good situation—and who doesn’t want to receive Social Security—if her employer is a liberal. Every day I buy groceries and wear clothes that have been made cheaper for me by the sacrifice of the working poor. It’s inescapable. Much of what Flanagan criticizes is endemic not just to feminists and nannydom but to American society.

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. She has a declared soft spot, for instance, for Dr. Laura, and puts a high premium on personal morality (without embracing Dr. Laura’s more inflammatory views on gays). She clearly thinks a lot of social problems would be solved if more people simply owned up to their individual responsibilities—if women, for instance, were nicer to their husbands, and if more fathers eschewed divorce to stick it out for the kids. At the same time, she seems to recognize that the system is rigged against the working poor and seems genuinely concerned about how anyone can support a family on, say, $6.50 an hour. (Barbara, as you so powerfully demonstrated in Nickel and Dimed, one can’t.) But because she tends to view social problems through the lens of individual responsibility, she doesn’t have much to offer in the way of programmatic responses to poverty—nothing, say, involving big companies, health insurers, lending institutions, or even the government—besides exhorting her few listeners, Dr. Laura-style, to belly up to the bar and pay their nannies’ FICA.

My husband, who works for the Service Employees Industrial Union in New York, and I went about hiring a nanny much the way Flanagan says we should: We have offered to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, to reimburse our nanny’s transportation’s costs, assuring that she has several weeks paid vacation, paying overtime, and so on. All of the nannies I interviewed were making well above minimum wage: I was told that the going rate in New York was $500 a week, for 40 to 45 hours, which works out to $10 to $12 an hour. New York seems to be cheaper than a lot of other cities. In Dallas, I’m told, the going rate is closer to $15. What’s more, every nanny I interviewed stated, flat out, that they didn’t do housework. (Flanagan’s piece implies that many nannies are maids, too.)

So, I ask: Is this so bad? Nannies work in a safe, clean environment for an employer who has the best possible incentive for treating them well: They’re taking care of the boss’s kids. I don’t believe that a nanny job is inherently demeaning. Yes, $10 or even $15 an hour, no benefits, is probably the bare minimum necessary to survive. But it’s not a sweatshop, either. I guess the question I’d put to you (and to Caitlin) is, as we begin this dialogue: Is there a way for a liberal woman in the professional classes to hire a nanny and return to work without joining the ranks of exploitive employers? And Caitlin, what else beside paying Social Security and Medicare taxes should women do or be doing to help their less fortunate sisters?