The LA times has an interesting article on the many immigrant women who spend their days as domestic workers, and then return home for their “second shift” as mommies in the evening.
Inevitably, immigrants feel the pull between their employer’s children and their own families. Every day, they take their employer’s children to play dates and the park, often unable to do the same with their own. They pick up their employer’s children from school while theirs take buses.
“They are forced to be away from their families and yet reminded at every instance what their families are being denied,” said Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, USC professor and author of “Doméstica: Immigrant Women Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.”
Often, the only baby-sitters they can afford are untrained or unreliable.
“The immigrants are paying each other,” said Arizona State University professor Mary Romero, author of “Maid in the U.S.A.” “Somebody has to take care of the children. It’s the nanny or the maid’s child who gets the short end of the stick.”
Domestic work is notoriously under-valued and under-paid.
Even with Stacey home, the job was exhausting. The hours were long: She worked five days a week, about 11 hours a day, making about $8 an hour. But Margoth says she got used to it. She also got attached to the family.
Stacey got attached to Margoth, too. Margoth was very comfortable with the kids, singing and reading to them, watching Disney movies endlessly at their side. She hugged them constantly.
“It’s more than just having someone change a diaper,” Stacey says. “It’s the love and devotion she has for our family.”
At the same time, it involves goods that cannot be commodified — love and caring. How do you put a price on that, or decide what pay rate is fair? Domestic work is also different from “regular” work in that it isn’t such a clear employee/employer relationship with mandated hours and breaks. Employers often want the person taking care of their kids to be “part of the family” — and while that’s all fine and good, it’s a lot easier to ask someone who’s “part of the family” to run errands or do favors that weren’t in their job description. Domestic work blurs the lines between employment and family work.
Domestic workers are also far more likely to suffer abusive work conditions. They’re overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly immigrants, and lack power, status and access to institutions which may help them. Those who are illegal immigrants are even more likely to be abused, and naturally fear going to the police.
Feminists have long had mixed views of domestic employment. The entry of more women into the work force means that in many families, there isn’t someone at home to do the work of maintaining the house and watching over young children. Some (though very few) feminists seem to take no issue with domestic work; it’s basic capitalism, paying someone for personal services. Others have a problem with the fact that domestic work is so female-dominated, and domestic workers are so often exploited. One of the biggest issues for me with domestic work is the guilt that so many feminists feel about it, which is at least partly the caused by growing up in a sexist society — hiring domestic workers is seen as getting someone else to do the “woman’s job” of cleaning the home and caring for the children. Even progressive women seem to not be able to shake the notion that hiring a nanny or a housekeeper is an expression of failure on their part.
Living in Manahttan, the most public domestic workers are the nannies who you see all around the city — they’re easily identifiable because they’re usually women of color with white children in tow. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard otherwise progressive people complain that rich (ostensibly white) Manhattan mothers “aren’t raising their own kids.” And yes, there’s room to criticize absent parents — but no one seems to mention that Dad isn’t raising his own kids, either.
And that, I guess, is the biggest sticking point for me about the conversation surrounding domestic employment: No one asks where the male partner is, or why he can’t lend a hand. It’s overwhelming to expect a single person to work full-time, and find a way to keep the house spotless and be the parent who’s at every soccer game and school play. The workload has to be divided up somehow, and many working women seem to find it easier to pay for those services than to ask their partner to split the work evenly. I’m not sure that, were all other things equitable, there’s something inherently wrong with paying for personal services like childcare and housekeeping. But when placed in the context of a sexist and racist society which systematically exploits immigrants and places mounds of undue burdens and pressures on those women who dare try and “have it all,” and when coupled with the feminization of domestic labor and the devaluation of “women’s work,” you have a dangerous recipe. The simplest solution, to me, is to encourage a household shift where men are expected to do just as much housework and child-rearing as women are — where they aren’t distinctly applauded for washing dishes or picking the kids up from school, but where it’s as simple a social expectation for them as it is for women now. Add to that a simultaneous social shift in which the work women do is valued just as much as the work men do, and I think we’ll see some improvement. But I won’t hold my breath.