Sunday, 24 July 2005

On nannies and class and gender

Rebecca Traister wrote a really good piece in today's Salon on nannies, and how nannies occupy a space of discomfort in people's sense of class and gender identity:
The stories are very different, but they both highlight an uncomfortable condition of middle- and upper-class life that we don't like to talk about very much. It's incredibly hard to wrap our heads around the tricky contradictions and muddled ways we view the people -- usually female, with varying degrees of education, money and racial advantages -- who help parents privileged enough to employ them balance the responsibilities of work, social life and child rearing. It's a powder-keg relationship, packed with class, gender and age anxieties, doused with the lighter fluid of psychological transference and jealousy. When it explodes, as it has in these two cases, neither nannies nor mommies nor jilted girlfriends come out looking good.
Traister does an excellent job of tying together two nanny stories. The first was the contretemps between "Tessy", a nanny who blogged about her life, and her employer Helaine Olen, who fired Tessy after reading her blog and discovering - shock, horror - that her nanny actually had a life outside of nannying, one that was unsurprisingly like the life of many other young women:
Olen's dismay at these activities betrays her sense of surprise that a woman who pursues an advanced degree might also have desires, quirks, pleasures, breasts. In short, it came as a shock that Tessy's nannyhood did not preclude her humanity.

.... Olen's staggering assumptions about her relationship with Tessy reveal how she conceptualizes class. That Olen should not feel in any way threatened by someone who works for her - simply because she works for her - is a major leap from the reasonable assumption that she should receive services from the person she pays. As for the moral lines we draw around things like marriages and bonds with children, they are certainly blurrier; but Olen gives no indication that Tessy violated those. Olen says that Tessy made her doubt herself; that's a transgression only if the base assumption is that those who work for us are, and should be by definition, less than we are in every way.
It's also clear that part of what chafes at Olen was the fact that Tessy did not use her blog as a forum in which to extol the joys of caring for her children...
The second incident discussed was the whole flap about Jude Law sleeping with his nanny, which apparently the New York tabloids have somehow turned into a reason for criticising his girlfriend Sienna Miller's devotion to her career as well as nanny Daisy Wright's apparent overstepping of her class in sleeping with Law, instead of being about, as someone very rightly pointed out, Jude Law's real-life continuation of his cad role in Alfie. What's it all about, Judie?

The nanny equivalent over here in Singapore tends to be maids, domestic helpers often from the Philippines and Indonesia. Today, the New Paper, the local tabloid, noted that 12 out of the 14 people convicted of maid abuse were women themselves, and used that to launch a discussion of whether women were more particular than men about maids' work. One quote from a psychiatrist caught my eye: "If the housework isn't done well, the women feel that they may be judged as poor household managers".

Coincidentally, today was also the day I packed up my books for an impending move to a new house, and I found my copy of "Bad" Mothers, a book on how society blames mothers who deviate from a certain view of how mothers "should" behave that I'd read for a Women's Studies class back in college.

So all that made me wonder about a whole bunch of questions. Is there still an implicit condemnation of women in Singapore who choose to go out to work and leave childcare in the hands of others? Is there still a sense that women must manage the household, leading to some sense of intra-gender conflict when a working woman delegates household managing to a maid?

And further more - do people see maids as lesser persons despite them holding the very important task of caring for kids? Sure, they may not be grad students in the making such as Tessy, but do people forget that these maids are (often) 20-something women with the hopes and desires of ordinary women in their 20s?

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On the contrary, there are alot of women who are shamed for choosing family over career.
Nowadays, a woman is deemed incompetent if she isn't able to manage the household and hold down a job.
The number of times I've heard other women sneer at my mother when she told them she was a 'housewife'.


Your last question: "do people see maids as lesser persons despite them holding the very important task of caring for kids?" is one that interests me a lot.

If I were ever to employ a maid or nanny, I think I would find it a bit awkward because I find it very difficult to separate the person from the role, and I think I would find it hard to be professional about the relationship.

This would probably make me a bad person to work for.


if you employ a maid, there is nothing to be ashamed about. I employ two.
Both are 14 years old, and come from poor rural families. It's a win win situation: they get a job; and I don't have to do any housework. Perfect!


tscd - does that just mean people have shifted the stereotype of what a woman "should" do with her life from managing the household to both managing the household and working? That sounds a lot like the theme of Arlie Hochschild's The Second Shift.

badaunt/indcoup: I tend to agree with indcoup's point that you shouldn't be ashamed of hiring domestic help (although isn't 14 years kind of young?). Just don't forget they are people too.


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