Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering

Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering

by Cameron Lynne Macdonald
Pub. Date:
University of California Press


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Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering

Shadow Mothers shines new light on an aspect of contemporary motherhood often hidden from view: the need for paid childcare by women returning to the workforce, and the complex bonds mothers forge with the “shadow mothers” they hire. Cameron Lynne Macdonald illuminates both sides of an unequal and complicated relationship. Based on in-depth interviews with professional women and childcare providers— immigrant and American-born nannies as well as European au pairs—Shadow Mothers locates the roots of individual skirmishes between mothers and their childcare providers in broader cultural and social tensions. Macdonald argues that these conflicts arise from unrealistic ideals about mothering and inflexible career paths and work schedules, as well as from the devaluation of paid care work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520222328
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/09/2011
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Cameron Lynne Macdonald is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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Shadow Mothers

Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering

By Cameron Lynne Macdonald


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94781-8



Childcare on Trial


Seventy percent of all mothers in the United States work outside the home. Most rely on some form of paid childcare. Despite these realities, the American public remains ambivalent toward mothers who leave their children in the care of others. Reactions to one subset, women who could ostensibly afford to stay at home but do not, are especially intense. When Court TV provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial of eighteen-year-old Louise Woodward, a British au pair, for the 1997 death of baby Matthew Eappen, viewers nationwide were mesmerized. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion; public sentiment was divided as to whether Woodward was innocent or guilty. There was remarkable unity, however, in the public's vilification of Matthew's mother. Picketers marched daily outside the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts, often holding placards picturing baby Matthew's face. A sign carrying the slogan given in the epigraph to this chapter captured the hostility I heard expressed over the airwaves and in conversations on subways and buses concerning who was really to blame for baby Matthew's untimely death.

Deborah Eappen and her husband, Sunil, had employed Louise to look after their two children while he worked full-time as an anesthesiologist and she worked part-time as an ophthalmologist. Putatively not a suspect in the murder case, Dr. Deborah Eappen was put on trial in the court of public opinion and found guilty. Regardless of who was directly to blame for Matthew's death, it was the baby's mother who was deemed ultimately responsible. She was seen as derelict in her maternal duties because she had hired an au pair so that she could work three days a week outside the home. Deborah Eappen noted in an interview, "People write to us that we are greedy, that we did it, that we made poor decisions, that I am at fault. I am shocked at the way people have been to me and that I have to defend myself." The vehemence of these attacks was directed not just at Matthew's mother, but at all "Volvo-class" working mothers: women who presumably were married to high-earning husbands and also presumably could afford to stay home.

The year before the Woodward case became front-page news, I was in the Boston area conducting interviews with mothers and nannies for this book. A Caribbean nanny recounted an experience that spoke to the caregiver's side of the public vehemence expressed at Volvo-class working mothers. Celine, a forty-two-year-old nanny from Trinidad, was running errands with her two-year-old charge, Gregory. As she chatted with a friend, the cashier at the local drugstore, Celine remembered that she was nearly out of baby wipes. She asked her friend to watch Gregory (who was seated in his stroller) while she ran to the aisle to get the wipes. When she returned to the checkout stand, she was accosted by a white woman who identified herself as an "at-home mom." The woman began to yell at Celine for leaving the toddler unattended. The more Celine protested ("I would never leave my Gregory with a stranger!"), the more heated the other woman's language became. Finally, she said, "I don't blame you—I blame your employer." Celine's friend tried to intercede, but to no avail. The argument escalated, and, Celine told me, the other woman "called me a nigger. Well, that was it. I got really mad, and then the manager told us to leave." Both women exited, but they continued arguing outside the store. Eventually, the police came, separated them, and sent them home. For Celine, the drugstore encounter was proof of the "really racist" attitude of people in the community where she worked. No doubt it was, but the vehemence with which she was accosted suggests an additional trigger. Caregivers who are visibly different from the children in their care learn to expect to be censored by strangers—although this usually takes the form of hostile stares and whispered comments rather than dramatic confrontations. Unlike their peers who can "pass" as their charges' mothers, these nannies signal to the public that some mothers have chosen to shirk what many consider to be their most important adult responsibilities.

Although neither the Woodward case nor Celine's experience at the drugstore are commonplace events, both reflect a continuing ambivalence the American public feels about what constitutes "good enough" mothering, especially among a certain class of mothers. A nationwide poll reported in 2003 that 72 percent of respondents agreed that children already spend too much time in daycare or with babysitters; in a poll conducted in 2005, 77 percent agreed with the statement that although "it may be necessary for the mother to be working because the family needs money, it would be better if she could stay home and take care of the house and children." This judgment is clearly linked to social class; working mothers like Dr. Eappen, women who seem financially able to stay home, are the most stigmatized for working. At the other end of the class spectrum, poor women who rely on public assistance while they stay at home to raise their children are judged as negative role models for those children. Although the belief in at-home mothering is strong, so is the belief in child improvement. Some children, it seems, are better off with their mothers whereas others would benefit from professional care, and these children are categorized by race and class.

Never before have the daily lives of so many American mothers been so at odds with prevailing beliefs about children's needs. This historical period is particularly significant in that it is white middle-class women whose approach to parenting is viewed as deviant. At the time of my interviews, in the late 1990s, 63 percent of college-educated mothers of infants worked outside the home. Parents are also working longer hours away from home; among families with dual earners, the average number of hours per week the two parents worked away from home peaked at 115 in 1999 and has not declined significantly since then. Despite these realities facing working families, our ideas about how best to raise children remain firmly built on the ideal of the ever-present, continually attentive, at-home mother. Advice books, parenting magazines, and general cultural sentiment have converged to "raise the bar" of expectations for mothering young children so high that even full-time at-home mothers would be hard-pressed to meet them. For mothers who work outside the home the task is literally impossible: meeting these expectations requires the presence of a full-time mother as the primary caregiver. Some resolve this dilemma by redefining mothering so they can delegate certain aspects to a carefully chosen stand-in. In-home caregivers help maintain or even extend this redefinition of "mother-work" as they negotiate with their employers who does what aspects of childrearing and what the resulting division of labor means to each party.

Celine's story, reactions to Woodward's trial, and the subsequent polling data are evidence of the deeply held and conflicting opinions surrounding motherhood, work, race, and social class. At the time of Woodward's first trial, I had just completed interviewing the fiftieth woman in a research sample that ultimately expanded to eighty women: thirty mother-employers and fifty in-home childcare providers. I was surprised by the media portrayals of women like those who were participating in my study. Although I found tension, sadness, and occasionally difficult working conditions in these women's relationships, their problems did not result from the fact that the mothers worked, nor did they arise from the kinds of childcare workers they employed. Instead, these problems, ironically, stemmed mainly from the same set of beliefs about mothering that generated the public outcry at the Woodward trial. Both sets of respondents, mother-employers and their childcare providers, believed in the value of at-home mothering. Contests over the definition of the "good mother" and whether the mother-employer or the mother-worker was ultimately the better caregiver lay at the root of most mother-nanny conflicts.

This book analyzes the micropolitics of interactions inside these linked lives. By micropolitics, I mean the ways that "power is relayed in everyday practices": the "small wars" that go on in everyday life as individuals and groups jockey for position. This is a particularly apt approach to understanding the division of labor in the contested terrain of mother-work. As the journalist Caitlin Flanagan points out, "The precise intersection of many women's most passionate impulses—their profound, almost physical love for their children and their ardent wish to make something of themselves beyond their own doorstep—is the exact spot where nannies show up for work each day." Inside these relationships, we see how both mother-employers and mother-workers view what it means to be a "good mother" and what it means to commodify portions of this role.

The conflicts I observed between nannies and employers over seemingly minor activities such as naptimes, play dates, and "time-outs" reflect not only their competing views on mothering but also the constraints placed on both sets of women by larger structural forces—for example, the nature of "all-or-nothing" careers (for the mother-employers) and the assumption that domestic workers are "part of the family" (for the mother-workers). They also reflect deep-seated differences in class-based beliefs about parenting. Although these larger cultural and institutional forces are evident in many areas of public and private life, they crystallize in the employer-nanny relationship.

During the interviews I conducted with mothers and caregivers, I searched for answers to some simple but provocative questions. What kinds of caregivers do mother-employers seek? What are the implications of the race, class, age, legal status, and education of the childcare worker in how each of the two parties defines the work? How do professional-class working mothers interpret their own status as mothers in light of the fact that someone else does the bulk of the day-to-day care? From the perspective of the mother-worker, what does it mean to be paid to love someone else's children? Do childcare workers enter the relationship with agendas that contradict or compete with those of their employers? What are the costs and consequences of the kind of emotional labor in-home childcare providers perform? How is the paid caregiver's role within the family and within the children's lives defined by both parties? How do both parties define and maintain the boundary between mother and "not-mother"? In answering these questions, this book sheds light not only on contemporary understandings of motherhood among middle-class women, but also on the changing boundaries between family and community, home and work, and love and money.


Mothers employed outside the home, commodified childcare and housework, work-family tensions: none of these are new phenomena. Sociologists, policy analysts, and feminist theorists have been writing about the challenges facing dual-earner families, the politics of contemporary motherhood, and the working and labor market conditions of domestic workers for many years. This book benefits from this research but also significantly extends and frequently challenges the insights this research provides, placing childcare at the center of the analysis of contemporary family life. In what follows, I outline the broad contours of the research most relevant to understanding the micropolitics of mothering in the context of commodified childcare.

Doing the "First Shift"

This book directs attention to the division of childrearing labor during the "first shift" in family life. Existing research reflects continuing ambivalence concerning the role of childcare workers in the lives of working families. Work/family researchers have long focused on increased male participation in the "second shift" (i.e., the housework and parenting that takes place at the end of the workday) as a panacea for the dilemmas facing dual-earner families. Many studies indicate that a more equitable division of labor in the second shift would solve problems facing working mothers, including lack of sleep, inadequate leisure time, marital stress, and unequal access to career advancement. In practice, though, for dual-earner families, increased paternal participation is only a partial solution. In recent years, men's involvement in childrearing has risen, but husbands still lag behind their wives by eighteen hours per week. Aside from those parents who provide childcare themselves by working complementary shifts, most working families must rely on someone outside the family to provide childcare during at least some part of the working day. The exclusive focus on fathers' housework and childcare ignores the critical role of "friendly intruders" in the lives of children.

How working parents negotiate the division of childrearing labor during the hours they are at work remains poorly understood. Much of the literature on dual-earner families treats children as if they exist in a state of suspended animation while their parents are away. By focusing primarily on how fathers can assist at home, most of the existing research reinforces the notion of the nuclear family as an isolated unit that limps along on its own limited resources. In contrast, I argue that a realistic view of family life in dual-earner households must include the role played by caring adults from outside the immediate family.

Mothering Ideologies

This book also brings the role of paid childcare workers into debates about the meanings of mothering. Feminist scholars have documented the cultural lag between beliefs concerning good mothering and actual mothering practices. These authors argue that middle-class American mothering ideals, and the beliefs about children's needs that accompany them, are cultural and historical remnants that are no longer realistic. Feminist researchers call for a redefined and expanded notion of "the good mother" that moves beyond "the sacrificial mother" to include working as a way of supporting the family economically and of modeling for children the value of work and independence. Although most agree that any new model of good mothering must include a flexible workplace and coparenting partners, few feminist scholars address how paid childcare workers fit into this redefined notion of mothering.

Specifically, and most obviously since the nineteenth-century switch from father-centered childrearing to mother-centered childrearing, U.S. discourses on mothering have insisted that the mother "take entire care" of her children. Middleclass mothers were exhorted to dispense with servants; those in the classes below were urged to give up working outside the home. This ideology of "intensive mothering" was (and continues to be) class-based in other ways as well. Traditionally, the policies and professional advice aimed at mothers have been differentiated by social class, and women from different classes typically interpret these mothering messages in different ways.

In particular, concerns about how the middle and upper classes will reproduce themselves, and mothers' role in that status attainment, express the tensions between the career aspirations of middle-class women and the assumption that these strivings are in direct conflict with their children's needs. This is a dilemma of long standing. For example, more than a hundred years ago, when women were finally being admitted into the halls of higher education, this change was framed as a way to make them better mothers, not as a route to joining their male peers in the professional labor force. The broad concerns about the fate of white, middle-class motherhood were voiced by S. Weir Mitchell in the somber warning he delivered to Radcliffe students at the beginning of the twentieth century: "I believe that if the higher education or the college life in any way, body or mind, unfits women to be good wives and mothers, there had better be none of it. If these so affect them that they crave merely what they call a career as finer, nobler, more to their taste than the life of home, then better close every college door in the land."

Nonetheless, the number of college-educated women continued to rise, and they married in ever greater numbers and continued to produce smaller families. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, the number of working women showed a steady increase, but it was not until the last few decades of the century that Dr. Mitchell's nightmare became a reality: the majority of college-educated women with young children were in the workforce. They are now there to stay.


Excerpted from Shadow Mothers by Cameron Lynne Macdonald. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Childcare on Trial
2. Mother-Employers: Blanket Accountability at Home and at Work
3. Nannies on the Market
4. “They’re Too Poor and They All Smoke”: Ethnic Logics and Childcare Hiring Decisions
5. Managing a Home-Centered Childhood:
Intensive Mothering by Proxy
6. Creating Shadow Mothers
7. The “Third-Parent” Ideal
8. Nanny Resistance Strategies
9. Partnerships: Seeking a New Model
10. Untangling the Mother-Nanny Knot

Appendix: Research Methods


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Offers surprising and layered insights into the . . . modern mommy phenomenon played out every day from coast to coast."—Boston Globe

"Sparks important insights for mother-employers and their employees. . . . And along the way, it offers society and individuals a way to create positive mother-childcare worker relationships."—Foreword

"An interesting read. . . . [Macdonald's] findings are thought-provoking"—Law Society Journal

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