Tales of money, gender, and the ruling class: Nantucket, 1994

nantucketShortly after Dr. Mister Historiann graduated from medical school, we moved from Baltimore to Somerville, Massachusetts so that he could start his residency.  We had that golden month of June, 1994 before he needed to go back to work, and back in the day when we had more time than money, we decided to hop a ferry over to Nantucket with a couple of bikes and a reservation at the Youth Hostel there.  We enjoyed a couple of days hiking, biking, and lazing around on the beach.

For both of us, I think, the most memorable thing about that trip was talking to our fellow youth-hostellers, most of whom were young Irish men and women who had come to Massachusetts on a special visa that permitted them to work for a summer and then return to Ireland.  The trick for most of these kids was to move to a resort area and to find a day job there, so that the beach was right there on their days off.  Most of the young men sought construction work–which as I recall offered decent (although illegal, under-the-table) wages of $15-$20 an hour.  Most of the young women interviewed for restaurant jobs and summer nanny jobs, and the money people were offering for the latter was truly appalling.  Families who were spending $2,000 to $4,000 a week (or more, perhaps much more) to rent a summer house on Nantucket were offering these young women $150 a week to stay with their children 24/7, because of the supposedly fabulous “perk” of having room and board with the family.  (As if having a live-in nanny were more of a favor to the nanny than to the parents, who also had on-call 24-hr. child care.)  I was appalled–talk about your patriarchal equilibrium.  There was no question that the women working as summer nannies, even without the room and board, would never earn them $15-$20 an hour.

Isn’t it fascinating to see what people are willing to spend their money on, and what they’re not willing to pay for? 

I had a little flashback to that trip to Nantucket when I read a comment by Lalaroo this morning on last week’s post about colleagues who shirk their work on the pretext of family responsibilities.  Lalaroo is a child-care provider, and she writes,

I work as a pre-school teacher for a full $8.75 an hour. This is what I like to call “not a living wage.” If my daycare made the childcare more “affordable” for the parents, you can sure as hell bet it’d mean a paycut for me. And you really do get what you pay for. My boss said at a meeting “Don’t mention to the parents that you’ve been peed on and spit up on, etc, because they pay us a lot of money for you to get peed/spit up on!” Well, they may pay you “a lot” of money, but I sure don’t get paid enough to get spit up on, peed on, cried at, and have tantrums thrown at without losing my ever-present smile! What I’m saying is, I’m less likely to be the eternally cheerful, never unpleasant, and always super-fun and creative daycare worker if I don’t make enough money to pay my bills. Not to mention the fact that none of the women working at the daycare could afford to enroll their own children in it without deep discounts.

I am sure that most of the parents who entrust their children to Lalaroo aren’t as wealthy as those parents on Nantucket fifteen years ago who were happy to pay exorbitant rent but were eager to cheap out on the child care.  This gets to a bigger issue than the selfishness of the ruling class and its exploitation of immigrant women’s labor.  Why don’t we as a society think we need to pay a living wage to child care workers?  In asking this question, I’m not suggesting that individual families should pay more for child care–although many might be able to, I understand that child care is a huge part of the family budget in most middle-class families.  I’m wondering why we collectively don’t subsidize early child care centers or preschools so that the people providing the care can have health care, pay their bills, and save for retirement.  (We do this for children once they get to Kindergarten, through the public schools:  why do we resist a commitment to subsidizing day-cares and preschools?  It seems like it would be relatively small change by comparison to the K-12 commitment.)

Why isn’t it at least as well-compensated as working in traditionally male jobs as auto mechanics or construction?  A large part of this puzzle is of course that it’s traditionally women’s work, and that all kinds of traditional women’s labor is underpaid, especially care work.  Too, there’s that universal, transhistorical expectation that women should volunteer their labor rather than expect to be paid for their work.  But, I sense a resistance in the culture to paying child-care workers more and dignifying it as a profession because we don’t want to admit the extent to which we rely on other people to look after our children.  If we paid child-care workers more, that would suggest that what they were doing is work rather than volunteer fun with the kids, so it’s easier to pay less and pretend.

What do you think?

0 thoughts on “Tales of money, gender, and the ruling class: Nantucket, 1994

  1. The glib answer would be “for the same reason we don’t have national health care”. And I think that’s part of it. We pay it badly for the same reason we pay housekeeping badly: we expect it for free from our mothers/wives/etc.

    I worked one summer as a mother’s helper, on Cape Cod. And I think the dynamics can be really weird. I wonder if another reason we pay child care so badly is that women think “I would do this because I love my children, so she should do it for love of my children”. At its worst, this degenerates into “Nanny is really part of the family”, [which means we don’t have to pay her decently because she really loves us].
    There is probably something schizoid about our culture too — we say we like children, but our public policy is totally anti-family.


  2. Susan–yes, it’s all of a piece, isn’t it? We’re “pro-family,” which really isn’t what’s really good for families so much as it is an American go-it-aloneism that segregates and isolates women and children. And if your family is struggling, it’s all your fault!

    There’s a difficult dance involved in underpaying your domestic help, though: if a nanny does it in part because of the love for children, and the children love the nanny, that’s pretty threatening to some mothers. (I don’t get it, since children don’t need to be told or instructed to love their mothers, but I guess women who don’t have much of an identity outside of motherhood might be more threatened.)


  3. I think underpaying for childcare is a multi-use tool for the patriarchy. It reinforces the idea that childcare is simple, unchallenging, and not something to take professional pride in, which helps to marginalize SAHMs by making their work “no big deal.”

    It also serves to help keep a class divide between the parents and the providers, which can perhaps subconsciously soothe parents’ anxiety about whether the caregiver is doing a better job than the parent, or whether the child prefers the caregiver. That class boundary can help parents feel more secure in their status as “better” – you know, they’re just “the help”, nothing to be threatened by.

    And parents don’t need to be threatened. A child will almost always prefer the parents, except in very extreme cases. As much as the kids love us, we’ve got nothing on Mommy or Daddy! 🙂


  4. I was a nanny for a few years, I worked in a day care center, and I am currently in the process of planning to adopt. So I have seen this a little bit from various angles.

    In two of the four homes in which I was a nanny, the mom got jealous at some point. It wasn’t a huge deal, just a pointed, “I’m mom” when the kid accidentally called her by my name, or a quasi-joke about how the kids barely knew who she was anymore. I had been warned that this was a common dynamic, so I tried not to take it personally.

    A brief but related side-note–my dad is Mexican and my mom is Dutch, and I am pale-skinned with blue eyes, though my name is quintessentially Mexican. In my first nanny job, they were paying me $150/week, plus room and board. The woman who took over when I had to quit was a recent immigrant from Mexico who was dark-skinned. During the time we overlapped, I discovered they were paying her only $100/week. (This was a more than full-time job–both parents worked long hours, and as nanny I was expected to get up with the kids if they woke in the middle of the night, too–plus I had a list of household cleaning and cooking chores that were part of my regular duties.) I asked them why, and they said it was because they knew I was saving money to go to college. So I told her about the discrepancy, and she quit the next day.

    At the day care center I was paid $6/hour. I never thought to ask how much the parents were paying.

    Now that we are budgeting for adoption, I am realizing how expensive day care is. It ranges around here from $650/month to more than a thousand a month, for one child. So a minimum of a quarter of my take home pay.

    We’ll find a way to manage, but having publicly-subsidized day care would be wonderful.

    (Sorry for this not-at-all analytical response–I guess this was a long-winded way of saying that I agree with you.)


  5. I’m wondering why we collectively don’t subsidize early child care centers or preschools so that the people providing the care can have health care, pay their bills, and save for retirement.



  6. I can’t help but think that part of this is also the still-present part of our culture that “suggests” that women stay home with their children for the first few years of their lives. Perhaps the cost/payment issue is penalizing both parties – mothers who work for not caring about their kids and going back to work, and daycare workers for doing the dirty job of taking care of these poor kids while their mothers are at work.

    I am a working mom and my daughter is in daycare. I don’t know many people who are stay-at-home moms, and a lot of the moms I know are happy to work. But somehow I still feel like this has something to do with it.


  7. Hey, “Comrade,” I thought you were on our side, in solidarity!

    Thanks for stopping by to comment rosmar and Lalaroo. Your former employers who paid a brown woman less money sound like total dirtbags, rosmar–I’m glad you ratted them out, and I’m glad that your would-be successor was bold enough to quit that gig. Saying that you were saving for college as a justification for paying you more is like an employer saying that he needs to pay more money to a man “because he has a family to support, and you don’t.” Is it the identity of the worker or the work they’re paying for?


  8. Karen, great points. But, you’re leaving out a third group of victims of this system: as Lalaroo points out, if caring for young children is successfully de-skilled, de-professionalized, and underpaid, that also works against the dignity and value of mothers who are doing their own child care.

    So, it’s a hat trick for the patriarchy!


  9. I confess: didn’t read the whole thing. (Teaching a workshop, on a brief break). However, I was intrigued because I worked as a nanny for 13 months in a rich enclave on the east coast.

    You’re right: very, very low wages. At 19, though, I thought $250/week plus room, board (and use of a car – I paid for gas) was FANTASTIC (this was 1998-1999). In retrospect, that’s not a lot, but I didn’t have a typical gig: I worked about 6 hours a day because the kids were school-aged. I worked Mon-Thurs, 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. and 4-9(ish). I also worked Saturdays (with a more vague schedule). Oh yes: there were 4 kids. I had no housework, though. When they got rid of the housekeeper/cook, I got a raise of $150 for my final few months.

    I saved no money. I traveled. I spent the money, I did whatever. For that year, it was really about the experience – but in retrospect, it was really, really crappy pay…


  10. rosmar writes,

    Now that we are budgeting for adoption, I am realizing how expensive day care is. It ranges around here from $650/month to more than a thousand a month, for one child. So a minimum of a quarter of my take home pay.

    It is a lot. And say this is for roughly “full-time” daycare, 40 hours a week or 160 hours a month. That means that you’re paying between 4 and 6 dollars an hour. At a 1:3 teacher-child ratio (which I’ve seen, and which I believe is mandated for little kids, in many states), that means the daycare is taking in $12-$18 dollars per teacher-hour. Of course there’s no way all of that can flow into the teachers’ pockets, so there’s no way such a daycare can afford to pay a living wage.

    I don’t have an answer. But raising children takes a lot of (somebody’s) time, and people’s time is expensive. If you see a situation where something intrinsically time-consuming appears “affordable”, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find some form of exploitation.


  11. As other parents have written (and as I wrote in the shirking post), in many places daycare is so expensive for parents (as I mentioned around $800-1400 a month, depending the on facility and its geographic location) that it takes up all their spare pay. Of course it is particularly burdensome for my family, since we have two households. But generally speaking, it is very expensive for families. So I don’t think you can frame the question in terms of what individuals will pay for (though obviously the rich ruthlessly exploit poor and particularly immigrant women as nannies). I’m aware that the annual income my shared-nanny gets is pitiful (though it is a living wage + paid vacation, though no health care;she gets $12 per hour from us and $13 from the other family w/ two children to our one. We also paid our previous sitter $12 hr for part time work). But seriously, if we paid more we would go broke. In many dual income families most of the wife’s wages go to childcare. Day care can be exploitative b/c many working families are desperate, not because parents set out to save a couple of bucks at someone else’s expense.

    When I talk about the need for affordable daycare, I’m not talking about slashing prices at the expense of day care providers – I’m talking about gov’t subsidization. And frankly, I think we don’t subsidize day care because as a society Americans a) seem to hate all benefits that come from the gov’t and (b) secretly think women should be home with their children anyway.


  12. PS I just wanted to add that I totally agree with Susan’s astute point: “we say we like children, but our public policy is totally anti-family.”


  13. I know that free, 24-hr drop in childcare was a major demand of the 70s feminist manifestos I’ve read, along with abortion on demand and the right to not shave our legs. It’s just weird how far social pushback has moved us to ask for less and still feel like we are out of line for asking for too much.

    Someone bought the little house next door to my favorite coffee shop and then donated it to this charity/social group for free. The _____ ______ House fixed it up and ran some big donation campaigns and then opened it as free toddler childcare for all those families in apartments surrounding me (well, ok, I’m sure not _all_; it’s a small house). I don’t know where those women work precisely, but I’ve seen them drop off their kids and I can tell you they don’t own cars and don’t speak English — so I’m sure it’s great for them to have free childcare within a block of their home. I just wish this cool little program could be expanded.


  14. Sisyphus wrote, “I know that free, 24-hr drop in childcare was a major demand of the 70s feminist manifestos I’ve read, along with abortion on demand and the right to not shave our legs. It’s just weird how far social pushback has moved us to ask for less and still feel like we are out of line for asking for too much.”

    Excellent point. I might also add that this distortion in the portrayal of feminist issues to be about the control and/or appearance of our bodies was an excellent strategy to marginalize feminism and to portray feminists as hostile to the interests of mothers and children. For a long while I’ve thought that women my age (now 30s and 40s) were complicit in this shrinkage of feminism in the 1980s and 1990s, when we were all obsessed with eating disorders, body image, and sexuality and abortion rights. (Part of this might be the coincidence of this era with our adolescences and young adulthood, of course.) But perhaps it’s also due to the fact that the media images of feminism eagerly erased all of that 1970s stuff about motherhood and children.


  15. For the last decade or so, the NYTimes has been enamored of the trope of ambitious young women who turn their backs on their careers to become stay-at-home moms (and thereby find true happiness and fulfillment). That article runs annually, I think. Some mom from the Upper East Side or Westchester always says she’s happy to give up her six-figure salary because her children are worth it. Of course, it helps that her husband brings home seven figures.

    Funny how her time spent in child-care is worth six figures, but her nanny’s isn’t even close.


  16. Mamie–isn’t it funny how these rich women still need nannies even when they’ve quit the paid workforce? (I don’t begrudge them if they offer a generous wage, but too many don’t.) I have to say that I loved The Nanny Diaries (the book–never bothered with the movie.) That little novel was one of my guilty lit-trash pleasures from earlier in the decade.


  17. Another reason for such a disparity between childcare fees and caregivers’ wages is overhead costs. I’m thinking of things like required fees for registering with state licensing boards, insurance in case a child is injured/dies and extra, expensive land to accommodate play areas, large groups of parents arriving to pick up their kids at the same time, et cetera. A friend of mine briefly worked for a nursery for horrible pay and no benefits, but the nursery was in financial trouble the entire time due entirely to that sort of thing. Kind of reminds me of healthcare; you can’t just raise provider rates and fix everything, you have to fix the entire system.


  18. takingitoutside–good points. Quality preschools and day care centers spend a lot of money on having appealing facilities, and they pay for all of that plus provide the other legal and tax infrastructure to provide these services. You are exactly correct to say that it “[k]ind of reminds me of healthcare; you can’t just raise provider rates and fix everything, you have to fix the entire system.”

    What progressives in congress, with its historic democratic majorities and a Dem president, have proposed to offer free universal preschool or daycare? None that I have heard of. Shrinkage of the agenda, again…


  19. I blame the rise of individualism, over that of family orientated conceptions of self, which had meant investing in our children is seen to have less value to us as individuals. We (society) are no longer investing in families or family dynasties (or even in society in the long run), but in individuals and their much shorter-term successes (frequently measured by financial wealth). This is not to say that parents don’t make sacrifices for their children, but I do think at some level it makes us resent expending large amounts of what we consider their basic needs- because it detracts from our successes (whereas for the rich, large expenditure in our children marks our status). Which, you’d think would make us all socialist Nazis- but for many people it makes us more selfish as we buy into the ‘do-it-alone’ narrative.

    I also think that modern individualism is still uncomfortable with the idea that women and children are individuals (by which I mean independent agents with full rights), but that’s anothe story…


  20. I’m not sure the idea that caring for kids is “fun” is a key to the low wages. When my great-grandmother was in a nursing home, the admins raked it in and the black and/or immigrant workers who actually took care of her earned not a whole lot over minimum wage. From what I have read (not in a studied way, I mean, just reading the paper etc.) eldercare like childcare is a field in which there is a lot of this, plus quite a lot of under the table arrangements, all very ill-paid.

    I think the key here is that this is more women’s work, and thus ill compensated. A reason I think there isn’t more organizing around it is that the “workplace” is not a factory floor but a bunch of disconnected sites, at which isolated and vulnerable people are laboring; I also suspect that unlike being an electrician or whatever many people who work in childcare or eldercare think of it as temporary (whether it turns out to be or not). Finally, I think a lot of women who do have the social status to organize (ie, the ones dealing with contracting childcare and eldercare under the present unjust circumstances) hesitate to do so knowing they’ll be targets of so much hate: bitches who think they are too good to care for their own kids and elderly relatives, agitating for the government to pay for it instead, what a bunch of selfish ice princesses, etc. etc. I mean, the standard American insane denial thing where rather than facing up to life as it is actually lived we pretend it’s not that way and shoot the messenger who mentions it (cf. abortion) (cf. healthcare). *Even though* facing up to life as it is actually lived would be better for everyone, not just some elitist minority. Result? Women live the contradictions but pretend they don’t exist so as not to get hated on or physically threatened for mentioning them.


  21. @ Feminist Avatar: I’m not sure. I agree that as a society we don’t prize or privilege investing in our children (in terms of family leave, day care, etc), but in other ways we are hyper-investing, if one thinks about the vast quantity of material objects with which today’s children are showered.

    And honestly, as far as the daycare/preschool industry is concerned – there’s just no profit in it, due to the limited salaried of most working and middle class people combined with (necessary)regulations on the child:adult ratio. In industries with small profit margins, exploitation of workers run rampant as employers/owners try to wring every last cent where they can (ie limiting benefits and slashing salaries).


  22. Kathleen, I’m not sure that childcare is considered “fun” so much as it’s considered easy and unskilled. The parents very much want you to think it’s fun, and your boss wants you to at least act like it’s fun, but sometimes it’s not.

    Vance, here in my state, infants are required to have a 1:4 ratio, 7 mo-1 yr is 1:5, 1 – 3 yrs is 1:6, but then when you get into pre-K it’s 1:13! So the real money is in pre-K, where you can have a bunch of kids with just one teacher. My daycare is new, however, and so our pre-K (where I work) is tiny – just 4 kids, and 2 of those come only T/Th. Before we added a fourth kid, this meant that if the one little girl was sick, two of us teachers didn’t get paid that day. But her mom still had to pay for that day, even though she didn’t come – extra money for the daycare!


  23. Oh, and I totally agree that we should have more government subsidized daycare. I know that it’s hard to afford it on a middle-class salary (forget lower-class!). I know that we already have Head Start programs, which could be expanded. But how would government subsidize the daycare otherwise? Tax credits?

    It is rather neatly done that women are paid less and socialized towards mothering, then daycare is expensive for the babies they have, and so when looking at who should stay home (since daycare is costing almost a full salary), of course it’s the mom. It makes financial and psychological sense, you know? She earns less and would be better with the babies. It’s not like there have been social factors at work since her birth to ensure that both are true (or at least, that the second is believed to be true)! So, mothers are not-so-gently nudged toward staying home. Way to go, big P!


  24. Historiann said, “But, you’re leaving out a third group of victims of this system: as Lalaroo points out, if caring for young children is successfully de-skilled, de-professionalized, and underpaid, that also works against the dignity and value of mothers who are doing their own child care.”

    True! That makes me wonder if some of this is also a part of the problems between the general groups of Working Mothers and Stay-at-home Mothers. Maybe some SAHMs feel they need to defend their positions and therefore pick on the working moms for choosing to work and letting someone else take care of their children.


  25. Googling various figures, it seems we have about 20 million kids under 5 in the US. Guessing that universal daycare would have to accommodate about half of them, that’s 10 million; and guessing at the adult/child ratios, that suggests the hiring of 2.5 million daycare personnel. For comparison, there are about 8.5 million teachers (and I’m pretty sure this means primary/middle/secondary) in the US now. So considering this proposal as an extension of the mandate for public education, it’s an increase of about a third.

    This is (a) substantial and (b) doable. In fact, decent government jobs for 2.5 million people sounds like the kind of stimulus we could use.


  26. “Historiann said, “But, you’re leaving out a third group of victims of this system: as Lalaroo points out, if caring for young children is successfully de-skilled, de-professionalized, and underpaid, that also works against the dignity and value of mothers who are doing their own child care.”

    I can to speak to that one: We Stay-at-home moms take a serious hit to our self-esteem by staying out of the workforce. Because I stay at home, it is assumed, by men and women alike, I am unskilled and uneducated. It’s hard not to let those ideas affect me: I sometimes wonder why I bothered with the Masters degree if raising kids, doing errands, and cleaning was what I’d be doing with my life?


  27. Thanks, everyone, for carrying on the discussion yesterday while I was out. Vance Maverick’s scheme for the federal government to subsidize the employment of 2.5 million early child care workers was proposed by a group of women’s historians late last year, when we signed a letter to President-elect Obama pointing out that stimulus-spending shouldn’t just go to sectors of the economy that traditionally employ many more men than women (construction, etc.) See here and here for more details.

    But, I’m not holding my breath! The Obama administration and its new Sec’y of Education is totally on board the testing regime laid down by George W. Bush. How on earth can they hold early childhood educators “accountable” for their work when we can’t possibly test their students? (And Lord help us if they figure out a way to start testing 2-year olds!)


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