Notes On Childcare

By Alexandra Chenelle

1.

I play with a friend’s child while they watch basketball. I am pretending that the pink plastic chair on which the child sits is an airplane. I move her back and forth and make noises as I pretend to be rain, the wind, a flock of birds. “A pegasus is flying next to the plane!” I exclaim, and I immediately begin flapping my arms, braying like a horse. At halftime, I share a cigarette with a friend who is a sex worker: “I don’t know how you do it,” she says, referring to my performances of imaginary horses and airplane pilots. I laugh at the irony, but inside I shudder at the similar nature of our occupations, their nearly identical cultural significations. We are in the business of serving another by ruthlessly subjectifying our own affects. We are in the business of performance as a means for our survival. We are in the type of work that when viewed in action one declares, “I could never do that.” People outside this sphere of emotional labor think they couldn’t do this work because the skills and traits needed in “private” or “domestic” industries are considered inherent to the very biology of a woman. Under patriarchy, it appears that childcare or sex work cannot be learned by men, but that all women contain an inner Stepford wife to whom care work is natural. What these supposedly “feminine” industries, then, are founded on is the notion that servility to external demand, care, and nurturance are traits innate to the biological truth of womanhood, even if this belief itself is culturally patterned.

2.

The Baby-Sitters Club is a series of novels that was published from 1986-2000 and later adapted into a television program. The series centers on a group of eleven- to thirteen-year-old girls in the fictional Stoney Brooke, Connecticut. The girls run a babysitting service known as “The Baby-Sitters Club,” and their childcare work functions as the basis of the show. Their problems— whether related to their own personal growth, family trouble, or challenging work situations—are recounted through the lens of a teenage narrator. The girls are independent and manage a relatively professional operation that is arguably well run for their age. In an interview about the series, creator Ann M. Martin states, “I think of myself as a feminist. I wanted to portray a very diverse group of characters, not only from different racial backgrounds, but from different kinds of family backgrounds, religions, and perspectives on life. I just really wanted a group of girls who were very different from one another and who became very close friends.” [1] While the books portray a degree of diversity among the central characters, there is a relative sameness to their background; the books are centered in Stoney Brooke and the issues and class makeup which surround the protagonists are those customary to suburban Connecticut—in other words, a homogenous, middle-class, quintessentially “American” experience. By writing the girls as teenagers, Martin perpetuates the common idea that childcare was labor suitable only for (female) teenagers. Indeed, in The Baby-Sitters Club, childcare as a viable enterprise is reduced to the hobby of plucky teenage girls looking to make some extra money.

While there is, doubtlessly, the possibility of personal growth, love, and genuine care in the relation between child and babysitter or caregiver, these secondary benefits are part and parcel of an initial economic transaction that purchases attention for the child in question.

Even without consulting statistics, one merely needs to look around and see that childcare comes in many forms and that childcare workers come from many backgrounds. The majority of childcare workers are women; the demographics range from middle-aged women, to college students, to high school students, to recent college graduates. Some childcare workers are recent immigrants providing for families overseas. Others—including myself—are university students trying to generate funds in between studies. What ultimately brings this group of (mostly female) childcare workers together is not the atomistic need to grow as a person or the desire for a fun hobby: all of us have been compelled to sell our own affective labor as a surrogate parent in order to provide for ourselves and our own families. While there is, doubtlessly, the possibility of personal growth, love, and genuine care in the relation between child and babysitter or caregiver, these secondary benefits are part and parcel of an initial economic transaction that purchases attention for the child in question.

The members of the Baby-Sitters Club work for fun; their economic and social interests were and always had been assured in advance. Most workers in the childcare and domestic service industries work out of necessity in order to provide for themselves and their families. With their “can-do” attitude and professionalism, the girls also exemplify the realization of the American entrepreneurial dream, thus, transforming childcare into an industry and further distancing it from its reality as precarious and unwaged work. When the popular perception among my peers is that my job is “easy enough for a teenager to do,” I blame works like The Baby-Sitters Club for perpetuating the idea that child care is the work of teenagers, and that industries relating to the domestic and private spheres deserve low regard, even as they are in feverish demand. The devaluation of this sort of work contributes to a labor sphere that becomes increasingly precarious for the worker and artificially more competitive, since clients are more likely to believe that childcare workers are more replaceable than they actually are. Bodies of works that cheapen the reality of childcare, such as Martin’s collection, contribute directly to its perception as an inessential luxury, when in actuality childcare is often a necessity for working families as well as for the laborers involved.

3.    

In 2005, actor Jude Law made tabloid news for having an affair with his children’s nanny. At the time, myriad news outlets covered the affair, yet a tellingly vast quantity of reporting and investigation fixated on a single question: “Why the nanny?” This is to ask: Given that Jude Law was engaged to the gorgeous and successful actress Sienna Miller, why would he sleep with one of his mere employees? The news media was content with speaking of the nuances of infidelity, the potency of male sexual desire, and the fantasy of the nanny as a sexual object, among other topics relating only to the libidinal. The news coverage was simple gossip fodder and, as the nature of celebrity gossip goes, evaporated quickly to make room for the next scandal. Facile and incomplete, this analysis stood as sensationalistic quasi-demystification of the nature of celebrity. I say incomplete because there was little analysis as to how this debacle more primarily consisted in the nature of work itself. Jude Law’s sleeping with his employee was most importantly an issue characteristic to the nature of capitalist wage-labor itself, and the event was a brazen expression of significantly imbalanced power dynamics come to light, refracted through the media’s fixation with this exploitation’s sexual dimension.

By sleeping with his nanny, Jude Law violated his morally and culturally sanctified marriage contract. More importantly, he also violated the responsibilities generally attributed to, or at least imagined of, the figure of the humanitarian Western capitalist Boss. The worker’s selling of her labor time now coincides with the workers selling of her body. Jude Law not only violated a marriage contract, but presumably a work contract as well. Which brings us to another problem. Although I presume that the case of celebrity nannies is different, many caregiving roles are carried out without a contract, the promise of healthcare and job security, or any other material concession. By sleeping with the nanny, Jude Law altered the conditions of her work environment according to a relation that is inherently coercive, thus reconstituting—if not dissolving—the boundary between domestic and sexual labor, which, in his nanny’s case, are now exchanged as and for one another. Hence any movement that addresses sexual harassment and coercion in the workplace without also foregrounding the power imbalances inherent in the relations of the capitalist mode of production minimizes the historical and material conditions that lead to and preserve such curtailing of agency. In other words, the fact that sex and labor have become indistinguishable from one another is emblematic of just how complete the alienation of the laborers’ desire has become in the reproduction of the relations of production. We must discuss and combat sexist practices in the workplace, but to forget that it is brought about and encouraged by underlying structural conditions is to ensure that every scandal is quickly overwritten by another, and that the only people who are not surprised are those who benefit from the existence of such divisions.

By sleeping with the nanny, Jude Law altered the conditions of her work environment according to a relation that is inherently coercive, thus reconstituting—if not dissolving—the boundary between domestic and sexual labor, which, in his nanny’s case, are now exchanged as and for one another.

4.

The child is trying to kiss my cheek. I turn my head away, “No, we can’t do that,” I caution. I resort to using “we” often with young children, and I could explain this as a practical rhetorical tactic, but it also betrays itself as some sort of method of depersonalizing, dispersing, diluting shame. One begins to analyze very meticulously, even neurotically, a vast constellation of actions, vocal tones, and semantic renderings as having a sort of imprinting factor when they are working with children. “But my mom kisses me before I go to sleep,” the child protests. “But I am not your mother,” I concede. And this is the principle that establishes my role in the employer’s home and my role as a caregiver: If the child’s perception of the ego emerges through encountering the other, as Jacques Lacan proposes in his theory of the mirror stage, then the child’s ego is necessarily also shaped in relation to the (female) caregiver drafted into the role of his or her mother. As the caregiver becomes a figure among the symbols and active participants in the home the role this caregiver occupies becomes increasingly destabilized on the one hand and infinitely expanded on the other. The caregiver is both of the family and necessarily excluded from it, depending on the present affective or practical needs of the family. The caregiver provides the benefit of an extra playmate or sibling; forever the non-mother that must, as the job requires, perform the role of motherhood in order to obtain a wage. The mother-figure is both all-encompassing in her signification but permanently held as a clearly defined outsider; the status of caregiver must be made precarious in order to solidify the boundaries of the “real” family by clarifying the specifications—to an almost paradoxical level—of who is included in this family, why, and why not. This non-role could ultimately be confusing to a child in the early stages of life—the figure that wears the mask of mother but does not speak in the same voice. Loyalty is professed to be given along avenues of blood ties, and never along paths that would fracture the family unit, within which the child is interpellated by being reminded daily of whom is excluded, and for which reasons—all of which are non-negotiable. Thus the caregiver’s position guarantees the reproduction of the family as an ideological apparatus that validates itself along the Us vs. Them opposition, holding ideas of security hostage for reasons esoteric to a child and parceling out these ideas like rewards for demonstrating loyalty, sacrifice, and deference to the family as a whole.

5.    

In The Twilight Zone episode “I Sing The Body Electric,” a widowed father purchases a robotic surrogate to act as a grandmother to his children. The two younger children embrace their new grandma, whereas the eldest child Anne fails to form a relationship with her. In one scene, the grandmother is hit by a car, but she remains unscathed. Anne witnesses this and the grandmother proceeds to play a recording of Anne calling the her “old junk.” Once Anne realizes that the robot surrogate is indestructible and therefore will not leave as their deceased mother had, she accepts the grandmother’s role in the family. The surrogate caregiver must confront that they are “junk” or a disturbing other—an interloper and an invader—to some members of the family while still performing their role in the family unit.

twilightzone

In this vocation, acceptance—let alone love—is a secondary dimension to the job and must be won, in this case through the performance of not only invincibility, but a promise of permanence and guaranteed dependability. In the industry of care, love stands as a viable commodity to be created, traded, and won between caregiver and the family for whom they work. However, not unlike her human caregiver counterparts, the job of the grandmother in “I Sing the Body Electric” is temporary. The duration of her service—as grandmother, no less, a universally revered family member—is figured as entirely dependent on the needs of the children. The symbol of Grandmother is reduced to nothing more than a product according to demand; her own promise of absolute permanence and immutability are required but never reciprocated. At the end of the episode, the children have moved on to college and the grandmother must leave to work for another family. Completely intact, completely at the will of a family and children, the caregiver must repeat the process of gaining trust and possibly a kind of provisional inclusion from the family members—it is a wholly conditional form of love that is structured around the circulation of capital, both material and emotional.

twilight 2

Our robot is also the perfect employee within a capitalist system not only because she is indestructible and reusable, but because she does not need to be paid. This episode, written by Ray Bradbury, provides the viewer with a speculative look at how care and love can be automated in capitalist society. Love, an emotion and relation which in its very form is free from mercantile transactions, takes on a new dimension in the relationship between caregiver and child. Like the grandmother in “I Sing The Body Electric,” love is presented as an asymmetrical relation that must be won and fought for on the one hand and unquestionably affected on the other. Love becomes a product as much as it is a symbol of the kernel of the laborer-boss relationship. This is where the caregiver stands out from the family: While the love between mother and child is dependent on the structures and limits of the family unit, the love between caregiver and child is necessarily a commodity dependent on the language of the market. This language is nothing other than a relation between the laborer and the boss to whom the laborer sells his or her time. Its semantic units are nothing more than images that affect the appearance of loyalty and love while nevertheless always being asterisked as suspicious. Our dear robot grandmother, despite the fact that the children under her charge will miss her deeply once she leaves, is merely a vessel for love and care; she is always-already a surrogate, an object unable to be fully implicated as a subject of genuine familial love by virtue of her role in the service industry from which she—as a desiring, living being—is inseparable. Laborers thus find their reduction to units of available labor-time affected by the same system that guarantees them the means to reproduce another working day, but no more. The caregiver’s desire is alienated in job performance to the extent that the images of love and belonging that constitute the workspace possess varying degrees of believability.

6.    

Babysitters occupy a divisive role in horror movies: they are always figured as fulfilling one of two opposite functions, while maintaining certain qualities that are fundamental to the essence of caregiving. Both intruder and protector, the babysitter is either a dispensable and vulnerable object of violence or a duplicitous villain. Simon West’s 2006 film When A Stranger Calls opens with a babysitter receiving multiple calls from a mysterious stranger before being murdered. The protagonist, Jill, is tormented by presumably the same stranger who murdered the babysitter in the beginning of the film while this babysitter is working for a wealthy family. Jill ends up saving the children from the dangerous stranger, yet is left injured and haunted by the traumatic encounter. In When a Stranger Calls, the caregiver is both the protective protagonist and an object always exposed to the very real possibility of violence; she occupies the role of both hero and bait; indeed, she is only heroic because of her status as bait and her (implicitly) inherent tendency to offer herself as the object of violence in her position of stylized maternity.

StrangerCalls

Similarly, babysitters are the primary victims of serial murderer Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. Untethered by the bonds that are believed to scaffold the symbolic body of the family, the caregiver serves as a necessary victim for Myer’s killings; her loss, absence, death, are assumed in advance because of her social instability. We can presume that because the caregiver is neither a child nor a mother, she occupies a different role in the home and therefore represents an easy victim to her killer. Her social death is authorized in advance because her existence is fundamentally disconnected from the constellations of grief associated with child murders or deaths in a family. For example, in Rob Zombie’s 2007 adaptation of the film Halloween, Michael Myers spares his mother and his baby sister, despite his brutal and seemingly random killings. However, as the film cuts to about a decade into the future, Myer’s sister becomes one of his victims when she herself is a babysitter. Once symbolically separate from a family unit, Myer’s sister transforms into a viable victim in our antagonist’s eyes.

The theme of the babysitter as a disposable or sacrificial victim is reversed in the 1992 psychological thriller The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, wherein a woman exploits her role as nanny in order to ruin the life of an innocent woman and steal her family. The nanny, under the alias Peyton Flanders, uses her access to the home and the children as leverage in her sabotage. Here, the caregiver is still separate from the family, an other, but rather than being an object of prey for a vicious murder, the nanny is an intruder into the home and a malicious entity. The nightmare of the other-as-threat is played out here, for the role of the nanny as murderer or “home wrecker” is a realization of the fears of a threat to the traditional nuclear family unit. Conservative political bodies in the USA often talk of preserving the traditional family unit, and this sort of discourse authorizes myriad opportunities of oppression and asymmetric power relations if played out on the plane of the Us vs. Them opposition. The caregiver, automatically separate from the familial body, could pose a threat to this precious order because the caregiver destabilizes the one rigid distinction between “Us” and “Them.” A horror film or thriller wherein the villain is the caregiver stands as the embodiment of these fears as well as a cathartic justification for the concession of power for some fabricated “greater good.” The fact that caregivers are generally female adds another dimension to this fear, as seen in the case of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, wherein the caregiver threatens to steal the husband of the woman that employs her, thus embodying societal fears of an unruly female sexuality that will disruptand how it is inextricably tied with fears of disrupting the family—or in this case, the fear of the other replacing a member of the family unit by revealing the instability of the rules upholding the Us vs. Them relation.

hand_that_rocks_the_cradle

Furthermore, whether our caregiver is predator or prey; the family remains the vulnerable entity and, as a unit, is always cast in the role of the victim. Despite her vulnerability, Jill’s threat to safety in When A Stranger Calls is foregrounded and posed as mere collateral damage in the larger question of saving the children of the wealthy family for whom she is employed. Similarly, the victims of Micheal Myers are dispensable as long as the nuclear family remains intact. As mentioned before, in the instances where our caregiver acts as predator, the family unit automatically receives the audience’s sympathy as a precious victim. This underlying fear of the destruction of the family unit, while, presumably considered a moral issue (undertaken by the likes of the American right, for example) is ultimately an issue for capital. Family means economic stability, the promise of inheritance and, in turn, more economic stability for the future. The caregiver must protect these nodes of future labor and consumption power. By protecting the children, the caregiver protects the family and their prospect of economic success.       

7.

 I am sitting with two fellow Au Pairs in Plaza España in Barcelona where I am employed. We speak about the kids we take care of, the families, and our living conditions then the conversation veers towards the horror stories of girls that have to clean the entire house or work on weekends. There are girls who perform almost all of the “motherly tasks,” girls that double as their host family’s maid, girls that must take care of a baby in addition to two children.

aupair-girl-costumes-250-250

There is one girl who is not only tasked with cleaning but has her metro rides monitored and limited. The girl is around seventeen. I lament her poor working conditions, to which another au pair replies, “She should have revised her contract.” This may seem like a plausible solution; however, as Slavoj Zizek mentions in his discussion of Marx’s theories on the contract between the capitalist and worker, “a formally ‘free’ contract can also rely on coercion and thus effectively function as a form of coercion…both participants are ‘constrained by their own free will’.” [2] The Au Pair contract is no different: both parties can be bound by different forms of coercion and varying manifestations of exploitation can exist within the contract itself. A contract is only deemed fair if it structures a clear idea of the specificities of a worker’s exploitation yet does not necessarily negate the possibilities for exploitation or violation. It did not surprise me when I learned that the vast majority of Au Pairs with unfair contracts were under the age of twenty-one, some of whom were younger than eighteen.

The microcosm of Au Pair work, billed as a cultural and language exchange, is just one of the many examples of how care workers can be exploited under capitalism. Provided with food and lodging, the Au Pair is awarded a few hundred in pocket money for the month. The work will vary from cooking for the whole family to walking the youngster to school. The pay, like most babysitting jobs is “under the table.” The work, like most caregiving jobs, is unprotected and does not provide health care or other benefits., Because of the desperate and individualized nature of the work, Au Pairs are unable to organize and form a proper workers union. The work is outlined by vague contracts that do not specify all the demands of the job. As demonstrated by Marx’s and Zizek’s rumination on contracts; a mere eighteen year old girl could be duped into an unfair Au Pair contract by a family looking to exploit the girl’s labor.

Coda        

Who is the caregiver and what role do they play in the family? Who is the caregiver and what role do they play in the structure of capital and the double shift of the working parent? Both familiar and other, predator and prey, family member and family employee the caregiver’s role is dispersed along several binaries at the same time that it destabilizes these binaries. Wearing the mask of mother and father, while unable to completely transform into these roles; contracted as a viable surrogate yet defined necessarily by their separation from the family unit; unable to love fully in a familial manner, yet contracted into generating love as a requirement: the caregiver’s role is considered skilled, yet the work itself is considered innate and natural to women, as are the social and cultural regions from which the caregiver is excluded, the minimized symbolic kernels to which the caregiver is reduced. A collection of mostly women from a variety of backgrounds are all drafted into the love and care industry, and all of them are produced as a welcome yet invasive species against the background of precarity in late capitalism, a mode of production which thrives off of their symbolic, affective, material labor—in short, their total reduction to units of cellularized labor time.

 

[1] Hauser, Brooke. “The Feminist Legacy of The Babysitters-Club.”  The New Yorker (New York, NY) 16 December 2016. Print.

[2] Zizek, Slavoj. “Sex, Contracts, and Manners.” The Philosophical Salon 22 January 2018. Web.

 

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