Contracting out parenthood

"We need to pay and care for those who help us with our kids properly ... or we just become women who betray other women."

"We need to pay and care for those who help us with our kids properly ... or we just become women who betray other women." Photo: Getty

Before she wrote The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan wrote for Good Housekeeping magazine.  That’s a slight exaggeration it was only one article and it wasn’t an investigation into cleaning products. Called ‘Women are People, Too’ it revealed that while women of her generation were making the beds, chauffeuring the children and doing the shopping they were asking a silent question: ‘Is this all?’

So began her exploration of the argument that would become her feminist manifesto

Sixty years on and middle class women like Friedan don’t read Good Housekeeping anymore and we’ve contracted out much of the drudgery that consumed our grandmothers. I have a cleaner once a week, an occasional babysitter and refuse to iron (we wear a lot of non crushable clothes and always look a touch wrinkled).  

But in the city where Betty had her babies it’s got to the stage where mothers are contracting out a hell of a lot more. Here’s the latest in a series where we get to laugh at uptown New York women who are so ridiculously rich they can send their nannies to do a twice a year ‘safety patrol’, design sets for school plays, attend graduation ceremonies and even accompany kids to entrance interviews. 
It sounds preposterous. (As does the fact that preschool children even have entrance exams and interviews).

But it makes me think about how much of parenthood we do contract out and what we feel is sacrosanct.  When I first had a child it occurred to me that motherhood was a bizarre mix of drudgery and ecstasy.  Yet I do wonder how much the banalities of everyday life are building blocks for relationships with my children and which I should leave them for others. Then there’s the question of whether the contracting out is fair - I’ll get to that in a moment.

Of course it’s a personal decision and each of us will find our own answer according to career, income, wishes, needs, and circumstances.

I work around most school pick ups yet often wonder why I bother as I get the download of frustration and litany of injustice built up through the day.  A high-powered friend of mine with a fabulous full time nanny (who I also consider a friend) comes home to settled and happy kids; all homework done. But she doesn’t contract out everything.  She busts her gut to fit in school reading, attends every yearly class meeting (with her husband) and spends her entire weekend at the sports fields of her sons.    

If I could afford to contract out more I probably would.  But there are some things I couldn’t give up.  Being involved in a couple of things at school means I know the class dynamics, friendship groups and school gossip. One of the joys of parenthood is checking out the scene and one of the costs of community is showing up.   I wouldn’t and couldn’t contract out a graduation ceremony – these are the rituals of parenthood where we get the flutter of heart and lump in the throat.

Now to fairness.

I was shocked and confronted when a high profile woman recently told me she was considering campaigning to change the law so Australia could import ayahs.  Ayahs are the ‘maids’ of expats in countries like India and China. They allow parents to outsource all the boring duties to someone cheap as chips.  Importing these women into Australia would take the 457 visa debate to an entirely new level.

I had a cook and cleaner in India. I understand the attraction.  But I had far too much guilt to really enjoy it and the dinner parties where people bitched about their servants made me scream.  Having such a system here begs this question; does western women’s increase in independence and power come at the cost of another woman’s drudgery? As the middle class rise do they trap other women into jobs of servitude that are untrained, insecure, underpaid and offer little advancement?

Of course this is very different scenario to having a carer who is paid properly.  A huge chunk of my friend’s income goes to her nanny but it’s worth it for both of them.  The lawyer and the carer take great pride in their careers.  Some New York nannies make more than pediatricians – up to $180,000 a year plus (more if they can cook macrobiotic, speak French or groom a horse). But the average in New York is $10 an hour with few benefits. 

We need to pay and care for those who help us with our kids properly or we just become women who betray other women.

Betty Friedan called on women to stop silently asking ‘is this all?’ and search for self-fulfillment.  Yet she was not saying that women had to reject home and family to be complete. Only an individual can decide how much fulfillment there can be in doing the little things in life.  Yet we all need to ask another question aloud.  Is my contracting out a fair transaction?  I would argue a complete life contains enough humility to pick up after yourself and your kids to some degree.  And of course a good noisy debate with a partner about who does what in the home.  

28 comments

  • Great points, Sarah. I recall that a middle-aged New York nanny murdered two of the children in her care last year. While there is no excuse for this, it is interesting to note that she was living in abject poverty. Each day she would look after privileged children in their extravagant home, take them to activities her children were denied, then return, bone-tired, to her dingy flat.
    Nannies need to be respected, well-paid and cared for. Not just because your children will benefit. It is the just, humane thing to do.

    Commenter
    Bumblebee
    Date and time
    June 11, 2013, 9:18AM
    • We will have taken a great step towards women finding fulfillment when we stop publishing articles like this, making judgment on whether some things should be 'sacrosanct'. Let women (and men) choose for themselves how they want to live, and stop adding to the mother guilt. If you want to write an article on the treatment of nannies/maids, do so without adding to the question of what women should and shouldn't 'properly' be 'contracting out'.

      Commenter
      Reor
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 11, 2013, 9:41AM
      • With due respect, Sarah was not actually dictating what those sacrosanct things were, she was merely posing the question. It's a valid one and one that all modern parents need to nut out for themselves. Living ethically (ie/ not taking advantage of a 'caring class') is entirely relevant to this discussion.

        Commenter
        Msjane
        Date and time
        June 11, 2013, 10:12AM
      • So let me try and get this argument straight. If you stay in a hotel where a maid is paid a low wage are you exploiting the domestic labour class? If you eat in a restaurant where the dish washer is paid a low wage are you exploiting the hospitality labour class? If you are truly concerned about exploiting the gap between western women and other women, perhaps you should start in your closet. Who do you think sewed the fabulous designer dress you got on sale last month? Who do you think made your kids' shoes you want to pay less than $10 for at Target? Then, let's move on to your fridge, shall we. Any product (particularly produce) that is imported from a non-western country has likely been picked, packaged and processed by a woman earning meagre wages in what we would consider exploitive working conditions. This includes products from the US where underpaid, illegal immigrant labour is the backbone of portions of the economy (hospitality & agriculture). No longer hungry? Pick up your tablet and sit down on your sofa while your children watch a DVD on your flat screen tv. Any guess whose tiny hands assemble those products? Women and children. If you want to talk about how a western woman's lifestyle exploits other women and keeps them in lives of drudgery, let's do it properly.

        Commenter
        JenXFreeman
        Date and time
        June 11, 2013, 11:22AM
      • Great points JenXFreeman,
        The author says she has a cleaner once a week...and I am sure that he/she is paid a lowly wage, in cash, no sick pay/holiday pay/superannuation...this is no different to women who pay minimal wages to the after-school carers/nannies/babysitters....so, i don't get the point of this article.

        It would have been nice if the mothers who go to school to do reading groups, Maths groups. work in the canteen, etc. could be aknowledged. Why didnt the author mention that these parents, especially if you live in an area with a high percentage of non-English as a first language families (btw, there are pockets of these families on the North Shore) must do a lot of this work, just so that their own child gets some reading practise, whilst the teacher spends time doing things for other kids. I didnt do this to keep up with "school gossip". The mothers who are out working all day, they should be thanking the stay-home mothers, because they are the ones who are giving the working parents' cherubs a chance to fine-tune their reading skills and learn more about numbers by playing maths games!

        As for the friend who "busts her gut" to get to a once a year information evening...I would not call a once a year, one hour long , casual meeting in the class room at night worthy of the expression "busting her guts"...ditto, spending all weekend watching her sons play sport..truly! I suspect your house cleaner busts her guts to find the money to pay the sporting clubs annual registration fee for her children. A bit of perspective please.

        Commenter
        BlondeGal
        Location
        NorthShore for sure!
        Date and time
        June 11, 2013, 12:57PM
      • Interestingly, I have found the parents who complain loudly about having to race home from work 'busting her guts' to get to a once a year information evening, are only too happy to take the afternoon off work for a mothers lunch. Its all about priorities and the ability to put their childrens needs ahead of their own.

        Commenter
        Lulu
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        June 11, 2013, 4:24PM
    • The *Feminist* Mystique? Really? Poor effort.

      Commenter
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 11, 2013, 10:28AM
      • Like many things in life the more skills and knowledge you have the more you will be rewarded for it. The nannies who are pulling down $100k plus annual salaries probably have degrees in early childhood teaching, speak another language fluently etc. The nannies getting $10 an hour are probably more like glorified baby sitters, they are essentially there to keep an eye on the child but don't offer anything extra. If you want more money then you need to offer more to whoever is paying the bills.

        Commenter
        Hurrow
        Date and time
        June 11, 2013, 10:29AM
        • What utter nonsense is your assumption that nannies with no formal qualification are "glorified babysitters" who are "there to keep an eye on the kids but don't offer anything extra". If they are anything like other childcare workers in general, your assumption is rubbish!

          My child is being cared for in a centre which hires women who have no formal qualification in child care. These women are the backbone of the long daycare industry and work under limited supervision of other childcare workers who DO have qualifications. They are all highly engaged in their work and go out of their way to do a great job. While in their care, my child is not only kept safe but taught many wonderful things that she would not have learnt at home. Her father and I are constantly amazed by the things she learns from her carers. I can't put into words the confidence, belonging and community that my child has learnt from being with such "unqualified" care providers. They deserve a fair portion of the money we pay to the centre.

          They do a brilliant job - otherwise I wouldn't leave my child with them, qualification or no! I'm sure there are "rotten eggs" with little or no qualifications but there definitely also bad carers who have qualifications to their names.

          Apropos qualifications: Like many things in life, it's not the skills and knowledge you have that get you the extra rewards: it's your marketability. No, those are by no means one and the same thing. I have a PhD in chemistry, a BA and am fluent in a second language (with formal accredition as a translator) and as a research scientist, I'm not earning anywhere near a six-figure salary. That's not a whinge; I'm happy with my chosen field.

          Commenter
          Credit where
          Location
          credit's due
          Date and time
          June 11, 2013, 10:17PM
        • Hurrow, although I agree that paying more for a more qualified caregiver makes sense, $10 an hour is not enough even for a 'glorified babysitter'. When you employ a person, I personally believe that you must at least pay them a wage that does not require them to live pay cheque to pay cheque - or in poverty.
          I will also take this opportunity to point out that the average parent doesn't even meet your criteria for a caregiver worthy of a decent wage. Does that make them a worse parent than somebody who does? No. As an Early Childhood educator, would I necessarily be a better parent than somebody whose only experience with children is their own firstborn? No.
          I have worked with highly qualified and experienced people who are absolutely useless at their jobs and for some reason don't know how to complete the most basic tasks or comprehend simple logic, and I have worked with others who have little experience, no qualifications and are just fantastic at their jobs - and vice versa.

          Commenter
          Ames
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          June 12, 2013, 2:59AM

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