"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.