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

Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering, by Cameron Lynne Macdonald. University of California Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-520-26697-1.
http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520266971

By Susan Sapiro.

Shadow Mothers, by sociologist Cameron Lynne Macdonald (moderator of this blog), examines the complicated personal negotiations between employed mothers and the childcare providers who work in their homes. In this fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking study, Macdonald examines what it means to both mothers and childcare workers to be a “good mother” and what it means to outsource some of this role.

Macdonald’s study focused on the delegating of “motherwork” – the physical and emotional tasks involved in caring for children. Since a large part of motherwork are these emotional tasks – soothing, stimulating, forging strong bonds – outsourcing these tasks can be controversial and challenge “the fundamental understandings of motherhood” (10) and the idea of the self-sufficient nuclear family. Macdonald studied in-home childcare as it would demonstrate how mothers dealt with childcare services directly with the provider, as opposed to being mediated through a center and multiple caregivers. At home, a mother supposedly has more control over the quality of the care, and “how she selects and manages in-home care reflects what does and does not matter to her as a mother” (11).

The original research for Macdonald’s study took place at cultural moment when the American media was focused on social anxieties about women’s’ roles, women’s work outside the home, and childcare. The Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood scandals over undocumented immigrants they employed as nannies, the Louise Woodward case (the British au pair who was charged with the death of the baby in her care), and the resulting media frenzy displayed Americans’ ambivalence about employed mothers and non-maternal childcare.

One of the inspirations for Macdonald’s book comes from a personal caregiving experience. When she was 16, she was a summer babysitter/mother’s helper for a family. She had worked with the family for some time and had grown close to their children, especially the baby. One day, something happened that upset the baby and she reached for Macdonald for comfort, not her mother. Almost immediately, Macdonald was “frozen out” by the mother. Shortly after, the family paid her for the summer but let her go from the job. It wasn’t until many years later, as she started the research that became Shadow Mothers, that she understood the mother’s reaction and the complex emotions and relationships between mothers and their children’s caregivers.

The research is based on data that Macdonald collected in the late 1990s, based on interviews with 30 mothers who employed caregivers and 50 caregivers. Most of the mothers (called “mother-employers” in the book) were in high status professional jobs, had children under school age, and two thirds were white. The childcare providers were a mix of au pairs (some European), U.S. born nannies, and immigrant caregivers. They worked between 30-70 hours per week, and earned between $100-300 per week (live-in) and $80-$500 per week (live-out).

The book has four thematic sections: a) the cultural and structural restrictions that influence the mother-caregiver relationship; b) how the mother-employers try to solve the contradictions between the conflicting “ideal mother” and “ideal worker” ideologies in their lives; c) the caregivers’ perspectives on their employers’ mother and management strategies; and d) alternative and more egalitarian mother-caregiver interactions. Each chapter begins with a prelude, which presents observations and excerpts of interviews with a mother-employer and a caregiver, or a linked pair of mothers and the nannies they employ. These stories relate to the relevant theme of the chapter and give voice to the hopes and anxieties of two types of women, both of whom are caught between jobs that they are devoted to, and children they love.

Macdonald notes that with the increase in the number of women in the paid workforce, the cultural expectations around childrearing and mothering in particular (cf. the work of Sharon Hays and Judith Warner, among others) have become more rigid and extreme. Professional-managerial class women are highly influenced by the ideology of “intensive mothering,” the expectation that mothers are solely responsible for the social, emotional, educational, and ultimately professional development of their children. The professional mothers Macdonald interviewed were highly successful in male-dominant fields. Yet even after having children they were put in the impossible position of having to be completely career-focused. At the same time, the mother-employers held themselves to similarly high standards as mothers, insisting that they should be utterly child-focused. The women expressed the resulting tension from these competing expectations in both ambivalence about their careers, and in how they managed their relationships with their caregivers. The caregivers Macdonald interviewed were skilled workers who were frustrated that their jobs were seen by their employers, and society in general, as “unskilled,” “natural” family work. Macdonald relates a number of situations in which, because of the strong relational component of their work, the caregivers’ often seemed to place their young charges’ needs, and their own desire for recognition of their role, over their own financial needs.
Macdonald analyzes how the mother-employers chose a caregiver, a “shadow mother” to act in their place when they can’t be present. These choices often involved ethnic and/or national stereotypes (e.g. “nurturing“Caribbean women, white, “fresh-faced” Midwestern farm girls, too-worldly British au pairs). Once the mother-employers chose the nannies, they used different types of monitoring and management strategies, which Macdonald labels either “puppeteer” or “paranormal.” Some mother-employers were “puppeteer managers” who had detailed written schedules and definitive opinions on how caregivers should interact with their children in order to mimic the mother’s own communication and parenting style. Mothers who were “paranormal managers” felt that they had hired a caregiver who would intuitively act as the child’s mother would. This type of mother-employer didn’t consider their nannies’ unique relationship with their child, and they seemed to believe that that their caregivers were infinitely moldable, flexible, and ultimately, interchangeable. Mother-employers also revealed to Macdonald that in order to shore up their self-concepts as mothers and preserve their primary relationship with their children, they expected their trusted caregivers to “fade away” at the end of the workday, once the mothers returned home.

Not surprisingly, the paid caregivers often had strong reactions to their employers’ management strategies. Nannies also believe in a different version of “good motherhood” which was often critical of their empolyers’ lives and mothering techniques. In Macdonald’s interviews with nannies, they often yearned to be seen as a “third parent” in the family, a recognition the mother-employers were reluctant to give. In response, the caregivers used different strategies to either resist or succumb to their employers’ limits on their roles.

In the final section of the book, Macdonald describes a second phase of research that revealed a more positive and balanced (if not egalitarian) mother-employer/caregiver relationship. These “partnerships” most often occurred between caregivers employed by mothers who worked part-time or had flexible work arrangements and more equal childrearing responsibilities with their spouses. These mothers also specifically acknowledged how much the paid caregivers helped their families. In welcoming the influence of other adult caring figures into their children’s lives, they disputed the ideology of intensive mothering.

In the final chapter, Macdonald calls for campaigns to socially and economically re-value carework. She calls on carework advocates to describe both the skill and emotional care inherent in their work as worthy of fair pay and societal recognition. Macdonald also argues that class issues also need to be addressed in order to reduce the tension between middle-class mother-employers and their working-class nannies. Class transmission was the basis of most of the conflicts between the mother-employers and nannies. Mother-employers need to resist the ideology of “intensive motherhood”, the idea that they alone are responsible for their children’s emotional, social, and class-based cultural development. As long as upper middle-class mothers continue to hire working-class caregivers, the mothers will need to accept that their children will be influenced by the class-based values of their caregivers, not only of their families’.

I found Macdonald’s book enlightening and depressing at the same time. The book is unique in that it focuses on the experiences of both mothers and childcare workers and their linked relationships. Yet the gendered nature of its premise troubled me and reminded me how much further we have to go to de-gender carework. Nannies, au pairs, and other types of childcare workers are hired to replace mothers, not fathers. No one criticizes a “working father” for having someone who isn’t his children’s mother take care of them. It’s only employed mothers who are condemned and censured, and their children scrutinized for any negative effects of non-maternal (not non-parental) care. As a parent who has used center-based childcare, Shadow Mothers re-affirmed for me what I knew I would find emotionally difficult about in-home care, despite its conveniences. While it was sometimes painful to read what the caregivers thought about their mother-employers (especially when I realized that my children’s daycare providers might feel the same way), it’s made me more aware of my quick judgments of both sides of the relationship. When I hear my friends complain about their nannies, I now realize that they may be ambivalent about their roles as employers. When I see nannies chatting in the playground and reprimanding the children in their care, I remember that social support and recognition is essential for caregivers of young children.

I appreciated Macdonald’s observations of how the nannies interacted with the children in their care, and the small details she noticed, such as that virtually all of the families had no photographs displayed of their children with the caregivers. The only thing I found missing in this very detailed study is an ethnographic account of the interaction between mothers and caregivers. The voices of both “sides” come out strongly in the quotes from the interviews, but it would have added an even richer layer of nuance if Macdonald would have recorded her observations of how the mother-employers and caregivers related directly to each other and to the children. It would have obviously been a challenge to find a time that both women would be present and interacting, especially since when the mother-employers returned home from work, they wanted their caregivers to “disappear”. I wonder if some more observations would have helped with the delicate issue of conflicting accounts among mother-employers and caregivers, such as one mother-employer claiming that their nanny cooked and ate with the family, while the nanny stated that she always ate alone, and was never invited to eat with the family.

This book would be a welcome addition to courses on carework, mothering, the sociology of labor and sociology of gender. I would also recommend this book to anyone who is negotiating a relationship with a paid caregiver.

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4 Comments on “Book Review – Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering”

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  4. […] Cameron Macdonald, author of Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs and the Micropolitics of Mothering,documented that foreign nannies were more shabbily treated than the legal ones in the US. By not treating a […]


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