When Elizabeth Cummins Muñoz had her eldest son in 2000, she started spending a lot of time at the playground. There were a lot of other kids in that playground in Houston where Muñoz lived, but a lot of them weren’t there with their parents. They were there with their nannies.
Muñoz spoke to these nannies – about their lives, their work, and how they ended up in Texas. They were all women, and most immigrants. These conversations formed the first basis of Muñoz’s new book Mothercoin: the stories of immigrant nannies. The book, which came out this month, is the result of more than a decade of interviewing Mexican and Central American women who have come to Houston to be caregivers in private homes. Coming to Texas, many of these women were forced to leave behind their own families – their own children.
parent currency examines the unique position that immigrant nannies embody, the power dynamics in which they operate, and the consequences of undervaluing a workforce upon which the rest of the country so fundamentally depends. Muñoz writes, “When love is high and work is paid, paid mothering becomes a complicated proposition.” So she finally asks: What is a mother worth?
I spoke to Muñoz about his new book, at a time when many are thinking more critically about care and how much we depend on it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
something we talk about a lot Code switch are the implications of language. There is the idea of ”women’s work” and “help”. What does the way we talk about these concepts say about our societal values?
Unpaid work is feminized in the United States because it has to do with value, really, which is sort of the central theme of the book. It all sort of comes from the 19th century cult of domesticity and the idea that the home is a sort of refuge from the heartless world. There’s this very strict modern dichotomy between the private and the public, where the private is this feminized world of emotion and morality, and the public is this masculine transactional world of money and power.
And the fallacy of this division is so clear. The nanny carries it on her back when she enters your home. She’s there to do the work that’s been coded as feminine and uneconomical and disinterested and one labor of love to provide materially for the needs of his own family. And I actually think we’ve worked really hard not to change our language to reflect that. Because if we did, we would have to face it. If we called the nanny or the governess our employee, we should think about labor law. You should think about Social Security. Consideration should be given to what an employer’s responsibilities are to his employee. If we called diaper change and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches “productive work” should be included in GDP. We will have to take this into account when we develop social policy around work and childcare and paid parental leave. This requires a fundamental restructuring of the way our society fulfills its responsibility to reproduce itself.
So instead we are looking for “help”. I’m the mom, but I can’t really do it alone. So I’m just going to ask for a little “help”. But what happens when you ask the to help how do they do it? It’s not pretty. This has truly devastating consequences for their children and for our children who watch this happen – so that the children at home see these inequalities happening again and are silenced when they try to name them.
One of the people you interview is a woman from El Salvador named Sara. Can you tell me a bit about her?
Sara, whom I met in the park and she really wanted to talk. She comes from a very poor town in El Salvador – a rural area, without running water, without electricity. From the age of about seven until the age of fourteen, her parents had gone to the United States, working and sending money home. And she really felt that absence. She was the oldest. She had two sisters. She understands the whole trajectory of her family, both as a family and as individuals, in terms of this choice to migrate.
His story is unique, but also shared in many ways by many others. So when she was fourteen, she emigrated and started making a living here in Houston, working with her mother, cleaning houses, without going to school. At fifteen, she married, after her quinceañera, a man ten years her senior. And when I met her – I think she was twenty-two – she had two children of her own. And she really struggled with her experience as a working mother, working long hours for very little pay and being away from her children.
And she understands all of this, in many ways, as a similar experience to what she and her sisters had as children. One of her two younger sisters is very angry with their mother for her departure. This sister takes care of Sara’s young child while Sara works. And the young child, when I spoke with her, had started to express a lot of anger and a lot of resentment towards his the absence of the mother. At the same time, her mother’s job had bought them a house, shoes, and books, and her mother’s choice to be here gave them opportunities they wouldn’t have had.
It’s interesting – as you said, these are women who, like their mothers, have to leave their country and often their children to provide a better life for their families. And nannying becomes a way for them to do that. Tell us a bit more about how you’ve seen family roles take on new meanings.
It’s hard to know where to start, and I tend to favor academics and research. But I feel like it might be more compelling to think in terms of stories. And I’m actually going to bring in another woman who I call Pati, because I think her story takes place a bit in the heart of the spaces you’re talking about. Because it’s not just about what it means to be a daughter or a mother when you’re separated, it’s also about what it means to be a full-time caregiver for a child who doesn’t. is not yours.
Tell me about Paty.
Pati is also originally from El Salvador. When she was five, her father abandoned the family. Her mother tried for about a year to work and live at home, but just couldn’t find the job she needed to support a family of four children. So she went north and left the children behind.
And Pati describes a lot of similar feelings to Sara. I think she was nineteen when she chose to migrate north. When she reunited with her mother, she describes how difficult it was to say “I love you” to her and give her a hug. And it was this really important thing for her, to, Why can’t I tell my mother that I love her? Why can’t she tell me she loves me?
Shortly after Pati arrived in the United States, her mother helped her find a job as a nanny. At this point, Pati’s mother drives Pati to work, and on the way they drop off the youngest son in the family for whom the mother has worked, by then for about 15 years. When his mother drives to the teenager’s school, he jumps out of the car and reaches out and hugs her and Pati’s mother says, “Goodbye, have a nice day, I love you. ” The easiest thing in the world.
When Pati tells me that, she collapses.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild talks about what she calls “a global heart transplant”. At its core, it’s this reality that when you’re providing direct care – when you’re caring for a physical person, day in and day out – there’s a bond that’s created. And what that means is that when you’re do not caring for someone day in and day out, as much as you love them – as committed as you are – that bond doesn’t happen.
What Pati saw that morning was proof that this transplant had taken place. She was dealing with all these confusing emotions where she respected and loved her mother, and understood her decision to leave El Salvador, but she missed her terribly and was confused that they had not created a relationship that would allow them to kiss and kiss so easily. It was also complicated by the fact that by the time Pati was telling me the story, she herself had absolutely fallen in love with the kids. she take care of. So she knows what her mother has been through all this time.
How to recruit nannies responsibly and ethically? Or, how do we treat them fairly so that the jobs they depend on continue to support them?
Social workers, in many cases, support the extended family back home, and their agency in their personal lives changes because of this. It is important to recognize and important to think about. So when we look inside this industry and find this nest of problems, we are really exposing these unsustainable systems around immigration, parenting and child care. And at the end of the day, it often comes down to a woman employing another woman nearby, having that relationship with each other, and trying to negotiate that power differential. So what can we do?
We can do a lot to regulate the industry and educate employers and others about the labor laws that apply to these situations, whether someone is documented or not. And there is a lot we can do to shore up the broken systems that create the need, especially when it comes to parental leave and childcare. But what can these two women do? I think, treat each other with dignity. Think of work as a job. Recognize your role as an employer rather than a consumer.
Beyond that, I’m a big advocate for listening. I was asked recently, how can an employer support a nanny with children who is a working mother? And one of the immediate answers that comes to mind is, well, you can ask her what she needs, because chances are she’s been thinking a lot about it. She needs the job and she needs the salary. Beyond that, what can we do to make it a sustainable working environment for her? Which, at the same time, will give you, the employer, the support you need. So many levels, but in this really intimate relationship space, I think it all starts with asking and listening.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.