Love, Money and Caregiving

This is a bit of a rambling post — I’ve got a bunch of ideas chasing each other around in my head, but can’t seem to make them line up into a nice argument today.

I’d like to start by picking up on something that Elise wrote in her comment on my post The Day Care Debate:

"Our day care providers are not at all strangers to us or to our daughter. She sees them every day and has grown to love them dearly. She smiles and jumps with joy when she sees them in the morning…"

I agree that it is offensive to describe sending a child to paid day care as "leaving them with a stranger."  Obviously, there’s not a built-in relationship from the start, but given time and a modicum of luck, a caring relationship will develop.  My husband is still in touch with the woman who was his nanny as a child, and we have taken our children to visit her.  In many ways, he uses her as a role model as he figures out how to care for them.

The whole question of the relationship between paid caregivers and their charges is a complicated one.  Society tends to sentimentalize unpaid caregiving, suggesting that it is superior precisely because it is unsoiled by a commercial transaction.  I think this is a mistake.  Parents frequently use unpaid (or poorly paid) relative and neighborhood caregivers not because they are especially loving or dedicated to the children, but because they’re affordable.

At the same time, parents using paid care have an incentive to overestimate the affectionate relationship between their caregiver and their child.  Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy provides a poignant description of the tensions of a caregiving relationship from an au pair’s point of view, and how she resents her employers’ attempts to cast her as a sort of younger sister, rather than an employee. 

When a transaction is purely economic, the rights and obligations of each side are clearly defined.  On the local parenting email list that I subscribe to, there is often discussion about expectations for a nanny: how much television viewing is allowed and what shows? how much housework is it reasonable to expect while the child is napping?  I always am somewhat bemused by these discussions, because I certainly don’t have this kind of control over the care provided by my husband.  I can and do share my opinions, but ultimately, he’s the one at home with the kids and I can’t micromanage him.

But even spelling all this detail out in a contract doesn’t protect against the uncertainty that creeps in when emotions get involved:  if your child loves her caregiver, are you really going to fire her because she was late for work all week because her car broke down? or because she turned on the Teletubbies all afternoon when she was having a bad day?  If so, what are you going to tell your kid?  The Nanny Diaries is a silly book, but makes a valid point that the same parents who insist that their nannies are part of the family can turn around and fire them at any time.

A while back Hugo Schwyzer wrote a post about dependency, in which he wrote:

"When I grow old and feeble, I hope to be cared for by those I love — up to a point. I would want them to visit me, but I don’t want some future child of mine helping me on and off the toilet."

I think a lot of people would agree with this.  But why is it embarassing for an adult child to help an elderly parent to use the toilet, but not for a parent to change a baby’s diaper?  Dependency is the natural state for infants, but is seen as a humilation for an adult.  So why is it less embarassing to be cared for by a paid caregiver than by a loved one?  The very fact that the caregiving is paid for gives the dependent adult a form of power that balances out some of the embarassment of needing help with a basic function.

One Response to “Love, Money and Caregiving”

  1. Anne Says:

    We have an au pair who has been with us for over a year. She will likely be with us through next September, when her visa extension expires. I regularly deal with balancing the relationship we have with her: she is both part of the family and an employee. When she went with us to a dinner show last week, I invited her because I thought she would enjoy it. She was extremely helpful with the kids so when payday came around, I paid her for those hours too. She protested, so I told her to treat it as just a tip for the week.
    I try not to micromanage her. I probably criticize her and order her around less than I criticize and order around my husband.
    It has turned out to be the best childcare situation we have ever arranged. We’ve used a daycare center, a family daycare, a regular old nanny (vs. au pair on the an pair visa), babysitters, full-day preschools…. I like this the best but it has been the most work from a relationship-building point of view. The kids do love her and she loves them; however, your statement that parents have an incentive to overestimate the affection in the paid caregiving relationship gives me something to think about.

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