Courtesy of Elizabeth Cummins Munoz
When Elizabeth Cummins Muñoz had her oldest son in 2000, she began spending a lot of time on the playground. There were many other children in this playground, in Houston, where Muñoz lived, but many of them were not there with her parents. They were there with their nannies.
Munoz got to talking to those nannies about their lives, their jobs and how they ended up in Texas. They were all women, and most of them were immigrants. Those conversations formed the initial basis for 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 interviewing Mexican and Central American women who came to Houston to be caregivers in private homes. Arriving in Texas, many of those women were forced to leave behind their own families, their own children.
mother coin examines the unique position immigrant nannies embody, the power dynamics they navigate, and the consequences of undervaluing a workforce on which the rest of the country fundamentally depends. Muñoz writes: “When love is elevated and work is compensated, paid motherhood becomes a complicated proposition.” So, she finally asks: What is a mother worth?
I spoke with Muñoz about his new book, at a time when many are thinking more critically about caregiving 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 social values?
Unpaid work is feminized in the US because it’s about value, really, which is sort of the central theme of the book. All of this stems from the 19th century cult of domesticity and the idea that the home is a kind of refuge from the heartless world. There’s this really strict modern dichotomy between private and public, where private is this feminized world of emotion and morality, and public is this masculine transactional world of money and power.
And the falsity of that division is very clear. The babysitter carries it on her back when she walks into your house. She is there to do the work that has been coded as female Y not economical Y disinterested and a labour of love to provide materially for his own family. And actually I think we’ve worked very hard not to change our language to reflect that. Because if we did, we would have to face it. If we call our babysitter or housekeeper employee, we should think about labor laws. We would have to think about Social Security. We would have to think what are the responsibilities of an employer towards his employee. if we call diapering Y make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches “productive work”, we would have to count that in GDP. We should take this into account when developing a social policy around work and childcare and paid parental leave. It requires a total restructuring of the way our society fulfills its responsibility to reproduce.
So instead we look for “help”. I’m the mom, but I really can’t do it all by myself. So I’m going to look for a little “help”. But what happens when you ask the to help how are they doing it? Its not cute. It has truly devastating consequences for his children and for our children who see it happen, so that the children in the home see these inequalities reproduced and are silenced when they try to name it.
One of the people you interview is a woman from El Salvador named Sara. Can you tell me a little about her?
Sara, I met her in the park and I really wanted to talk. She is from a very poor town in El Salvador – rural area, no running water, no electricity. From the time she was about seven years old until she was fourteen, her parents were in 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 entire trajectory of her family, both as a family and as individuals, regarding that choice to migrate.
His story is unique, but also shared in many ways by many others. So when she was fourteen, she immigrated and started making a living here in Houston, working with his mom, cleaning houses, not going to school. At fifteen he married, after her fifteenth birthday, a man ten years older than her. And when I met her, I think she was twenty-two years old, 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 that, in many ways, as an experience similar to what she and her sisters went through as children. One of her two younger sisters is very resentful of her mother for leaving. This sister takes care of Sara’s young son while Sara works. And the little girl, when I talked to her, she had really started to express a lot of anger and a lot of resentment for she mother’s absence. At the same time, their mother’s job had bought them a house, shoes, and books, and their mother’s choice to be here was offering them opportunities they would not have had.
It’s interesting, as you said, these are women who, like their mothers, have to leave their countries and, in many cases, their children behind in order to provide their families with a better life. And babysitting becomes a way of doing it. Tell us a bit more about how you saw family roles take on new meanings.
It’s hard to know where to start, and I tend to opt for academics and research. But I feel like it might be more compelling to think in terms of stories. And I will actually call a different woman than the one I call Pati, because I think her story happens in the heart of the spaces that you mention. 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 that isn’t yours.
Tell me about Patty.
Pati is also from El Salvador. When she was five years old, her father left the family. Her mother tried for about a year to work and live at home, but she couldn’t find the job she needed to support a family of four children. She so she went north and left the children.
And Pati describes many feelings similar to Sara’s. I think she was nineteen when she decided to migrate north. When she was reunited with her mother, she describes how difficult it was to say “I love you” and hug her. And it was this really emotionally important thing for her, of, Why can’t I tell my mom that I love her? Why can’t she tell me that 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 mom is driving Pati to work, and on the way they are dropping off the youngest son of the family for whom the mother has worked, at the time, for about 15 years. As her mother drives to the teen’s school, he jumps out of the car and walks up to her and hugs her and Pati’s mother says, “Bye, have a nice day, I love you.” The easiest thing in the world.
When Pati tells me this, she just breaks down.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild talks about something she calls “a global heart transplant.” In essence, it’s this reality that when you provide direct care, when you care for a physical person, day in and day out, there’s a bond. And what that means is that when you’re not take care of someone day after day, as much as you love him, no matter how committed you are to him, that bond does not happen.
What Pati saw that morning was evidence that this transplant had occurred. She was dealing with all these mixed emotions where she respected and loved her mother, and understood her decision to leave El Salvador, but missed her terribly and was confused by the fact that they had not created a relationship that allowed them to embrace each other. and kiss so easily. It was also complicated by the fact that, by the time Pati tells me the story, she herself had absolutely fallen in love with the children. she take care of something So she knows what her mother was experiencing all that time.
How can nannies be hired responsibly and ethically? Or, how do we treat them fairly so that the work they depend on continues to sustain them?
Caregivers are supporting, in many cases, the extended family at home, and their agency in their personal lives changes because of that. That is important to recognize and important to think about. So when we look inside this industry and uncover this nest of problems, we’re really exposing these unsustainable systems around immigration, parenting, and childcare. And at the end of the day, it often comes down to one woman employing another woman in close proximity, having that relationship with each other and trying to negotiate that power difference. So what can we do?
There is much we can do 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 much we can do to shore up the broken systems that create the need, particularly when it comes to paternity leave and childcare. But what can these two women do? I think, treat each other with dignity. Treat work as employment. Acknowledge your role as an employer, rather than a consumer.
Beyond that, I’m a big advocate of listening. I was recently asked, 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 given it a lot of thought. You need the job and you need the salary. Beyond that, what can we do to make this a sustainable work environment for her? Which, in turn, will give you – the employer – the support she needs. Many levels, but in that really intimate space of relationship, I think it all starts with asking and listening.