Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Working women working for women workers: Elaboration.

Now that April 1 is behind us, time to get back fully to serious business. My pre-April 1 post alluded to a theory/opinion about working women who employ women to work for them (see March 31 post). I have had several comments and requests to expand on the opinion/theory. It's not fully formed but laying it out here may help me do that better. This is based mainly on observation, plus some thinking about what I have seen and heard. What little I have read so far does not make me change my basic views.

For "working women" I make no distinction between those who leave the home to make a crust and those who stay at home to do that. I've seen plenty of both (albeit fewer of the latter). Here are my thoughts, and they revolve around various states, and causes, of guilt.

Part of the guilt is associated with childrearing. Many working women harbour serious guilt about not staying at home to look after their children. They are torn between the possible "sacrifice" of a career to rear children and the sense of obligation that comes from feeling that bearing children necessitates rearing them yourself. So they fight with "I need my career for [my self esteem], [to give me intellectual and financial independence], [to make worthwhile my years of study and training]", etc. Some of this guilt stems from a sense that domestic work is "low grade" and therefore beneath someone of a certain intellectual and social standing. Having decided to work, what then to do about rearing the children. (Some "modern families" agree that this can be done quite well by the father. I am not going into a debate about whether women are better than men at rearing children, except to say that each gender tends to have its ways of doing things and childrearing is not excluded from that. Most children benefit from having a healthy dose of rearing by both parents/caregivers.) Having decided to let another woman take on this task, the guilt can kick in particularly quickly because children bond with those who care for them, so we see the child being on "better terms" with the nanny than with either parent, so there is a struggle to regain that "love". (My experience is that children love their parents if the parents show them love, and have a different "love space" for someone like a nanny. Nevertheless, the primary caregiver will always get a special place, and if that caregiver is not the natural parent that's part of the cake you have to eat.) These feelings of guilt can get complicated when the employee has her own young children who are not being cared for by their mother while she is working caring for someone else's children.

Part of the guilt relates to that dirty word, "money". The going rate for a domestic employee tends to be at the lower end of pay scales. (This may not be true in places like Manhattan, where it appears that "nannies" can live a good life on the money and benefits they get from the absolutely rich who are lawyers, financiers, and media persons. If you visit Central Park, it's hard to figure out what's going on as a bevvy of nannies "supervise" groups of other people's children, and look and dress quite well, with many of those modern trappings on hand such as iPods, cell phones, which take up about the same amount of interest as looking after the children.) Therefore, although a working woman can say "I work so that I can pay someone to help me do other things", she feels constantly that what she pays is not enough. In cash terms, the wages are often not bad, and in material terms (boarding, food, entertainment, life style), there are often significant additions that if a monetary value were put on them would make the "wage" very good. There is often a natural discomfort with paying someone to do a task that you can do yourself, and if you think that you can do the task well you certainly can't justify paying a lot for someone else to do it.

Part of the guilt relates to inconvenience associated with dislocation. If the domestic helper is someone who has to travel daily or maybe just at weekends to leave or return home, the pay does not usually include transport costs separately so there can be additional guilt that comes from "using the little money I pay you to take taxi, [bus], [train]" or "the little money I pay you can't pay for transport and you have to walk..." Then there is the problem of how hard it is to get to and from the working neighbourhood if public transport is poor, working hours are long, the domestic's home neighbourhood is "dangerous", etc. The guilt associated with these aspects can be offset by providing transport (the family gets a second car for the helper) or always/often collecting and taking back the helper from/to her home. So, we can often fsee women falling down in suplication when in some districts (as one sees often in uptown neighbourhoods in Kingston, Jamaica) we see the daily "trek" of workers walking to and from their places of work. Meanwhile, many of their employers are driving to and from their places of work or leisure. Images of South Africa quickly become a part of the guilt: "We are no different from the whites employing blacks from Soweto..." etc. In the Caribbean, black people are only a short step away from guilt associated with behaviour that in some ways could hark back to treatment of slaves or as black people as inferior. This can mix with the next aspect.

There can be a racial component to the guilt. In the Caribbean we still have a strong tradition of employing domestic helpers on a regular basis. Most of us are of African origin and so are the helpers. Many people from poorer islands and countries in the region find work as domestics in richer islands. So, Jamaicans are popular domestic workers in places like The Bahamas; Guyanese can be found in places such as Barbados. If they could, such workers would probably prefer to head to north America or England doing similar work for more pay, better expected standard of living, but maybe with higher living costs. People from south east Asia, central America, and now from eastern and central Europe are popular as domestics in the US. If these people are employed from the local pool of immigrants they may be viewed differently within a household than if they were brought over for the work. Some women employers are much happier with their "own people". That can make sense where children are concerned and there are particular language and cultural skills that may need to be passed on that the working woman cannot help apply.

None of these "guilt feelings" are bad or inappropriate, in my mind. However, they create a very complicated set of dynamics in a household. What I have to think about and try to understand better is whether somewhere along the line there is a "pact", spoken or unspoken (certainly unwritten), between the woman employer and her female employee. This may involve accepted states of "resistance". In the latter case, that can show up with the employee not doing certain tasks, and by extension the employer not being freed of certain "chores". It can also show up in the form of the domestic helper "working to rule", such as dealing with work only within the stipulated work hours. It can also show up in the working woman "taking back" certain chores. There are many complexities, and I will let my brain, eyes and ears float around them a little more.


Jdid said...

I'll have to pay better attention to this in the future. I do agree with most of your points.

zanne said...

Dennis, you should try out some of your theories on a site called urbanbaby.com...it is a message board comprised of mainly upper middle class working mothers. It's anonymous so they won't have to know that you are a man ;)