Recently the NY Times ran a book review of, “Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home,” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/03/books/review-womens-work-megan-stack.html) — a memoir written by Megan Stack, a young mother, and her “meditations” on hiring help after giving birth to her first child. Her recounting of this experience put me in mind of older adults and their employ of home care aides. It especially put me in mind of my mother’s relationship to several of her home care aides .
The writer, the young mother, had “outsourced” her domestic work to 3 different nannies. Though she had little in common with the women she employed, she writes, “they were important to me, primarily because they made me free” in order that she pursue her career. This young mother becomes privy to the private lives of virtual strangers, developing an increasingly intimate relationship, and as the reviewer explains, “Whatever boundaries she may have tried to erect between herself and the women in her employ began to dissolve as she learned what it meant to have a home that was also…a job site.”
The similarities between a young family in need of child care arrangements and an older adult in need of caregiving are striking. The profound difference, however, is that a young mother has hired care for her own benefit, perhaps for her active and demanding work life or for her leisure. Essentially, the “rented” care maintains her independence. But an older person’s independence, in fact, is being jeopardized, or at minimum providing a substitute for actions he or she can no longer perform. Nevertheless, the idea that an older adult’s care is being “outsourced” to relative strangers and with whom she has little in common, embodies a similar discomfort.
The young mother’s guilt is evoked as she recognizes the ironic sacrifice her nannies have made when they leave their own children behind in care of grandparents. She calls this the “rightful allotment of nurturing care [that had been] rented.” So too do the cadre of home care aides who have left their own mothers or sons in Haiti or Jamaica or Ghana or Cameroon.
My mother, a naturally inquisitive person, can’t help herself feel pulled into the lives of the people with whom she has hired to care for her increasing needs. In my mother’s attempts to navigate the boundaries between home and job site, it is her empathy and sensitivity to others, her sense of social justice and fairness in the workplace that she has often demurred herself and her needs to the needs and comforts of her aides. Perhaps for both young and old, the ambivalence they feel and their sense that “I could or should be doing this myself” is at play: the young mother feels it should be her responsibility to care for her own child and the older person wants desperately to take care of herself.
What kind of relationship should one have with those on whom we rely for essential and intimate needs? It is a most delicate balance because for both young and old it is quite often a necessity. Would it ease our conscience if aides were paid an equitable wage? Would we feel differently if the women were not so different from us and our first world experience? How much do we feel guilty for not doing it ourselves or relying on our extended family and kin network?
Ultimately, we must ask, when we invite someone into our home to be in service to our own needs, how best do we convey and offer respect and yet be in a position of authority?