Like a Mother: Paid “Mother-work” Performed in Private Spaces

  • Amy Mullin


Some forms of paid child care, particularly those involving family daycare workers, foster parents, and nannies, are often conceived of by employers and providers alike as “mother-like.” In this chapter, I analyze associations between mothering and some forms of paid child care. I discuss how expectations that care be mother-like impact on employers, child care providers, and children, and examine what they reveal about associations between mother-work1 in general, whether paid, partially paid, or unpaid,2 and privacy of various kinds, including private domestic spaces. Since government subsidies for child care are woefully inadequate, in most cases the parents who choose paid child care are middle-class. I limit my claims to mother-work performed in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.


Child Care Foster Parent Domestic Worker Emotional Labor Private Space 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    I use the term “mother-work” to acknowledge societal expectations that mothers perform the bulk of child care and the reality that women do so. This is similar to Sara Ruddick and Virginia Held who speak about the work of maternal thinkers and mothering persons, respectively, while acknowledging that male parents can and should do this work, and that it can be performed by people outside of the family as well. Sara Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking,” in Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, ed. Joyce Trebilcot (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983), 225;Google Scholar
  2. Virginia Held, Feminist Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 198.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sharon Hays, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Patrice DiQuinzio, The Impossibility of Motherhood: Feminism, Individualism, and the Problem of Mothering (New York: Routledge, 1999), 10.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    David Archard, Children: Rights and Childhood (London: Routledge, 1993).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Colin Macleod observes that most liberal understandings of parental autonomy presuppose that the parents share values, and that there are no serious conflicts between the parents that might cause one parent to scrutinize the care provided by the other. See Colin Macleod, “Liberal Equality and the Affective Family,” in The Moral and Political Status of Children, ed. David Archard and Colin M. Macleod (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Including Susan B. Boyd, “Challenging the Public/Private Divide: An Overview,” in Challenging the Public/Private Divide: Feminism, Law and Public Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997);Google Scholar
  8. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981);Google Scholar
  9. and Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    According to sociologist Lynet Uttal, microideologies manage tensions between ideologies and an aspect of one’s lived experience (Lynet Uttal, “Custodial Care, Surrogate Care, and Coordinated Care: Employed Mothers and the Meaning of Child care,” Gender and Society 10, no. 3 (1996), 291–311).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 9.
    Evidence for it has come in many different forms: sociological studies of parenthood (Lynet Uttal, Making Care Work: Employed Mothers in the New Childcare Market (London: Rutgers University Press, 2002)); investigation of public policies around child careGoogle Scholar
  12. (including the work of Mary Tuominen, “Exploitation of Opportunity? The Contradictions of Child-Care Policy in the Contemporary United States,” Women & Politics 18, no. 1 (1997), 53–80);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. studies of the experiences of paid child care workers and their employers (Mahnaz Kousha, “African American Private Household Workers, White Employers and their Children,” International Journal of Sociology and the Family 25, no. 2 (1995), 67–89;Google Scholar
  14. Cameron L. Macdonald, “Manufacturing Motherhood: The Shadow Work of Nannies and Au Pairs,” Qualitative Sociology 21, no. 1 (1998), 25–53;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Baukje Miedema, Mothering for the State: The Paradox of Fostering (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood, 1999);Google Scholar
  16. Susan B. Murray, “Child care Work: Intimacy in the Shadows of Family Life,” Qualitative Sociology 21, no. 2 (1998), 149–168;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Margaret K. Nelson, “Mothering Others’ Children: The Experiences of Family Day care Providers,” in Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives, ed. Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990);Google Scholar
  18. Sherry Saggers and Jan Grant, “I Love Children, and Four-Pence a Week is Four-Pence! Contradictions of Caring in Family Day care,” Journal of Family Studies 5, no. 1 (1999), 69–83; Uttal, “Custodial Care”) and analysis of representations of mothers in literature and mass mediaCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. (Marie Ashe, “The ‘Bad’ Mother in Law and Literature,” Hastings Law Journal 43 (1992), 1017–1037;Google Scholar
  20. Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, eds., Representations of Motherhood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994);Google Scholar
  21. Jillian Duquaine-Watson, “All You Need is Love: Representations of Maternal Emotion in Working Mother Magazine, 1995–1999,” Journal of the Association for Research in Mothering 5, no. 1 (2003), 91–103).Google Scholar
  22. 10.
    Alison Bailey, “Mothering, Diversity, and Peace Politics,” Hypatia 9, no. 2 (1994), 188–198;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2000);Google Scholar
  24. Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  25. 11.
    Tracey Reynolds, “Black Mothering, Paid Work and Identity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24, no. 6 (2001), 1046–1064.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 12.
    Denise A. Segura, “Working at Motherhood: Chicana and Mexicana Immigrant Mothers and Employment,” in Mothering: Ideology, Experience and Agency, ed. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey (New York: Routledge, 1994).Google Scholar
  27. 14.
    U.S. Department of Labor, Facts of Working Women, no. 98–1 (Washington, DC: G.P.O, 1997).Google Scholar
  28. 15.
    Macdonald and Merrill urge that paid child care workers need not only institutional recognition as defined by Nancy Fraser, and redistribution of income, but also interpersonal recognition from their employers and the children in their care. See Cameron Lynne Macdonald and David A. Merrill, “It Shouldn’t Have to be a Trade: Recognition and Redistribution in Care Work Advocacy,” Hypatia 17, no. 2 (2002), 67–83 andGoogle Scholar
  29. Nancy Fraser, “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation,” Tanner Lectures on Human Values 19 (1998), 1–67.Google Scholar
  30. 16.
    Arlie Hochschild introduces the concept of emotional labor which can involve both being expected to have certain emotional responses as part of one’s working life and being expected to manufacture or moderate the display of emotions. See Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983). Nelson, “Mothering Others’ Children”; Kousha, “African American”; and Murray, “Child care Work” document some of the emotional demands placed on children’s caregivers.Google Scholar
  31. 19.
    Susan Donath, “The Other Economy: A Suggestion for a Distinctively Feminist Economy,” Feminist Economics 6, no. 1 (2000), 115–123;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Nancy Folbre, “Holding Hands at Midnight? The Paradox of Caring Labor,” Feminist Economics 1, no. 1 (1995), 73–92;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Julie A. Nelson, “Of Markets and Martyrs: Is It Okay to Pay Well For Care?” Feminist Economics 5, no. 3 (1999), 43–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 22.
    Virginia Held, “Care and the Extension of Markets,” Hypatia 17, no. 2 (2002), 19–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 25.
    Saggers and Grant, “I love children”; Andrea Petrie and Judith Burton, “Empowerment and Entrapment: Women Workers in Home-Based and Center-Based Settings,” in Landscapes in Early Childhood Education, ed. Jacqueline Hayden (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 205–218.Google Scholar
  36. 27.
    Madeleine Leonard, “Old Wine in New Bottles? Women Working Inside and Outside the Household,” Women’s Studies International Forum 24, no. 1 (2001), 67–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 28.
    Bentham’s panopticon is used by Foucault as a model of modern disciplinary power (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979), 200).Google Scholar
  38. 29.
    Abigail B. Bakan and Daiva K. Stasiulis, “Making the Match: Domestic Placement Agencies and the Racialization of Women’s Household Work,” Signs 20, no. 2 (1995), 325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 30.
    Mary Tuominen and Lynet Uttal, “Tenuous Relationships: Exploitation, emotion, and racial ethnic significance in paid child care work,” Gender and Society 13, no. 6 (1999), 775.Google Scholar
  40. 31.
    Geraldine Pratt, “Stereotypes and Ambivalence: The Construction of Domestic Workers in Vancouver,” Gender, Place and Culture 4, no. 2 (1997), 159–177;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Shellee Colen, “Like a Mother to Them: Stratified Reproduction and West Indian Childcare Workers and Employers in New York,” in Conceiving the New World Order, ed. Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  42. 33.
    Julia Wrigley, Other People’s Children (New York: Basic Books, 1995).Google Scholar
  43. 34.
    Patricia Hill Collins, “Like One of the Family: Race, Ethnicity, and the Paradox of U.S. National Identity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24, no. 1 (2001), 3–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 35.
    Joan Tronto, “The ‘Nanny’ Question in Feminism,” Hypatia 17, no. 2 (2002), 34–51.Google Scholar
  45. 38.
    Geraldine Pratt’s analysis of a Filipina nanny’s use of space is a striking example of an attempt to gain some such control. Geraldine Pratt, “Geographies of Identity and Difference,” in Human Geography Today, ed. Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), 151–167.Google Scholar
  46. 39.
    Bernadette Stiel and Kim England, “Domestic Disturbances: Constructing Difference among Paid Domestic Workers in Toronto,” Gender, Place and Culture 4, no. 3 (1997), 339–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 50.
    Marty Grace, “The Work of Caring for Young Children: Priceless or Worthless?” Women’s Studies International Forum 21, no. 4 (1998), 401–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Sarah Hardy and Caroline Wiedmer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amy Mullin

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations