Thursday, August 03, 2006

Be the Change You Want to See…Or Not

When we first started this blog, I wrote about the Panamanian family we staid with during our honeymoon, a family in which the mother went off to take care of American children and only saw her own children once a month. I heaped scorn on the rich mothers in LA who employ poor Salvadorans so that the rich kids get the benefit of two mothers and the poor kids get far less loving care. I wrote about how I still wanted MaGreen to have the opportunity to do paid work without being on the demand side of the global trade in motherly love. I wrote that there must be some other way.

Now it’s time to either walk the walk or eat my words. MaGreen needs to take two major exams this Fall in order to keep making progress towards her Ph.D. She must read a book per day for the next two months. Until now, she has taken care of BabyG by herself every weekday except Thursday afternoons. That one afternoon, I leave my job early so that MaGreen can teach writing to children at the M.D. Anderson cancer hospital. At this stage, MaGreen can’t prepare for the exams and take care of BabyG on her own. BabyG demands more attention now. She expects to be played with.

So I called the daycare program I put BabyG on the waiting list for. They said there were no openings. I panicked. On my way home that day, I saw a dark brown Latina woman walking with a very white two year old.

“Hello,” I said. “Can I ask you a question?” The woman just looked back at me blankly and I added, “en Espanol?” She agreed and I approached her. “I have a seven-month-old baby and we need help caring for her, two or three days per week.”

“I can work for you part-time,” she said. Her “patrones” employed her three to four days per week and she said she could take on more work. She came to our home with her husband and we talked with them. They are Guatemalan. They have a seven-year-old son in Guatemala who is being taken care of by the grandmother. When we asked what wage she would want, she said eight dollars. She said she would talk to the family down the street about splitting her time and would come back in two days with a list of references. When she and her husband left, MaGreen and I felt torn about the possibility of hiring her.

“Is it right to hire her?” we asked.
No, we thought. To hire her would be to participate in an exploitive system that tears up families. We have opposed trade pacts like CAFTA and NAFTA that cripple the ability of Latin American and Caribbean nations to create a just distribution of wealth. We should also try our best to avoid supporting this exploitative system as consumers of caring labor and instead try to participate in alternatives.

Yes, we thought. It is right to hire her. The woman has agency of her own. She did not and we did not choose the economic system that brings us together, but she did make a choice to try the life of the domestic worker in America. It is naïve to think we can live outside of the economic order. For her, getting paid to take care of BabyG could mean the option of a more promising future for herself, her son, and her whole family. Not paying her wouldn’t bring her any closer to her son. She could have a comfortable working environment in our home and really help us provide good care for BabyG while MaGreen studies.
Then I heard back from the childcare center and they said we did in fact make it off the waiting list. So I scheduled a time to take a tour of the facility. I was feeling good about childcare. It looked like we would be able to choose between two decent options, either a daycare facility or a nanny.

We went on the tour today. Although the daycare facility looked like a safe place to enroll BabyG, the actual building was junky and rundown. MaGreen and I also thought the babies looked listless and unengaged. They were watched, fed, and kept dry, but otherwise not stimulated. Also, we’d have to drop many of the parenting choices we’ve made like using cloth diapers and elimination communication. I think both us had a bad feeling in our guts, beyond regular separation anxiety. Maybe the nanny thing will work out, I thought. The Guatemalan lady had said she would come today at 6pm with a list of references. She did indeed come, not with her husband, but with her cousin and her niece.

“I won’t be able to get enough days from my current employer so I brought my niece because she can work for you,” she said. Her niece claimed to be twenty-three, but she looked more like seventeen to me. Unlike the aunt, the niece did not seem sharp or experienced. I felt bad for the niece. She spoke Spanish in clipped and slurred phrases. She’d only lived in America for seven months and didn't have real references. I knew we couldn’t hire her, but I felt obliged to keep asking questions like we were seriously considering the proposition. I made small talk and danced around the tough questions.

“Do you have lots of family in Houston?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” they said, “Bastante.”

“In Guatemala is your family in the city or in a village?” I asked.

“A village,” they said.

“Do you speak another language than Spanish there?” I asked.

“Yes, we speak Quiche,” they said.

I was in awe. What sequence of events brought these Mayan Indians into our home? Had the US funded and trained killing squads that destroyed their communities? Had US multinationals squashed their local food sovereignty in order to make huge profits off cash crops? Are national investments in the infrastructure that would lead to improvement in the quality of life in Guatemalan villages restrained by provisions in trade deals with the US? Can we, like bitter old lefties, trace the story back through the Cold War, all the way back to the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup of President Arbenz Guzman, a democratically-elected Socialist.

Here in our living room. The great big world. Our little baby girl. Their struggle to escape history. Our ambitions. Can we be the change we want to see? I’m not sure.


Fiddler said...

Thought provoking situation... Some definite options... and some real opportunity to live what you have been saying you believe in... the trick is to get to your core beliefs and stick with them, and in doing that it is surprising what other options may present themselves, options that may be even closer to your ideals and values...

GreenDaddy said...

Fiddler, thanks for the encouragement. My employer has this service where a social worker helps you find a childcare arrangement. Hopefully that will lead somewhere.

My worry is that sometimes core beliefs are in opposition to each other. The whole Mommy wars thing is often portrayed as two groups of entrenched women battling it out. The stay-at-home-nature-attachment moms verses the career women. (I'm not sure where partners fit in.) I think most families struggle with these questions, not from entrenched positions, but from uncertainty, right?

sky said...

hire them and learn as much as you can from them. either that or quit your job until Miah is done with her studies. Thank you for this post, very interesting! Will throw a link up today! wish i was closer, I'd do childcare for free. keep up the good work!

Henitsirk said...

I just found your blog through Daddy Types.

I've stayed home with my kids for the last 4 years. I strongly believe it has been best for them and my family.

But now, I want to start working outside the home. I NEED to start working, for my own sanity and brain cell rejuvenation!

So I'm plan to work from home and try to put the kids in childcare as little as possible.

But when I think about childcare, I am appalled at the financial situation. $6 an hour to take care of a child? It's insane to think that kind of work isn't underpaid. Childcare workers and teachers should be highly paid!

But then if I am to pay $6 per hour for each child, it actually adds up so fast that I end up having to contemplate working full time just to make it financially practical.

It's a personal dilemma that underscores the isolation of families in modern American culture. We only have our little nuclear family to rely on. All of our grandparents live at least 500 miles away, and most of them still work full time.