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In 'Mothercoin', the labor of love transcends borders

The cover of Mothercoin next to the author.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Cummins Munoz
The cover of Mothercoin next to the author.

When Elizabeth Cummins Muñoz had her eldest child, in 2000, she started spending a lot of time at the playground. There were plenty of other kids at this playground, in Houston, where Muñoz lived, but many of them weren't there with their parents. They were there with their nannies.

Muñoz got talking to those nannies – about their lives, their jobs, and how they ended up in Texas. They were all women, and most, immigrants. Those conversations formed the early 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 spent interviewing Mexican and Central American women who came to Houston to be care workers in private homes. Coming to Texas, many of those women were forced to leave their own families – their own children – behind.

Mothercoin examines the unique position that immigrant nannies embody, the power dynamics they navigate, and the consequences of undervaluing a workforce on which the rest of the country so fundamentally depends. Muñoz writes, "When love is elevated and labor is compensated, mothering for pay becomes a complicated proposition." So, she ultimately asks: What is a mother worth?

I spoke to Muñoz about her new book, at a moment when many are thinking more critically about care, and how much we depend on it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Something we talk a lot about on Code Switch are the implications of language. There's the idea of "women's work" and "the help." What does the way we talk about these concepts say about our societal values?

Unpaid labor is feminized in the U.S. because it has to do with value, really, which is kind of the core theme of the book. This all kind of comes out of the 19th century cult of domesticity, and the idea that the home is this sort of haven from the heartless world. There's this really strict modern dichotomy between the private and the public, where the private is this feminized world of emotion and morality, and the public is this masculine transactional world of money and power.

And the falseness of that divide is so clear. The nanny carries it on her back when she walks into your home. She's there to do the labor that has been coded as feminine and non-economic and selfless and a labor of love in order to provide materially for her own family. And I actually think we've worked really hard not to change our language to reflect that. Because if we did, we would have to confront it. If we called the nanny or the housekeeper our employee, we would have to think about labor laws. We would have to think about Social Security. We would have to think about what the responsibilities of an employer are to her employee. If we called diaper-changing and peanut butter and jelly sandwich-making "productive labor," we would have to count that in the GDP. We would have to take it into account when we develop social policy around work and childcare and paid parental leave. It requires a wholesale restructuring of the way our society fulfills its responsibility to reproduce itself.

So instead, we look for "help." I'm the mom, but I can't really do it all alone. So I'm just going to get a little "help." But what happens when you ask the help how they're doing it? It's not pretty. It has really devastating consequences for their children and for our children who watch it happen – for the children in the home to see these inequalities reproduce and are silenced when they try to name it.

One of the people you interview is a woman from El Salvador called Sara. Can you tell me a bit about her?

Sara, I met in the park and she was very eager 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 to the time she was fourteen, her parents were away 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 all of her family's trajectory, both as a family and as individuals, in terms of that choice to migrate.

Her story is unique, but also shared in many ways by a lot of others. So when she was fourteen, she migrated and began making a life for herself here in Houston, working with her mother, cleaning homes, not going to school. When she was fifteen, she married, after her quinceañera, a man who is ten years older than her. And by the time I met her – I think she was twenty-two – 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 that, in many ways, as a similar experience to what she and her sisters knew as children. One of her two younger sisters is very resentful of their mother for leaving. This sister takes care of Sara's young child while Sara is working. And the young child, when I spoke with her, had begun to really express a lot of anger and a lot of resentment at her mother's absence. At the same time, her mother's work had bought them a house and shoes and books, and her mother's choice to be here was offering them opportunities that they would not have had.

It's interesting – like 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 caretaking as a nanny becomes a way for them to do that. Talk to us a bit more on how you saw family roles taking on new meanings.

It's hard to know where to begin, and I tend to default to academics and research. But I feel like it might be more compelling to think in terms of stories. And I'll actually call on a different woman who I call Pati, because I think her story happens kind of at the heart of the spaces that you bring up. Because it's not just about what it means to be a daughter or a mother when you're separated – it's also what it means to be a full-time caregiver to a child who is not yours.

Tell me about Pati.

Pati is also from El Salvador. When she was five years old, her father abandoned the family. Her mother tried, for about a year, to work and live at home but just couldn't find the employment she needed to support a family of four kids. And so she went north and left the children.

And Pati describes a lot of the similar feelings as Sara does. I think she was nineteen when she chose to migrate north. When she reunited with her mother, she describes how hard it was to say, "I love you," and to hug her. And it was this really emotional important thing for her, of, Why can't I tell my mom I love her? Why can't she tell me she loves me?

Shortly after Pati arrived in the U.S., 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're dropping off the youngest son in the family for whom the mother has worked, at that point for around 15 years. When her mother drives up to the teenager's school, he hops out of the car and reaches in and hugs her and Pati's mom says, "Bye, have a good day, I love you." The easiest thing in the world.

When Pati's telling me this, she just breaks down.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschild talks about something she calls "a global heart transplant." At its core, it's this reality that when you give direct care – when you're caring for a physical person, day in, day out – there's a bonding that happens. And what that means is that when you're not caring for someone day in, day out, as much as you love them – as committed as you are to them – that bonding doesn't happen.

What Pati saw that morning was the evidence that that transplant had happened. She was dealing with all of these confusing 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 haven't created a relationship that would allow them to hug and kiss each other so easily. It was also complicated by the fact that, by the time Pati's telling me the story, she herself had absolutely fallen in love with the children she takes care of. 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 equitably so that the job they depend on continues to support them?

Care workers are supporting, in many cases, extended family back home, and their agency in their personal lives changes because of it. That's important to acknowledge and important to think about. So when we look inside this industry, and we discover this hornet's nest of problems, we're really exposing these unsustainable systems around immigration and parenting and child care. And at the end of the day, it often is going to come down to one woman employing another woman in close proximity, having that relationship with each other and trying to negotiate that power differential. So what can we do?

There's a lot that we can do to regulate the industry and to educate employers and others about the labor laws that apply to these situations, whether someone is documented or not. And there's a lot that we can do to shore up the broken systems that create the need, particularly around parental leave and child care. But what can these two women do? I think, treat each other with dignity. Treat the work as employment. Acknowledge your role as an employer, rather than a consumer.

Beyond that, I am a big advocate for listening. I was asked recently, how can an employer support a nanny with children who's a working mother? And one of the immediate responses that come to mind is, well you can ask her what she needs, because chances are she's thought really hard about it. She needs the job and she needs the wages. So beyond that, what can we do to make this a sustainable working environment for her? Which at the same time, will give you – the employer – the support that you need. So lots of levels, but in that really intimate space of relationship, I just think it all starts with asking and listening.

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