The Heart of the Work

Professionals Navigating a Personal World

It was billed as the kind of routine function where constituents complain and politicians nod. But by the end of the three-hour town hall, hardly a speaker had kept from breaking down, and one City Council aide, clad in suit and tie, choked into the microphone, "I can't even explain to you how I feel right now, how disturbed and troubled."

To the surprise even of organizers, the April 6 event, showcasing a household workers' rights bill pending in the council, crescendoed into a sort of group catharsis. Some of the nannies and housekeepers who testified whispered through tears. Others sobbed. The moderator, clutching a tissue, announced at one point, "If anyone wants to share something, come up here. I mean, this is nakedness."

The facts by themselves were not horrifying. No one mentioned physical violence or hazards of the extent some industrial workers face. A live-in housekeeper said she lacked privacy where she slept and was not allowed to use a fan because of the electrical expense. One woman described working more than 10 hours a day for under a dollar an hour. Another said she guessed her current salary of $250 a week was better than her previous $250 a month, but then she was unable to go on and abruptly left the floor.

Bonding, part of a caregiver's job, can complicate the business side.
photo: Michael Kamber
Bonding, part of a caregiver's job, can complicate the business side.

What gripped listeners more than the detail was the depth of emotion. It seemed there was something about cuddling people's babies and making their beds that sharpened the usual stings of a crummy job into arrows. Indeed, as the women spoke, it became clear that domestic labor involves an intimacy that sets it apart. The private setting and personal nature of the job not only create a climate for exploitation, but also enable indignities not found in other, more public kinds of work.

There was the woman, for instance, who worked as a nanny on Park Avenue for "a decent wage," private living quarters, and a food allowance. "On a scale of one to 10, my working conditions were an eight," she said. Yet she told of a pattern of put-downs that culminated on her birthday: "My employer forgot to give me my lunch break. I got a bagel from her bread keeper. She screamed at me for eating her bagel." Pause. "I loved the boys. But the humiliation . . . "

A domestic and the people she works for can grow very close, says Upper West Side employer Suzanne Levine. A woman whose real name Levine asks be changed to Annie cooked and cleaned for her family and cared for her two children for nearly 20 years.

"We went to all her children's weddings. She came to all our family things, knew all our family secrets. She mothered us, she was very important to us. She was absolutely wonderful," says Levine. Annie, mother of three and about 10 years Levine's senior, knew more about child care than her boss. The children were "so lucky to have her," says Levine. She laughs, "When I came home, everything would fall apart."

Some workers also speak of that kind of familiarity. Family events and troubles are shared, advice exchanged in both directions. Employers might offer a special gift—a typewriter, for instance, for a worker's child starting college—or aid navigating legal labyrinths like the INS.

But the tightest bond inevitably forms between a caregiver and her charge. Nanny Carla Vincent cares for the 17-month-old twins of a family she lives with here, to support her own daughter who visits from Trinidad in the summers. "All the love I have for her, I pour into my employers' kids," she says. "It is exactly the same feeling; you really do feel like they're your own. You defend them the same. I have yet to meet a nanny who can separate her feelings from the child."

Says another, "You are with a child from infancy to when you have taught her how to look up and down before crossing the road. They turn into little people, and you're building their self-esteem, preparing them for the next adventurous time in their lives. You're just not there for the next stage."

It is rare for a worker to stick with one employer as long as Annie did with Levine, a seeming testament to their closeness. When tending to a family's most personal needs, for 20 years no less, caring goes with the job. Even the most astute employer, however, can fail to see the labor in the love.

"As a feminist with an overweening sense of sisterhood, I think it's possible I imposed too much intimacy with somebody who was just trying to do her job," says Levine, who was the editor of Ms. magazine from 1972 to 1987. "[Annie] was always aware that I was her employer. It was always a big surprise to me, when that turned out to be at the heart of a problem, because I thought we were so beyond that."

Levine recalls, "Annie would come on vacation with us. I thought she was glad to come. On the other hand, that meant she was on duty for five or six days around the clock. I always felt bad about that. I know a lot of people do. I don't know how you deal with that."

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