Shadow Mothers: Why the first shift still matters

You are here

Shadow Mothers: Why the first shift still matters

by Sharon Jank on Monday, June 20, 2011 - 5:08am

More than two decades ago Arlie Hochschild wrote in her influential book, The Second Shift, that family life had become the shock absorber for economic changes.   Since then, much family/work research has focused on fathers’ housework and childcare contributions in the time away from paid employment.  In her recent talk at the Clayman Institute, sociologist Cameron Macdonald refocused attention to the first shift by exploring the division of childrearing labor during “business hours.”  Through her discussion of the relationships between professional-class working mothers and the paid childcare providers they employ, Macdonald offered a vivid and compelling portrait of the complex ways in which gender, race, and class coalesce around mothering and employment.

While Macdonald agrees that a more equitable division of domestic labor during the second shift would solve some of the problems facing working mothers, she contends this is only a partial solution, one that reinforces the notion of the nuclear family as an isolated unit.  Macdonald explained that the exclusive focus on increasing paternal contribution during the second shift ignores both the continued predominance of women doing paid and unpaid childcare as well as the significant role paid care providers play in the lives of the children they care for.

Views of motherhood influence the mother-caretaker relationship

The average number of hours worked away from home per week in dual-earner households peaked at 115 in 1999 and has not declined significantly since then. At the same time, the dominant cultural idea about how best to raise children remains rooted in the anachronistic picture of an ever-present, continually attentive, at-home mother. Mother-employers try to ease the ideal mother/ideal worker conflict by outsourcing childcare, only to face a new conflict between ideal mother and ideal employer.

Professional women commonly manage the care-provider as if she were an extension of the mother herself - a shadow mother that fades into invisibility when she is not needed and provides no threat to her employer’s identity as the child’s primary caregiver. In such management strategies, the goal is to orchestrate the daily lives of the children in a way that fulfills the employer’s expectations of the care she would provide if she were a full-time at-home mother.  In doing so, she misses the opportunity to engage with her care provider as an individual with a distinct relationship to the children she cares for.

Using data from more than eighty interviews, Macdonald shows that the obsolete conception of intensive mothering is responsible for much of the tension between mother-employers and care workers. These anxieties about being a good mother in turn shape the everyday interactions that take place in the contested terrain of mother-work.  Macdonald also found that mother-employers and paid care workers generally have different ideas about what constitutes good mothering, and these competing ideologies not only exacerbate employer-employee tensions but also lead to unhappiness on both sides of the table.

Macdonald reported that nannies and caregivers most desired recognition that their work is skilled and that the attachment between themselves and the children they care for is valuable.  Unfortunately, this recognition is one of the hardest things for mothers to give, Macdonald argued, because the salient model of good mothering to which these women are beholden dictates only one full-time caregiver.  This model of intensive mothering stands in stark contrast to the contemporary reality that 70 percent of contemporary mothers work outside the home.

Finally, Macdonald discussed the ways in which, class-based models of what it means to be a good mother conflict in mother-nanny negotiations.  Macdonald explained that professional-class mothers are wedded to what Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation,” a style of childrearing that involves young children in classes and structured activities in order to enhance their intelligence, and social and cultural capital.   Nannies, instead, allowed children more self-directed time and wanted to “let kids be kids.”  These differing expectations not only created tensions between mothers and nannies in day-to-day logistics, but also, as Macdonald suggested, reflect the mother’s realistic fear that her children may face downward mobility if she does not ensure otherwise. These conflicts over class-based mothering reveal that class transmission is hard work; it is also women’s work; and it is a flashpoint of conflict in contexts of delegated child care.

Through her pointed yet sensitive examination of mothering work within professional-class families, Macdonald provides powerful examples of the permeability of the public-private divide, as well as the desperate need to recalibrate contemporary definitions of family.  Her work strongly suggests that a realistic view of family life within dual-earner households must extend beyond biological or adoptive parents to include other caring adults.

A positive model of collaborative childrearing

Inspired by a subset of interviewees, Macdonald offered a hopeful portrait of childrearing based on collaboration and mutual respect rather than the assumption that a paid care worker is simply an extension of the mother-employer.  She cited that among this group, partnerships between parents as well as paid care-givers prevail, “and are the only employer-employee relationships that explicitly challenge the ideology of intensive mothering by acknowledging the contributions paid caregivers make to childrearing and family life”.   For these families, parents and paid caregivers alike openly share in childrearing across boundaries of gender and class, “the child’s attachment to the paid caregiver is cause for celebration, not family shame,” and parents model for their children not “that paid caregivers are replaceable automata with predefined expiration dates,” but rather how to create a home and work environment that respects the contributions of everyone involved".


Cameron Macdonald is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison and author of Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering. Her recent talk at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research was part of the series looking at gender and the intersections of race, class and sexuality.

Sharon Jank is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology. She is part of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team covering gender topics at Stanford.