This week’s column examines some of the different ways mothers do work, from nannies to mommy bloggers to Beyoncé.
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There’s a guest curator this week! Since most of the material in this column is usually based on articles, pop culture phenomena and ideas that I’ve been discussing with friends in the past week – the few things that we actually manage to look at from the heaps of links we send each other – I took a page out of The Wire’s Science Editor Vasudevan Mukunth’s book and asked a friend to curate this week’s Name-Place-Animal-Thing.
This week, Nithya Swaminathan is thinking through the various ways that mothers do work by tying together Beyoncé and Adele at the Grammys, Filipino nannies in New York City and a successful mommy blogger from Arizona.
Beyoncé is not your mommy
Lately, my social media feeds have been inundated by pictures and videos of a teary-eyed Adele at the Grammys, gushing praise for Beyoncé while maintaining an uncomfortable grasp over her album of the year award. Some of this discomfort probably came from the fact that the award clearly belonged to Beyoncé’s record-breaking ‘Lemonade’, something that Adele acknowledges at various points in her speech. Pictures of Adele’s Grammy broken in two have been floating around the internet, with debates unfolding over whether Adele snapped her award in two on purpose, so she could hand a piece to Beyoncé, or entirely by accident due to stress.
Adele’s speech is interesting not only because of the drama of a broken Grammy and the public acknowledgement of the unfairness at the core of award ceremonies like the Grammys. She also directs a curious sentiment towards a pregnant Beyoncé, announcing “I adore you and I want you to be my mommy.” It wasn’t just Adele who expressed this; Faith Hill (who is older than Beyoncé) then reiterated this strangely common desire for Beyoncé as a mother.
What does it mean for Adele, a white woman, to ask Beyoncé, a pregnant woman who had just performed a very obvious celebration of black motherhood, to be her mommy? Denene Miller suggests that Adele and Hill’s comments are not innocuous, particularly when we consider the legacy of black motherhood in the US. Miller writes that American history is “littered with the broken hearts of black mothers who, working as chattel in the brutal American slave system, were forced to mother everyone but their own babies.” Black women have historically been limited from having a say in when, who and how they would parent. Today, black moms are often erased from discussions about parenting, left out of images in parenting journals and depicted in headlines as lazy or inept. With this context in mind, Beyoncé’s performance is important because it puts forward an alternate narrative, a “powerful, dramatic piece of art, an exultant narrative for black motherhood.” So, when two white women hijack and displace Beyoncé’s self-professed desire to mother her own children, Miller is understandably upset. Adele and Hill’s comments hearken back to a history of black women mothering white women, and express “an invitation for one of the world’s biggest stars to serve them” by mothering them.
What becomes clear from Miller’s article is that the idea of motherhood carries it with a host of expectations and demands, all of which are moored to histories of power and oppression. Who gets to be a mother is not just a question of agency, but one about who has traditionally performed the labour of motherhood. Even today, as Miller highlights, there is a “league of black and brown nannies swarming through posh parks, pushing fancy strollers occupied by babies who are not their own… mothers who cannot mother their own children, even as they labor to mother white babies.”
“You keep asking yourself, ‘Why did it happen like this? Why don’t I have a mother?”
This profile by Rachel Aviv tells the story of one of these women. Emma, who grew up in the Philippines, immigrates to the US in order to save money for her children’s tuition, eventually finding a job as a nanny in New York, where she remains for sixteen years. Before leaving the Philippines, she hires two “helpers” to take care of her own children because she would be unable to. In other words, Emma’s children are cared for by other women, just as she cares for another couple’s kids. Picturing the fate of her helper’s children, Emma imagines a “chain of mothers parenting other mothers’ children around the globe.” Personally, I find this aspect of Emma’s story intriguing because it links back to Miller’s article, suggesting that there is a legion of “mothers who cannot mother their own children.”
Aviv points out that three-quarters of overseas Filipino workers have been women, a statistic that is even more baffling when you consider the fact that nine million Filipino children are missing parents. These workers function as what Maria Ibarra refers to as “emotional proletarians” who “production authentic emotion in exchange for a wage.” I wonder why women perform this kind of labour more than men, and why caring is categorised as ‘women’s work.’ Part of this question, I think, has been addressed in one of Nehmat’s previous columns on women’s work, social networking and another mom, namely, Kim Kardashian.
Like Adele and Beyoncé, this is also a story of adopted parents, of motherhood as a kind of labour rather than a trait that automatically accompanies reproduction. In the US, Emma meets another (younger) Filipina nanny named Ivy, who she all but adopts. On Facebook, Emma puts up photos of the both of them labelled “Mom and daughter,” and Ivy refers to Emma as her “NY mom.” Ivy also has a mother in the Philippines, but her own displacement to the US leads to the forging of this new parental bond that, albeit not biological, is certainly not artificial.
Emma leaves home so that she can pay her children’s school tuition, but going back to the Philippines isn’t easy, even when the task is accomplished. The promise of return ultimately may be an empty one. Aviv writes:
Emma would like to return home in five years, when she is sixty-five, an idea that upsets Ivy, who feels that she must stay for another decade, until her youngest child graduates from college. Timing one’s departure from America is a precarious art. Emma, Ivy, and their friends speak of their return to the Philippines as a kind of afterlife, an endless family celebration, where they will finally reap the rewards of their sacrifice. The window for return begins once they’ve put their children through school—often their grandchildren, too—but then the calculation becomes more complex. Should they stay longer, save for retirement, and risk growing ill in America? Or leave prematurely, run out of money, and be poor again in the Philippines?
When Instagramming your kids’ diapers pays for your new indoor gym
What about women who are successfully making money from mothering their own children? In Instamom, Bianca Bosker takes a look at Amber Fillerup Clark, a mommy blogger who fills her blog with Instagram photos, Youtube blogs and Snapchat videos featuring her family. As Bosker points out, Fillerup Clark’s family is living the American Dream, with a dream house in Arizona, a projected income of between $1-6 million dollars and picture-perfect vacations.
This is a different kind of work, not necessarily centred around caring for children, but instead around putting this care on display. Fillerup Clark profits from putting up photos of her children’s smiling faces and listing where she buys their clothes, unlike Emma and Beyoncé, who are working as mothers in very different ways. Fillerup Clark is paid to market products ranging from diapers to shampoo, all while integrating these products into her family’s daily life. Interestingly, her husband functions almost as her assistant, and quit law school to take photographs for her blog and manage her hair extension line.
Is Fillerup Clark an emotional proletarian? After all, she is producing (and then packaging) emotion in exchange for money. For me, it is this packaging and commodifying of emotion that makes the whole venture less authentic – I think of Fillerup Clark as more of a marketing executive than anything else. For Heather Armstrong, another mommy blogger who has recently cut back on blogging, this “Pinterest-ready vision of parenthood” appears staged and unrealistic, a curated image that culls out the messy, real aspects of motherhood. But there is considerable labour that goes into the creation of this image, even if the goal is not to paint an accurate representation of motherhood. Fillerup Clark’s portrait of domestic bliss instead creates an ideal of “attainable perfection” that readers can strive towards. I’m not sure how attainable Fillerup Clark’s blog, ‘Barefoot Blonde’ looks, but making money by modelling motherhood is certainly an interesting contrast to Emma’s life.
It takes a certain level of privilege to build the kind of life Fillerup Clark leads, from the ability to parent one’s own children to not having to worry about tuition for her children. While Emma hasn’t seen her children in sixteen years, Fillerup Clark takes pride in the fact that she can maximise the amount of the time she spends with her children. Ironically, though, the mommy blogger and her husband have a part-time nanny as well as two assistants.
If being a mom is work (and clearly, it is), then motherhood can also be commodified, used and even outsourced. Then again, it can also buy you an outdoor shower, an indoor gym and maybe even half of Adele’s Grammy.
Nithya Swaminathan is a legal assistant at an international law firm in Singapore. She studied English and Political Science at Swarthmore College, US.
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