Yesterday I participated in a Women’s Studies Quarterly Symposium on their recent Mother issue. Among the many excellent talks and readings, I was particularly struck by a talk given by Tamara Mose Brown, a sociologist at Brooklyn College and author of the forthcoming book Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare, and Caribbeans Creating Community (NYU Press, Dec. 2010). Dr. Brown discussed her own experiences as a graduate student and mother of West Indian decent researching West Indian childcare providers in Brooklyn’s public parks (as well as some of the reflections of her WSQ co-author, Erynn Masi de Casanova). In her talk, she reflected on how her subjects defined motherhood, and how they viewed her–she was clearly identified as a mother, since she often brought her son with her to the parks–as well as how she tried to deal with their expectations of how she should be mothering.

Because many of these childcare workers were also mothers, they viewed themselves as “expert” mothers and frequently gave her “lessons” about good West Indian mothering. As she writes in her WSQ article, these lessons included ideas about what was “expected behavior for a boy”–such as the expectation that boys should not play with strollers or wear dresses. Although she herself did not subscribe to this view of gender roles, she found herself watching her son more closely when she was doing research at the park, to make sure he did not wander over to a stroller. Subconsciously, she found herself seeking the approval of her subjects.

Her story resonated with me, a working mother who relies upon a Latina babysitter, L., to care for her children when my husband and I are at work. I like to think that in most ways I consider L. a co-parent as well as an employee. After all, I trust her with my kids; I trust her judgment and her ability to help us raise our children. Her daughter is much older than my kids (now in the dreaded teen years!) and L. has worked in a school, so she is “ahead” of me in this mothering job and thus an expert in ways that I’m not. And yet, I don’t consult her about certain ways that we’re raising our kids that may differ from what she herself has done. She’s very discreet, but I wonder what she thinks about some things.

For example, I’ve frequently wondered what L., a devout Catholic, thinks about the fact that we are raising our kids as non-baptized, non-Communion-participating Unitarian Universalists. Or what she thinks about the fact that my 3-year-old son loves to play with princesses more than my 6-year-old daughter. In general, I suspect she’s OK with all this; she’s tolerant to the core. And yet, precisely because she cares deeply for our kids, I do sometimes wonder whether she sometimes views our parenting choices as ones that aren’t quite right for our children.

I suspect that we might get a free pass on these issues; but I also wonder what L. thinks of the fact that I work. Dr. Brown noted that the West Indian childcare workers had very definite ideas about what defines a good mother and had this to say about their employers:

Motherhood means that you feed your children, you bathe your children, and you spend time with your children. These mothers go to work and don’t do anything for their children and then want the sitters or nannies to do everything; that’s not motherhood. See, you want to be with your children, feed them, give them a bath to be with them; that is a good mother.

— Child care provider in Brooklyn, New York, 2007 (Mose Brown and Masi de Casanova, “Mothers in the Field,” WSQ 37.3, 4)

When I heard this quote yesterday, it struck to the core of my anxieties! I don’t bathe and feed my children every day; most days, yes, but certainly not every day. It brought up the ages-old guilt about working, as well as the familiar anger: why do mothers still carry this burden? Why do they carry it alone? Why don’t we question the fatherhood of fathers when they are at work? For that matter, why don’t we question the absence of flexible work-life policies, not to mention childcare, at many of our workplaces? the absence of a national response to working families that might go a long way toward enabling mothers and fathers to work and parent? the frequent absence of childcare workers and their own families in these debates about work and family?

After all these anxieties subsided, I began to think about the historical, invisible, and yet very real forces that have created generations of West Indian nannies, caring for white children; and I began to think that one response, one way of finding self-empowerment and agency if you find yourself in this situation, might be to embrace the identity of expert mother who spends time with the children. There is some truth, after all, in what that West Indian childcare provider says. Not the idea that working mothers aren’t mothers, but the fact that there are probably some employers who ask a lot from their nannies. I am speaking here from experience: when you have a demanding job, and you have a babysitter, it’s hard not to ask. There are days when, exhausted from teaching and meetings all day, I really don’t want to come home and be a mother. On these days, while I am grateful to all that L. has already done, and even though I know that it’s my turn, I wish that she could stay. But L. has her own family to go home to, no doubt exhausted from mothering my kids, and perhaps even sometimes reluctant, herself, to contemplate the evening’s work ahead at her house.

More often than not, this is when the TV seduces me with its nearly impossible-to-refuse offer: Kids entertained! Peace and quiet! No 1,001 demands while I’m trying to make dinner!

But sometimes, too, I start talking with my kids, and they tell me about the adventures of their day, and they blow me away with their ideas, and they make me laugh with their wacky and idiosyncratic knock-knock jokes–and I realize that this is the best moment of my day.

As I write this, I also realize that having the resources to hire a nanny, babysitter, or other childcare worker is just that–a privilege–and while this relationship is quite accurately described as employer and employee, it’s simultaneously a unique kind of relationship whereby the employee can become part of the family. And with family, as we all know, comes opinions and ideas about how we should live our lives and how we should parent, not always reflecting the deeply-held decisions we’ve forged for ourselves and our kids.