I’ve been thinking about Mona Simpson’s beautifully written essay and Michele Asselin’s exquisite photographs since they appeared in The New York Times Magazine last weekend. Asselin’s portrait series, accompanied by interviews, is called “Full Time Preferred: Portraits of Love, Work and Dependence.” Her photographs feature nannies with their charges—their employers’ children—in intimate moments of caregiving. The women and children are beautiful and content, bathed in radiant luminescence and surrounded by darkness. Most of the children are babies or toddlers, ages when showering them with love comes easily, more often than not.
Simpson writes with nuance and honesty about the complexities of relationships based on paid caregiving. She accurately describes Asselin’s photographs as
…moments of private contentment, with the serenity and depth borrowed from the portraiture legacy of the Madonna and child…
By placing nannies in this visual legacy, the photographs deliberately elevate caregivers who aren’t valued in our society. Asselin’s impulse is to make paid caregivers visible, to bring them out of the shadows and into the center. In her essay, Simpson observes that nannies have confided to her that their employers “crop them out of photographs of their children.” These portraits, the interviews with them, and Simpson’s essay all work against a society that still prefers to keep caregiving and domestic work invisible.
The online slideshow allows viewers to play a series of recorded interviews with nannies and their employers. I prefer this to the excerpts in the magazine because more individuality and complexity emerge among and between the different women. For the same reason, I’d love to see more photographs from Asselin—ones that leave behind the vein of Madonna-and-child. I’ve love to see photographs that not only lift paid caregivers out of their private, “unseen” world but also allow a fuller register of lived experience to emerge. With these children, yes, but also with their own children. Their own friends, partners, parents, relatives. And in all the public places we see paid caregivers, with others or by themselves: at the playground. At the store. At school. At the bank. At the airport. At the mall. And at daycare. (Because most children aren’t cared for by nannies or au pairs, and most paid caregivers don’t work in private homes.)
Just as biological and adoptive mothers have worked hard to break out of the impossible expectations placed on them by the ideologies of motherhood associated with the Madonna—everlasting patience, self-sacrifice, martyrdom, perfection—these “other mothers” deserve to be seen as being fully human, too.
I’d also love to see some portraits of male caregivers. There used to be a male au pair in my neighborhood. This was unusual, so all the kids at the playground knew him. But they’re out there. Just like fathers.
At its core, caring for others is not exclusively women’s work. It’s at the core of what it means to be human.
Visual imagery can’t convey the truly invisible structures of global inequality, sexism, and racism that underlie these relationships. But they can expand how we see the world—and how we imagine what’s possible. For this reason, I’d love for Asselin to continue to create images that ask us to re-imagine family in the broadest and most expansive ways.