Outsourcing Motherhood

June Cleaver is out – she no longer resonates with our society as the quintessential mother in the way she once did. But who is today’s American mother? We’re no longer a society of cookie-cutter families, and the meaning of “mother” and mothers’ job description are both varied and contested. Yet despite the plurality of family forms and functions, our collective understanding of what it means to “mother” has remained fairly static:  To mother is “to bring up a child with care and affection.”

My current project considers the ways in which the job description has changed, and the implications of that (r)evolution. Specifically, I look at why and how families hire “mother-substitutes,” to care for children, and explore this phenomenon through the outsourcing metaphor I introduced last week.  Picking up on last week’s post, when families outsource motherhood (riffing off the definition of “to mother,” above), they take the caregiving work mothers traditionally have done, have another outside the family perform that same function, and then reintegrate the work back into the family’s overall operation.

This metaphor has powerful cultural salience, and taps into the ongoing conflicts in the “mommy wars” – the battles between the “globalization” of the family and family “protectionism.” My goal, however, is to dig deeper and reveal how law and policy choices affect this outsourcing, whether to require outsourcing, facilitate it, or discourage it. And importantly, the metaphor uncovers an oft-overlooked casualty of the mommy wars: the outsourced worker.

Contemporary families outsource childcare in myriad ways – through in-home childcare, institutional childcare, and foster care, among others.  There are real benefits to outsourcing for some, but drawbacks as well.  Mothers with the choice and means to outsource can pursue their “core competencies.”  Outsourcing for these mothers promotes choice, economic efficiency, equality, independence, and personal satisfaction, and can have larger familial and societal benefits. Outsourcing may also maximize economic efficiency for some families, freeing up both parents to work outside the home and to be paid for their work. Yet society in general, and mothers in particular, remain deeply ambivalent about outsourcing childcare. The childcare industry is largely un- or under-regulated, and there are legitimate concerns about the quality of care many children receive inside and outside the home. Further, for the childcare worker, this work is often accompanied by the inequalities we associate with outsourcing in the conventional sense: exploitation, low pay, long hours, and lack of safety net (more on this in my next post). As currently practiced, then, outsourcing cannot be seen as an unequivocal good; it has significant limitations.

Why do families outsource childcare? A complex combination of legal, financial, cultural, and personal factors affect the decision to outsource. Economic realities affect families’ choices about whether to outsource childcare. For some mothers, working outside the home is a choice; for others, a necessity. Still other mothers don’t outsource because it isn’t economically viable, and some families choose not to outsource because of personal preferences and convictions about appropriate and desirable divisions of family labor inside and outside the home.

Nor is the law agnostic when it comes to outsourcing childcare. In varying contexts, the law encourages, discourages, and sometimes even requires the outsourcing of childcare, with significant class effects. Continuing with the outsourcing metaphor, for example, we might consider the tax system’s secondary earner biases in joint filing and social security tax as the law’s expression of a preference for in-home childcare, similar to the ways some anti-outsourcing legislation gives preferences to domestic goods and services. On the other hand, the tax code also gives a credit to those paying for childcare expenses and thus provides a benefit for outsourcing, albeit a modest one that is likely overshadowed by secondary earner bias. Under the Temporary Aid to Needy Families Program (“TANF”), states may require parents of young children to work in exchange for public assistance, and therefore require them to outsource childcare. Through mandatory foster care, states outsource childcare to foster families, and the choice that some mothers make to pursue “voluntary” foster case is often illusory, because these women simply have no other options. Thus, legal regulation, practical realities, and individual choices lead some families to outsource, while discouraging or prohibiting others. What’s especially revealing about this analysis, however, is that relatively few families are actually able to choose whether to outsource without significant constraints.

So should the law’s relationship to domestic outsourcing be? The law could potentially do much to mitigate the downsides of outsourcing childcare by ensuring higher quality and greater availability of care.  The state could implement policies to better enable working parents to balance their work and family obligations, so that less outsourcing is necessary.  And the law could better protect outsourced workers by extending greater labor and other protections to them (I’ll discuss some examples in my next post).

The law might also recognize the inevitability – and perhaps desirability – of family globalization.  Alternatively, it might take a more protectionist focus, so as to preserve and reinforce traditional family norms and the private sphere. My take is that our law and policy should work harder to recognize and legitimize the phenomenon of outsourcing childcare, and to facilitate real choice for all families, so that they can maximize their core competencies and preferences – whether inside or outside the home. When practiced mindfully and regulated appropriately, outsourcing can represent a boon to American women, families, workers, and society.

Some final thoughts (I know some of you are wondering):  Why is it “Outsourcing Motherhood”?  The intentionally-provocative title of this post seeks to unsettle and challenge cultural assumptions that childcare is essentially women’s – and more specifically, mothers’ – work, as the introductory definition of “to mother” suggests.  What does the project teach us about the larger role of the law in regulating and constituting families?  Perhaps that our society and our legal system are expecting too much of mothers and the category “motherhood” – both literally and metaphorically. These expectations are no longer consonant with the complexity and diversity of both family composition and approaches to work traditionally done within families. Ultimately, outsourcing motherhood may empower us to rewrite mothers’ job description – to disaggregate the work of childcare from the verb “to mother,” and transform the act of identifying as a mother from one of conscription by law and cultural expectation to one of self-exploration and self-determination.

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