Response to “America’s Dirty Work”

April 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

As I read this essay, I was reminded of a class I took during my study abroad in Ghana.  The class was Sociology of the Family, and it was taught by a youngish assistant professor who tried her best to teach the class, which was by nature steeped in Western-centric academic doctrine, from a West African perspective.  During her discussion of family structure in West Africa, and specifically the cultural expectations placed on modern African mothers, she repeatedly emphasized the differences experienced by urban African women vs. their rural counterparts.  Inherent in this juxtaposition was one of wealth and class.  Wealthy women don’t have to work, and so they can stay home and be the ever-present “house moms”, taking care of children and performing all of the daily household chores.  Impoverished women practice a very different kind of motherhood, in which they leave their children at home and go out to the field or the roadside or the shop to work all day, earning what is needed to feed their offspring.  In fact, in matrilineal Akan society, and especially in the more traditional areas, women are expected to be the primary providers for their own children.  My professor stated unequivocally that, for these women, being “good” mothers meant leaving home during the day and earning a living to feed their children.  If other places in the world are like this, where female labor is critical for the survival of the family unit, it occurs to me that these women are, by necessity, socialized to bear a sacrifice such as becoming migrant workers differently from women who are raised with concepts of “good” motherhood which include availability, constant nurturing, and latent pattern maintenance (to take a leaf from Parson’s AGIL paradigm).

The global market for migrant workers exploits not only the women themselves but also the socialization which they have undergone as a result of living in destitution.  It is a smaller step from partial to complete maternal absence than from complete maternal non-absence to complete maternal absence.  However, the jump from partial to complete maternal absence is clearly damaging and is keenly felt both by the mother and by her children, if we may take the experiences of the interviewees in “Maid in America” as evidence.  So I wonder, at what point do the costs outweigh the benefits?  Is this absent-mother system one which may have worked in another time, when communities were smaller and closer-knit?  Do children still see their completely absent mothers as bread-winners in the same way they would if they could interact with them regularly, or see them involved with their work?  Do mothers employed as migrant workers, especially those in desperate conditions, see themselves as “bad” mothers for not being involved in their children’s lives in the same way as women would who were socialized with different experiences?

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§ One Response to Response to “America’s Dirty Work”

  • Another thought: Many of the abusers in the essay were familiar with the culture of their domestic help, and used their knowledge to exploit them. Would this additional understanding of the differential conceptualization of the duties of motherhood also impact the interactions between victim and victimizer? The abusive employer could use the additional rationale that, if the woman were to leave, she would be a “bad” or “lazy” mother. This might be a psychological angle to be addressed when interacting with abused domestic helpers who are conflicted about coming forward, and may lead to more specific programs being designed to address the needs of these women to fulfill their culturally prescribed roles as mothers.

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