The Fictive Grandmother: Creating Chosen Kin
Often women seek out a partnership with the child care provider that mimics family. Those who did found a certain comfort in relationships that more closely resembled a family tie for their children, such as that with a grandmother. While I am using the term grandmother to reflect the gap of age and experience between the care provider and the mother, women describe them as second parents in some ways. Nadine easily relinquished her control over her children’s feeding, partially because she viewed her neighborhood family day care provider as a kind of kin.
And they started going to Marissa’s. And Marissa is lovely. They think of her and her husband as their seeond parents—no, they probably think of them as their first parents. Every day I told her I didn’t want to bring them out, and she said “I’ll help you,” so she comes over and we bring them both to her house. And then she helps me bring them home.
Nadine described Marissa and her husband as parents, an important statement about the ways a child care provider can become more than simply an employee. Nadine willingly shared her own status as parent because it inserted both her and her children into a larger family network. Further, the day care provider’s children bonded with Nadine’s twins:
And Marissa’s kids, they love the babies. It’s almost like a family relationship now with Marissa. And she and her husband love the kids. Her husband came to this
country about four years ago. They spend a lot of time with the kids. And she
loves them. She absolutely loves them to death.
In a way, Marissa embraced Nadine’s children as an extension of her own children’s childhood. With her own children in elementary school, she still had two babies to care for during school hours. At first glance, her caring for children was a market transaction, but this paid relationship easily blurred the line between work and family. Clearly, all parties were emotionally invested. Oftentimes such partnerships have longevity, as women in the study who had school-age children often reported that providers continued to care for these children, supplementing after-school programs.
For Nadine, who had no kin in the immediate area, the child care provider’s love of her children came as a happy surprise. That sort of warmth is not usually found in the market economy. For other mothers with older children, caregiving relationships dilute the intensity of the mother-child pair. Interestingly enough, as children become more independent, they often continue to seek out their early providers on their own, unable to classify these adults who remain so important in their lives as simply hired employees. In short, while child care relationships start in the market, the emotional bonds can continue throughout the child’s teenage years, as former child care providers become confidants and dispense advice to their former charges.
Single mothers’ employment is dependent upon access to quality child care. This dependence prompts the majority of women to see child care providers as more than simply an invisible presence. In fact, mothers emotionally tie child care providers to their family, building a place in their child’s life as another caring adult.23
Single mothers have to work outside the home. Beyond that, they want to work. However, how much they work is highly contested. The number of hours they spend in the workplace varies based upon their resume and their manipulation of other resources. They use space and gifts to subsidize their motherhood. Further, motherhood gives them an opportunity to redefine themselves in their jobs. Some mothers who are older and have already proven themselves in one career use the arrival of a child as an excuse for a transition to a less demanding or more streamlined career. Even some in their thirties are looking at ways to use their skill sets and degrees in new ways. Regardless of age, women’s employment plateaus with the arrival of a child. Whether this was a conscious decision women made, a consequence of facing a glass ceiling or exhausted career opportunities, or simply the result of the workplace’s inflexibility toward motherhood is unclear. What is clear is that women wanted to shake up their lives by having a baby and were willing to place motherhood at the center of their focus, rather than on the periphery.
The image of the welfare single mother haunts single-parent middle-class families. Even those women with desirable skill sets and high levels of education fear losing their jobs and not being able to provide for the family. A fall such as this would tar them with the same brush as their poorer and often government – assisted counterparts, the very stereotypes they try to combat in choosing motherhood. The paycheck (and other resources) is what facilitated their motherhood from the beginning—to lose financial stability would be to lose what secures their family and their lives, their foothold into the middle class.
Financing motherhood goes hand in hand with finding a trustworthy person to nurture children in their stead while they work. It is for this reason that child care providers are incorporated as friends, not foes. Far from imagining usurpers, single mothers embrace these individuals out of need, looking for ways to build emotional bonds to strengthen what starts out as an economic relationship. Women massage these relationships, avoiding friction instead of inviting it, as their coupled peers sometimes do.24 In order to shelter these interactions, women treat child care providers as esteemed professionals, shifting this construction only to view these individuals as chosen kin. Relying on the kindness of paid child care providers together with believing in the resiliency of their children is the only option for single mothers who must support their family financially.
The forces that shape the workplace often make it incompatible with parenthood. Women’s workplaces in this study are not inherently family-friendly (a point that often becomes clear early on, when women seek maternity leave). Unable to form a comfortable partnership with the workplace, women form other alliances, primarily with the gift-giver, the roommate, and the careworker. It is these alliances (and those discussed in the next chapter) that help women both provide for and nurture their hard-won children.