My mother arrived in New York two weeks before she turned 22. It was 1988 and her first time on an airplane. Her uncle’s ex-wife and her two cousins greeted her at the airport; they drove her all the way across the country to where they lived in Washington State.
My mother, like many Moroccans, migrated to the United States on her own under a tourist visa. Like so many other immigrants, she was searching for a better life.
People often ask me, “Where are your parents from?” or “Where did your parents grow up?” For my mom, most of her growing up happened in America after emigration–the foreign reality crashing over her in waves. She and my father mostly lived between Florida and the suburbs of Toronto, where I was born. They moved wherever the money was.
Immigrants lose their worth the minute they board a plane. Women like my mother, who was not professionally skilled in her country of origin, become pre-marked for domestic labor in flight. It’s the default glass slipper, the gendered solution to immigrant women’s shattered American dreams. It’s cleaning your home. It’s caring for your children. The legacy of women of color raising the rising middle class in America is nothing new. Since migration and colonialism began, women of color have filled out a wholly invisible workforce.
In 2014, 1.26 million childcare workers worked for an average of $9.77 per hour in homes across the nation–hundreds of thousands of these workers are both documented and undocumented immigrant women of color. In my experience, this is an hourly rate that rarely gets paid out; it’s an average inflated by nannies who are white or college-educated, hired in wealthy areas to teach academic skills to the kids. A lot of women I know would be thrilled to make $9.77 an hour. Especially since many are forced to perform jobs that go far beyond childcare–whether that’s cooking or cleaning or staying overtime hours not in their job descriptions. This is historic racialization and their immigration status at work. Shadow mothers performing domestic tasks far exceeding a nine-to-five job have long been–and will always be–crucial to the U.S. economy. I know, because my mom was one.
But I am a woman of color, too, and my mother’s daughter–now in graduate school earning a degree in public health, focused on narrative therapy with minority populations. These histories and their marginalization cling to me and inform my work. It’s one thing to discuss this kind of thing in the classroom, but what will happen to the economy if the strata of immigrant childcare workers gains labor rights, or disappears altogether? While women of color have been forced to build ghost economies where their capital is invisible, many of their daughters are not in the assembly line to replace their gendered, domestic work.
My mom babysat multiple children over the years, including two white boys. The low status of her job meant she was not paid well–and sometimes not paid at all. Her shifts cutting vegetables and cooking in a restaurant in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Toronto used to embarrass me. It bothered me that she did not have jobs like my friends’ mothers, but today I can credit her income–supplemental to what my father earned working 20-hour shifts as a taxi driver–to the education I’m getting. Her work caring for other children and chopping crudite until she suffered carpel tunnel was all to put money in a college fund for me and my sister. Without the funds my mother contributed to my family for my education, there wouldn’t have been much hope for me beyond my filling her economic shoes.
Women of color like my mom raise, feed, clean, and pick up after the rising upper and middle class, but their children rarely flourish economically in the same ways the children they service do. If these children do succeed, it’s after overcoming far more barriers. Meanwhile, many of our mothers are painted as questionable because of their inability to be physically present with their children, while away caring for someone else’s. Their earnings go to college savings, remittances, or property in the countries they’ve left behind, their absence at home actually an investment in a promise of others’ success.
The labor women of color perform feeds seamlessly into a circuit of invisible capital that has existed since slavery, when black women raised and nursed plantation owners’ children but were considered unfit to raise their own. Popular culture resurrects this trope in films like The Help. Literature does the same in books like Raising Brooklyn, wherein Tamara Mose Brown sheds light on the role West Indian childcare workers have in raising white children in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Brown’s story uses ethnography to highlight how the invisibility of childcare labor, low status, and low pay in many ways replicate the identity of woman of color as colonial subject. One nanny in the book considers her job to be a modern form of slavery.
The fight to make this type of labor safer and secure–positioned as the next frontier in the labor movement–has been discussed for years. In 2015, the Obama administration announced that federal labor laws requiring minimum wage and overtime protections would extend to the nation’s direct-care workers. However, vulnerable foreign workers are still an easy import, making winning them future dignity as domestic laborers seem very far off.
Removing yourself from this invisible labor force, even a half a generation early, isn’t yet very realistic either. You see, my mother went back to school–while maintaining her paid domestic roles–in an attempt to escape her domestic lot. Only recently have I started proudly talking about how she obtained her GED while I was growing up. Her education was certainly a point of pride for her, but it didn’t ever change the kind of employment she could find. My mother, her friends, women in my family, and many other women of color I work with and encounter never break out of their domestic paid jobs. Perhaps because this is the value they hold in Western economies and within circuits of capital as immigrant women.
I am in graduate school, tired and burned out. I’ve spent years feeling like a cantaloupe being hollowed out. I cannot imagine doing the jobs my mother did to get me here.
Reimagining how we can collectively define success in neoliberal times seems easy in a school seminar. It’s simplistic and almost robotic for a white Marxist gentrifier to tell me what my future should look like, in a vacuum where the loaded underlying assumption is that we all started off on the same playing field and begin from the same starting line.
Many are shocked when I tell them that my mother was a nanny. I believe it’s because the children of such women were not meant to exist in academic spaces. We were meant to replace our parents in the domestic labor circuit.
Still, too often in graduate school I hear echoes of my accomplishments labeled with descriptors of “doing good for your people” or “your people are taking over.” I would not be where I am today without my mother’s sacrifices. While our “lean in” feminism boosts some–primarily the wealthy–it continues to insert women of color just a bit less fortunate than me into the domesticated cycle where they replace others aging out. I could have been one of those replacements if not for my mother.
If I were to tackle the “behind every successful man is a woman” through a different lens, I would say that behind every upper-middle-class family there is a woman of color to care for their home and children. And behind everyone like me, there’s that same woman as well.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Made of Money section, which covers the future of cash, finance, economics, and trade. Click the logo to read more.