booknotes: families apart

The University of Minnesota Press was kind enough to send me a review copy of Geraldine Pratt's fascinating study of migrant domestic workers and their families who have traveled from the Philippines to Canada as part of Canada's Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). Families Apart: Migrant Mothers and the Conflicts of Labor and Love (University of Minnesota, 2012) is the result of Pratt's collaboration with the Philippine Women Centre of British Columbia. With the assistance of the PWC, Pratt identified and interviewed twenty-seven families: mothers (the primary LCP participants), children, and sometimes partners, who have emigrated to Canada in hopes of economic and social mobility. Families Apart draws on these interviews, with analysis and reference to the relevant bodies of literature, to explore and theorize the long-term effects of the LCP on family relationships.

I came at this book from several perspectives: that of a former care provider (though in very different circumstances from those of the LCP participants), that of a family member, that of a feminist, and that of an oral historian. I want to talk briefly about each of these lenses through which I considered Pratt's work, and suggest that her research is of potential worth to those with a personal, as well as academic and political, interest in the intersection of family with wage-work and caregiving labor.

Pratt overtly encourages self-reflection in her readers, many of whom she presumes will be white, middle-class academics like herself, whose experience of parenting and family life is, materially speaking, worlds apart from the experience of the participants in her research interviews. Throughout Families Apart, she tries to break down the barriers to empathy and suggest that cross-class, cross-cultural experience of familial bonds of affection and care can help those outside the LCP program understand the trauma of separation and conflicting responsibilities and desires expressed by those who are (or have) lived through it. Pratt juxtaposes, for example, images of her own child (with his permission) and testimony from immigrant children recalling the trauma of their mothers' departure. Through such attempts at self-conscious narrative voice, Pratt pushes us not to imagine the families whom she interviewed as "others" whose emotional attachments are somehow qualitatively different from our own due to race, class, or culture. Instead, she argues, the pain of long-distance parenting for both adults and children is a point of connection.

This thread of Pratt's book prompted me to think about how our culture values separation and togetherness in family life. I read Families Apart long before the campaign-related kerfluffle over how parenting and work are valued in our society, but Katha Pollitt's ever-articulate analysis of the Ann Romney/Hilary Rosen dust-up could be read alongside Pratt's trans-national analysis as an example of how the relative value of wage-work and family care shifts in relation to social status:
The difference between a stay-home mother and a welfare mother is money and a wedding ring. Unlike any other kind of labor I can think of, domestic labor is productive or not, depending on who performs it. For a college-educated married woman, it is the most valuable thing she could possibly do, totally off the scale of human endeavor. What is curing malaria compared with raising a couple of Ivy Leaguers? For these women, being supported by a man is good—the one exception to our American creed of self-reliance. Taking paid work, after all, poses all sorts of risks to the kids. (Watch out, though, ladies: if you expect the father of your children to underwrite your homemaking after divorce, you go straight from saint to gold-digger.) But for a low-income single woman, forgoing a job to raise children is an evasion of responsibility, which is to marry and/or support herself. For her children, staying home sets a bad example, breeding the next generation of criminals and layabouts.
Substitute "welfare mother" with "LCP worker" and this equation of worth applies. Women participating in the LCP program are caught in a double-bind of judgment. Expected to give up their personal and family lives in order to care around-the-clock for another family's children (traveling halfway around the globe to do so, often not seeing their own children for years at a time), they are judged by their families and society at large for abandoning their children. Their often-crucial financial support for the family back home often comes at the price of losing their partner and the alienation of their children. Pratt skilfully navigates the gendered dimensions of the LCP program, exploring the differing expectations of maternal and paternal care while not ignoring the real psychic pain for all concerned when a parent is absent for years of a child's life.

Families Apart echoed certain themes explored in Schalet's Not Under My Roof which I read shortly before Pratt's study. I'd argue that both books take a cross-cultural look at how we constitute families and value different types of families (and different types of family members) unequally. Notions of "good" and "bad" mothering (or fathering), what is a family unit deserving of respect, how young people should behave in relation to their parents -- who is the proper person, parent or otherwise, to care for a child and help them grow into an adult who can participate meaningfully as a grown-up person in society.

Finally, as a practitioner of oral history, I really appreciated the sections of Pratt's book where she stepped back to examine the process by which she and the PWC made the materials collected during research accessible in a variety of venues: through a multi-media exhibition, in theatre performance featuring monologues crafted from the interviews, in ongoing collaboration with the families whose stories Families Apart documents and synthesizes. Researchers within the social sciences and humanities whose research intersects with human lives are engaged in an ongoing discussion about the ethics of such work, and how to document without exploitation. I believe that Pratt's work is a valuable contribution to that professional conversation. While she herself is the first to argue that the social inequality between herself and the LCP women she collaborated with cannot be erased or overcome by this work alone, I'd argue that her example is a useful one for all those planning future collaborative projects to examine and learn from.

Anyone who wants the chance to think anew about how we value families (and what families we value) in our North American culture of inequality should definitely check out this book.

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.

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