I had no idea I was singing the saddest song about motherhood of all time.
It all started when I became curious about a lullaby my grandmother used to sing to me. It turns out that “Go to Sleepy Little Baby”, which I now sing to my babies, was from a radio show in the 1940s – The Judy Canova Show. Canova ended each episode with the lullaby, which she remembered hearing from her own mother.
But the original song is much more disturbing. Although some connect Canova’s version to a Swedish lullaby, the most likely source is an African-American song, All the Pretty Little Horses, which dates to the time of slavery. Hidden in the sweet lyrics about cake and promises of horses and carriages is an often-omitted verse that is shockingly grim. As the enslaved nanny sings to the white baby of the riches it will receive, her own baby lies “way down yonder in the meadow” with “Bees and butterflies pickin’ at its eyes / The poor wee thing cried for her mammy.”
This whitewashing of a traditional lullaby is understandable on one hand—I would never, ever sing those lyrics to my babies, as I can only imagine the cascade of nightmares that would follow—but the implications of transforming a song to make it pleasant at the expense of the singers’ heart-breaking experiences raises the question: how can we acknowledge other mothers’ sacrifices, which we rely on, but which we ourselves can’t even confront?
How many of us today have babysitters or nannies or housekeepers from less wealthy parts of the world? Nannies who have traveled to America or England or China or Hong Kong or Saudi Arabia in hopes of supporting their families in a more stable economic fashion? Trump’s reference to Miss Universe as “Miss Housekeeping” wasn’t a perplexing stereotype—for wealthy Americans, seeing Latinas as housekeepers and nannies is commonplace, along with Haitians, Dominicans, Brazilians, Filipinas, and women from many other countries.
Domestic workers are often seen as any other type of migrant or transnational labor, but their particular role is much more intimate than that of a factory worker or farm laborer. They literally clean our filthy bathrooms that we wouldn’t permit anyone else to enter. They wash our soiled clothes. They rock our babies to sleep, change their diapers, and speak to them in foreign languages so that we can congratulate ourselves on developing our children’s language centers. And, so often, they do so at the expense of their own families. Where are their babies? Most of the time they are left behind with other family members, sometimes for years or decades.
What effect does that have on the lives of those women and their families? It puts the women in a perverse double bind of being excellent mothers, just not to their own children. As Cynthia Enloe wrote about decades ago, it forces women to choose between directly caring for their own children or better supporting them financially. This isn’t a conundrum unfamiliar to the women in wealthier nations—so many struggle with a desire to be a stay at home mom but can’t manage it financially. In fact, that’s why so many of us, even in the middle class, have to pay other mothers to do our domestic work for us. But there is certainly a vast difference between the lives of mothers who return home at the end of the day and the lives of mothers who remain thousands of miles from home.
So why would women do it? Leave their families behind to work for others’ families. One simple answer is money. Anthropologist Leyla Keough discusses how domestic workers from Moldavia who travel to Turkey for part of the year can make ten times what they would make at home. But unlike other forms of labor, the intimate nature of working in others’ homes leaves women vulnerable to rage and suspicion at home—they are accused of abandoning their children, splitting up their families, and being sexually permissive with their employers.
Yet it’s not just the individual’s choice that drives a move to become an international domestic worker. Oftentimes governments facing economic and development problems, like the Philippines, pressure women to work abroad to bring outside money into the country. These workers often go out of a sense of obligation, but returning can be just as emotionally loaded. Writing about Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, Nicole Constable points to the ambivalence workers felt about “going home”:
Everyone [sic] of us dreams someday of going home to the Philippines to be with our loved ones—far from the daily toil of cleaning toilets, washing other people’s clothes, living with strangers who look down on us. But what will happen to us when we go home? …Many of us are trapped by the realization that, once we go home we will have no source of income.
When domestic workers bring their pregnant bellies to the countries where they work, when they become pregnant (consensually or not), when they become involved in relationships in the host country, the social and political consequences are even bigger. As Constable points out, what has become couched in the language of “labor” and “globalization” is in reality the movement of people who have and make families and live their lives wherever they go.
And that is the crux of the problem. We exist in an economic system that translates motherhood into terms of labor, and domestic workers into laborers, despite the unbearably intimate nature of the work. And it is undervalued labor, at that. Considering how women in wealthier countries like the U.S. are still struggling to have their own domestic work valued and recognized the way their out-of-home labor is, it is not surprising that higher classed women around the globe hand off such undervalued tasks to less powerful women in the same fashion way we hand off undervalued jobs like farm labor and sweatshop work to less powerful workers.
Supporting the lives of those who help us raise our families is one part of valuing how hard and important that work is for all of us.