Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Swiss Ms.

(Image Credit: Picked up here.)

Dear Ruth Marcus,

Has it ever occurred to you that your babysitter might read the column you write for the Washington Post? More importantly, has it ever occurred to you that, when you choose to write about a real person in the world other than yourself, you should do so as if that person assuredly would see what you were saying about her, her life, and her work? Indeed, has it not occurred to you that you have an ethical obligation to consider what you have the right to disclose about such persons and how your disclosures are likely to make them feel?

Here's the thing, Ms. Marcus. We totally appreciate how hard it is for working parents to manage the work-family conflict, and we can understand why you felt moved to dramatize that conflict for your readers by talking about the difficulties you had making sure your kids were looked after while you were covering the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week for the Post. (Your husband was also away, on a work-related trip.) It was, after all, a slice of life that nicely concretized the conflict and the policy question of how employers and government could help parents -- particularly mothers -- negotiate the competing demands upon them. I imagine it was darn near irresistible for you to write about it, given how stressed you must have been, after all you'd done to make sure things went smoothly in your absence -- the pre-made dinners! the grandmother there for the overnights! the other moms lined up for carpool duty! And then the babysitter, "new but already somewhat spotty," let you down, despite having been told that she had to "turn up on time, every day." Oh, dear. It's enough to make you choke on a fine Swiss chocolate, isn't it?

Given the nature of what you do, Ms. Marcus, you are accustomed to having your work reviewed in public -- through comments, letters to the editor, and, yes, snarky posts from dog bloggers with nothing better to do on a Wednesday afternoon. We are guessing your babysitter is not accustomed to such public scrutiny. We are also guessing that she enjoys considerably less job security than you do, despite the precariousness of the journalism business these days. She is new on the job. You are her employer, and you have just let the world know that her performance so far is failing to meet your expectations. Even if we assume that you had the decency to convey your dissatisfaction to her privately and compassionately (since you seem to recognize that she had valid reasons for failing to "turn up on time, every day"), there is something about this column that doesn't sit well with us. Over and over again you ask, "What to do about the babysitter?" and all we can think about is what it would be like for this single mom with the unreliable car and her own uncertain childcare arrangements to read these words, to watch you publicly pondering what to do about her probably meager livelihood. Would she be relieved to know that for now you are "Crossing [your] fingers -- and hoping she shows up?" Or would she be terrified to learn that you consider the arrangement "unsustainable?"

We are not questioning your right to fire an employee who is not in a position to perform the job you hired her to do. What we find disappointing -- even a little appalling -- is the deep insensitivity of your having appropriated elements of her life and story to your ends and telling it in a way that renders her both mute and invisible. Add to that the callousness of your publicly hemming and hawing over whether or not to fire her, and we are left with an image of you as the angry god trying to decide when to withdraw the hand that keeps the pesky sinner from falling into the fiery pit of Hell. It's not a pretty image, Ms. Marcus, and we can't stop wondering how your babysitter would feel if she were to stumble across it.

Yours sincerely,


  1. Give 'em hell, Roxie!

  2. Oh, Rox, I hear you, but as someone who has written about real people and not always had it well received (you're publishing that?!? that's not how it happened! etc.), my sympathies are here with Ms. Marcus. And for me at least I secretly labor under the delusion that no one will read what I have written or if they do, they won't recognize themselves. Course I write poems and the best place to tell stories (and secrets and lies!) and have them never read is to publish them in a book of poems.

  3. I'm with you on this one, Rox. Our Julie should consider the huge class divide here and how easy it is for Marcus to do this and how difficult it well might be for her babysitter to get another job. Marcus's children will be just fine, well fed, etc. The babysitter and her children? We're with ya--it's not pretty.

    And we don't think you've done or do what Marcus has done, Julie!

    Go get 'em, Rox!!!

  4. The reason this story caught our eye is that we grapple with similar issues all the time here, though a humble dog blog is closer to a book of poems than it is to a newspaper column in terms of audience and exposure. Still, we tread pretty cautiously when it comes to telling other people's stories and felt that Marcus failed to do so in this case. Her handling of the materials was recklessly insensitive. She reduced a human being to the functional role of babysitter and then publicly toyed with the idea of firing her from her position -- and seemed oblivious to the possibility that the person she was talking about might actually read what she was writing. (Unlike poets and dog bloggers, WaPo columnists don't have the luxury of imagining that nobody reads them.) It just reeked of class privilege -- and I can't believe that you're not ready to put the feminazi hammer down on her for doing it, Julie!

  5. It caught my eye for the class issues too, and I agree that there is something odd about the audience/person exclusions. I suppose it is remotely possible that she ran it by the person before publishing it.... Perhaps. I do think this cross-cross division of labor of child care is a social issue -- not a personal one. The idea that children are not valuable to society and need social supports and institutions and that child care is somehow a private matter that individuals have to solve themselves.... It seems to me that THAT is the issue here. PS by the way I have been a nanny, babysitter, childcare person myself for folks in similar situations and the disparities and pleasures both are complex, and defy easy analysis....

  6. Yes, I think the column shows the risks and limits of using the personal as a substitute for an analysis of the social/political. You should go read the comments on the column on the WaPo web site -- or not, because they for the most part vicious and idiotic. And most of them are, of course, personal attacks on Marcus for being whiny. She opens the door, and the netloons come storming in.


  8. That's what I'm talking about, Jules. Good story. I'll embed the link for convenience sake -- A Times story on how difficult a lot of moms find the mom/nanny, employer/employee relationship to be. We still don't hear enough from the employees, but we hear a little, and the story does a much better job than Marcus's column does at getting at the fraughtness of the relationship.

  9. Hi all--

    Sorry to have missed this one! (I'm just catching up.) I also looked at the NYT article Julie mentioned.

    Wow. Such tsuris. Let's ponder the implications/effects of stories like these, which further narratives about elite women being reduced to incompetence because of their supposed embeddedness in domesticity, and about the simultaneous arrogance and incompetence of female domestic workers. Once again, class conflict is portrayed as something fostered by clueless b!tchez, not at all by the Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe whose money also permits (if not entirely enables) their wives to hire "help."

    I wonder why the NYT and WaPO don't publish story after story about how the corporate looting of America and the offshore "outsourcing" of productive labor has gutted the working and middle-class in this country?


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