Reviewed in the NYT:
In “The Outsourced Self,” Hochschild talks to love coaches, wedding planners, surrogate mothers, nannies, household consultants and elder-care managers, but also, and with deep empathy, their clients. A majority of these people are middle-aged or near middle age; the main thing is, they’re not young, which means they are not yet used to a virtualized and monetized social existence and can still express doubts about it. Most are women, who have long been the main providers of care, love and charity. Hochschild’s consumers buy hyperpersonal services because they lack the family support or social capital or sheer time to meet potential mates, put on weddings, whip up children’s birthday parties, build children’s school projects, or care for deteriorating parents. Or these folks think they just couldn’t perform such tasks as well as the pros. The providers sell their services because the service economy is where the money is, or because they take pleasure in helping others. Everybody worries about preserving the human element in the commercial encounter. Very few succeed.
The most haunting of Hochschild’s tales throb with pain, as when she tracks the flow of mother love from the third world to the first, a form of global commerce entered into out of desperation on all sides. She interviews surrogate mothers in India, destitute women who rent out their wombs to bargain-basement fertility clinics that feel like baby-manufacturing assembly lines. These modern-day handmaidens struggle with the social stigma attached to their work, despite its comparatively high pay, as well as with their own surging love for the fetuses growing inside them. Many do not achieve the requisite detachment. Hochschild contrasts their stories with that of a well-meaning American couple who can’t afford the price of fertility in the United States, and don’t feel they have other options. The wife, though herself of Indian descent, can’t figure out the rules governing her meeting with her Indian surrogate. She knows that Indians don’t touch others as readily as Americans do, but, she explains:
I didn’t want her to think of me as this big rich American coming in with my money to buy her womb for a while. So I did touch her at some point, I think, her hair or her shoulder. I tried to smile a lot. . . . She didn’t look at ease. It was not the unease of ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’ but more the unease of the subordinate meeting her boss.
Less harrowing, but still a poignant account of a missed opportunity for connection, is the story of Maricel, a Filipino nanny, and her employer, Alice. Deeply loved by both Alice and Clare, Alice’s child, Maricel still feels bereft. Alice, a hard-working Google software designer, thinks Maricel is so good with Clare — “cheerful, relaxed, patient and affectionate” — because she was raised in a warm village culture where “they put family and community first.” Actually, Maricel’s mother, who lost three babies before Maricel was born, never let herself get attached to her daughter and sent her out to a neighbor for care; when the girl happened to be home, the mother disciplined her harshly by pinching her leg. After an early bad marriage, Maricel came to America to make money for her two children. Too busy making ends meet to have paid much attention to her children when she lived with them, she now regrets never having told them she loved them. Contrary to Alice’s fantasy about Maricel’s third-world warmth, Maricel learned the virtues of demonstrating affection from watching “Oprah,” and from her own terrible need for human contact. She lavishes love on Clare because the little girl is her only companion in Alice’s cold, silent house.
“The unforgiving demands of the American workplace impose penalties that reach far beyond the American home,” Hochschild observes. One such penalty falls on children like Maricel’s; they are more likely to fail in school and lurch into a life of crime. But Hochschild thinks that our rush to hand off “emotional labor” hurts us first worlders as well. “My clients outsource patience to me,” a personal assistant tells her. “And once they get in the habit of doing that, they become impatient people.” Could it be, Hochschild asks, “that we are dividing the world into emotional types — order-barking, fast-paced entrepreneurs at the top, and emotionally attuned, human-paced mediators at the bottom?”