Blanca waits for Guido in the metallic airport lounge. When would he come? An hour passes. Then another. Blanca makes three different trips to the arrival board, ticking off the flights. She checks her texts again and again. Is her son here? She taps a note in Spanish to her best friend Gloria, who has accompanied Guido on the fourteen-hour flight from Paraguay. In response, silence.
Blanca must wait. But she is used to waiting. It has been ten years since she lived in Paraguay with Guido, who is now 11 years old. Now 44, she left him when she was in her early 30s and has supported him and her 90-year-old mother ever since then with her wages in America. When she left, Guido resembled the chubby toddler with thick little legs whom she nannies in Manhattan.
“Estoy nerviosa,” says Blanca. Finally, the tension breaks as she gets a text. They have landed. “That means they are in immigration. So close, so very close.”
As a working mother who lives across the globe from her child, Blanca is far from alone. Academics describe such arrangements as links in the “global care chain.” At one end of the chain is a woman in a developed country. She gets a job and is unable to take care of her children full time. She hires a low-wage worker from overseas. These immigrant nannies, in turn, hire even-lower-wage caretakers back home. The monetary value of women’s labor declines as one follows the chain from Global North to Global South. The chain works by separating wage earners from their dependents. University researchers studying Latina immigrants in Los Angeles estimated that 24 percent of housekeepers and 82 percent of live-in nannies have left kids behind. For Blanca, this presents a terrible choice: the price of getting her son back is substituting his middle-class life in Paraguay for poverty in America.
Blanca lives in the under-lit corners of post-Bloomberg New York City, with its glass-encased luxury homes and iridescent shops. Blanca sends much of what she earns as a nanny, and the approximately $100 a day for cleaning, through Western Union to her family back home. “Supporting my family makes me happy,” Blanca tells me over a rare margarita on a wintry night after work. “But it’s always about my son, my father, my mother. Nothing is about me.” While Blanca sleeps in a cold apartment with only two small windows and is one lost job away from poverty, she has been able to send her son to a private school in Paraguay that costs $200 a month. She yearns to hold Guido in her arms but instead of doing so pays for his swimming lessons, the earmark of the privileged. The money she sends home helps her mother pay for trips to hear music or go to the pool.
Although the public awareness of domestic labor is increasing, as reflected in popular fiction like Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood, women like Blanca are often overlooked despite participating in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the US economy. There are millions of caregivers in America, but they often live discreetly under the radar due to their immigration status. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1,312,700 childcare workers were employed in the United States in 2012. However, given that 8.2 million children spend time with a daycare provider, these numbers swell if unreported care providers are included. This rapidly growing sector has pushed to the forefront the situation that Blanca must grapple with every day: If more and more caregivers are needed in America, what will happen when so many families—and children—are living so far apart?