‘The Outsourced Self,’ by Arlie Russell Hochschild
By JUDITH SHULEVITZ – Published: May 25, 2012
There’s one mistake I worry readers will make about this book, so let me correct it right away: “The Outsourced Self” is not a work of journalism. Though it isn’t exactly not one, either. I guess you’d call it popular sociology, but I think of it more as an act of mourning. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s look at how we meet some of our most personal needs with the aid of paid strangers doesn’t try to be exhaustive; goes light on figures and statistics; and, when itemizing the most outrageous advances in the market for love and care, never lapses into that magazine journalist’s tone of wry amusement.
THE OUTSOURCED SELF
Intimate Life in Market Times
By Arlie Russell Hochschild
Illustrated. 300 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $27.
By the time her book went to press, her reporting was probably outdated, anyway. Who can keep up? Love coaches, wantologists, therapy apps: these former absurdities are now normal. The next phase will surely include “sparking,” in which dating Web sites match customers according to DNA-based immunological profiles. As the chief psychologist at the eHarmony laboratory tells Hochschild, all he needs to do is figure out how to collect cheek swabs.
In any case, Hochschild isn’t really interested in the extremes of the outsourced life. She wants to know what it feels like to be caught in the middle of it. An ethnographic sociologist rather than a quantifier of social trends, Hochschild elicits thoughtful reflections from ordinary people. Then she uses those reflections to chart the confusing intersections between commerce and private life that we all have to navigate now that the purveyors of personal assistance have built strip malls on nearly every acre of our inner selves. Hochschild’s great subject is “emotional labor,” which we usually think of as the psychic work we do, voluntarily, for ourselves and our intimates, to keep our relationships and communities alive. But emotional labor, for her, is also the psychic work we do for pay, so that both we and our clients can gloss over the nakedly transactional aspect of the services on offer. Or it’s the work we do to tamp down our guilt and shame about contracting out undertakings we think we ought to do ourselves. Yet another form of emotional labor involves toggling between all the different kinds of emotional labor without being fazed by the self-alienation and contradictions involved.
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.
Evan Katz is a love coach who teaches would-be online daters “How to Write a Profile That Attracts People You Want to Meet.” One of his clients is Grace (virtually all names have been changed), a divorced 49-year-old engineer who wants to search for love as methodically as she solves an engineering problem. Katz tells her “to show the real you through real stories.” When Grace comes up with a story about learning humility by scrubbing toilets at a Zen monastery, he reels her back in: “That might be a little too out there.” On a mass medium like the Internet, the best “real you” is average, not quirky: “Everyone needs to aim for the middle so they can widen their market,” Katz says. He encourages daters to rate themselves from 1 to 10, and not to aim higher than their own rating. On the other hand, he worries that daters will objectify themselves and others so zealously they’ll equate dating and shopping: “They want to quickly comb through the racks and snap their fingers, next . . . next . . . next. . . . You can be too efficient, too focused on your list of desired characteristics, so intent on getting the best deal that you pass over the right one.” Luckily, Grace escapes that trap when she agrees to go out with a tattooed, bald musician who doesn’t fit the criteria on her list, and falls in love.
Hochschild has a gentle, nonjudgmental style, but some of her interviews read like long, sad sighs. Occasionally, they bring to mind novels and movies about the British class system. Like Kazuo Ishiguro in “The Remains of the Day” or Robert Altman in “Gosford Park,” Hochschild can make us feel the gulf between employers, who imagine that relations between themselves and their emotional delegates are mutually beneficial, and the employed, who grasp that the cash they take is meant to make them invisible. “I’ll be in a room bustling about and they won’t be aware I’m there,” says Rose, a “household manager” who functions as a housekeeper, baby sitter and personal assistant for a wealthy family in Westchester County. When she substitutes for Norma, her employer, at Norma’s children’s bake sales, the mothers ignore her: “A lot of those mothers know me but talk to me only to ask about Norma.”
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?”
If outsourcing the labors of love discomfits or even damages us, why do we do it so much? One reason is that women aren’t home as much as they used to be — not just mothers, but also all the other women who once held communities together: “Today, 70 percent of all American children live in households where all the adults work. So who now would care for the children, the sick, the elderly? And who would provide, as 19th-century middle-class homemakers were said to do, ‘the sunshine of the home’? Mothers were trying hard, but they were also out billing customers, stocking shelves, teaching classes and treating patients. And so were the once-available maiden aunts, grandmothers, friends and ‘give-you-a-hand’ neighbors.”
So does Hochschild deplore feminism? No. But she does think it has been “abducted,” as she has put it in an essay published elsewhere, by the logic and demands of the marketplace — what she provocatively calls “the religion of capitalism.” Feminism has coincided with a drastic lengthening of work hours and a steep decline in job security, and in America those stressors have not been alleviated by social supports like paid family leave and universal child care, at least not in comparison with most other Western nations. As a result, too many bonds of family and community are left untied by anxious, overworked couples, too many familial functions have to be subcontracted, and too many children perceive themselves as burdens. (One of Hochschild’s finest essays, also published elsewhere, is called “Children as Eavesdroppers”; it describes how children listen closely to their parents’ haggling over child care, and conclude that they are unwanted.) Feminists once dreamed that the work of mothering would be properly valued, maybe even reimbursed, once some portion of it had been redistributed to fathers. Instead, a lot of it is being handed off to strangers — although, to be fair, American men do more than they used to.
On the other hand, the natural bonds of family and “village,” as Hochschild rather nostalgically calls the vanished world of secure communal ties, aren’t necessarily all she cracks them up to be. I was struck by how many of her interview subjects were abused or neglected as children. Gloria, a 23-year-old hotel executive from a broken family, would rather pay for a therapist to keep her marriage going and, when she has children, for sleep coaches and potty trainers and chauffeurs, than rely on friends or family members: “Most families are places of deep injury. . . . Friends are very entangling.” A man with seven children who works 60-hour weeks yet rarely misses a child’s sports event invests in an expensive and officious parenting-evaluation service called Family360, just to make sure he’s as good a husband and father as he can be: “My own father never came to one school event in my entire boyhood . . . not one. . . . I was an all-American in college. He never saw me at the N.C.A.A. championships.” An elder-care manager gives love in abundance to other people’s parents perhaps in part to quash the memory of being beaten by her father and not protected by her mother.
So maybe it’s not so terrible to have packaged care available when the unpackaged kind just won’t do. What is tragic is feeling forced to buy the packaged kind because work is too demanding and the workplace is too inflexible and the loss of face that goes with being a stay-at-home mom or dad, or nurse to a dying parent, is just too galling. Hochschild’s big contribution here, though, is to tally the subtler costs of outsourcing: the “depersonalization of our bonds with others,” the failure to enjoy the process of finding love or planning a wedding, the missing out on one’s children’s childhoods — all the little nontragedies that add up to a thinner, sadder life.
Judith Shulevitz is the author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.”