by Gayle Kirshenbaum

 There’s a scene in the Oscar-nominated film Roma, when Cleo, a housekeeper and nanny who has been scrubbing laundry on the rooftop of a house in Mexico City, stops what she’s doing to lie down in the sun next to one of the boys she cares for. The boy, miffed after a fight with his brother, is staring up at the sky. Cleo stares up at the sky with him, engaging in the boy’s make-believe game about being “dead.” With gentle humor and patience, Cleo helps the boy let go of his grudge. 

The boy’s parents—Cleo’s employers—are not around to witness this demonstration of skill and devotion to their child’s wellbeing.

This scene reminded me of the day that I returned to our Brooklyn apartment some months after having a baby and “caught” Debbie—who worked for us as a nanny—in a moment with my child, a moment that involved simultaneous tickling, cooing, chatting, and diaper-changing (on her lap no less). I’d heard their blended voices the minute I walked in the door. I saw them smiling at each other and suddenly understood, in a way that I hadn’t before, that each day that Debbie came to work in my cramped apartment, she was opening herself to my child—that kind of daily soul-opening that I was just learning to do as a mother and that I had never done for someone else’s child.

 As a mother, witnessing moments like this made me very happy. But as an employer, I felt overwhelmed. This was a new, powerful relationship in my child’s life and in my life. I discovered that I didn’t know how to navigate it. I didn’t know how to be an employer in my own home. All I knew was that I’d already made a lot of mistakes. I wanted to do better, but there was no HR department to tell me what to do.

I finally started talking about how I was feeling with other confused parents. We founded the organization we needed: Hand in Hand, which supports people who want to be good employers but have no idea what that looks like. Our members are employers of childcare providers, house cleaners, and home attendants. We partner with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to create tools and campaigns to support employers to be fair, respectful employers; to defend the rights of immigrants; and to fight for affordable care and support in the home.

In Roma, director Alfonso Cuaron returns to the Mexico City of the early 1970s to tell a story that pays tribute to the real-life Cleo who worked for his family. He painstakingly recreates his childhood home, which was also a domestic workplace. Many people watching this film will undoubtedly recognize aspects of themselves in the mercurial employer featured in Roma—a character based on Cuaron’s own mother, who is a stressed, middle-class mother of four children, who clearly values Cleo and recognizes that Cleo is beloved by her children, but who can also be volatile, imperious, and oblivious to how unfair some of her expectations are for Cleo.

Here, then, is your pre-Oscar night challenge: Make sure to see best-picture-nominated Roma—and then make sure to bring Roma’s lens home with you. What might you now see? Some of us will see that we’ve been expecting a worker to invest herself in our lives without investing in her.

Best-actress nominee Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo, has said that she hopes the film leads to “wages that are fair wages” for domestic workers like her mother. Consider Hand in Hand’s Fair Care Pledge as a first step toward getting the information and support you need to establish good communication and make sure that a domestic employee knows that you value her labor. Share the Pledge with your friends and family.

Think about what you can say the next time you hear your husband or child or friend or elderly parent whisper something uninformed, unfair, disrespectful or racist about the nanny or home attendant in the other room. We all know what’s said. We’ve all been silent. We’ve all been conditioned to take care work for granted and to diminish those who do it. We’ve all been unwilling to do better—as domestic employers, as people—in word and in deed.

 Just as Cuaron sought truth in his film, we can seek honesty—with ourselves and each other—about the choices we are making behind the doors of our homes. It’s the only place to start. Then the next time you see your dad’s home attendant tell a joke as she helps him get up from his chair, or you see your child’s nanny bend over her crib and rub her back to help her fall asleep, you’ll know that you’re on the path to doing justice to what you’re seeing. 

Want Oscar night extra credit? 

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