Is it Possible to "Rent a Mom"?

Now that the marketplace has become the ubiquitous theater of our social lives, we buy things and services to express our emotions. But this means that a strange fee-for-service "wall” now intervenes between us and the people we love. It’s a fair question to ask, Is it really possible to say "I love you” by paid proxy? Is it possible to "rent a mom”?

These are the themes of a provocative new essay by UC-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in "Rent a Mom’ and Other Services: Markets, Meanings and Emotions” in the first issue of the International Journal of Work Organization and Emotion. (Thanks to Nancy Folbre for sharing this with me.) The author of The Managed Heart and The Commercialization of Intimate Life, among other books, Hochschild explores the peculiar things that happen when market becomes a pervasive filter for our emotions. In contemporary life, as never before, the market is a new participant in how we express our emotions to others, and to ourselves.

Historically, people have implicitly recognized that there is a wall between the marketplace (public) and family and social life (private), and that each domain has its own set of emotional rules. But increasingly, people are paying for services that were once strictly in the domain of the family. The market is invading our private lives.

We often pay for child care, elder care, nannies, wedding planners, maid services, speed-dating services, funeral services workers, and even family photo album assemblers. People celebrate birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese franchises, and eat family dinners at McDonald’s. In a sense, we are “out-sourcing” our emotional life to the market. We are expressing our feelings to others and signal meanings through paid consumption.

I’ve always found Hallmark cards to be the embodiment of a bizarre American koan. The doggerel poems virtually shout: "Watch how I say 'I love you’ through a mass-produced greeting card.” I’ve always cringed when maids in high-end hotels leave a warm chocolate cookie in my room, as if to signal the homey, caring feelings that many people associate with Mom.

How do we interpret the meaning of such gestures in a market context? This is the tricky issue that Hochschild explores. She asks: "How do we consult our feelings to gauge the meaning of gestures filtered through the market? Did a gesture of love seem too little, too standardized, too commercial? Or did it seem real or real enough? The market has become, for most of us, a third party in our intimate relationships.”

Consider how the market has encroached on personal gift-giving, writes Hochschild:

I grow flowers to give to a friend. But then, I don’t have the time or place to grow flowers. I buy them to give to a friend. But then I don’t have time to shop for them, so I wire them. Similarly I make a cake for my child. But then I don’t have time and the store cake looks and tastes better. So I shop for and buy the cake. Then I don’t have time to shop, so I order the cake for the birthday, along, now with -- if I can afford it -- the birthday planner. I share the authorship of the act. It is not just a me-to-you thing.

Hochschild notes, in addition, that the gifts themselves are usually standardized and generic.

It is tempting to dismiss all market-mediated interactions as impersonal and inauthentic. The direct human presence is absent. And yet, somehow we express our emotions using market language. Hochschild suggests that we resort to "jumping over” and "borrowing through” the wall that separates market and non-market life. We "import” meanings that belong on the other side of the wall. For example, Companies often describe their work teams as "like a family” -- while families will organize the household like a business, with calendars and "to do” lists.

Hochschild is opening up a conversation that needs to be extended. While we intuitively realize that over-commercialization of private life is degrading, we do not really have a language or analysis for identifying what should not be commodified and what should be kept sacred. Hochschild writes: "How do we cast a halo around certain events and not cast it around others? Seeing a child take its first breath, taking its first step, seeing a casket lowered into a grave -- at what points do we locate our notion of the sacred? And how is our idea of the scared related to the idea of what can be for sale? What is unthinkable to sell or buy?” I’ll be brooding on these questions for a while.