Thursday, August 11, 2016

Paying more attention to caregiving

I commend to you Andrea Palpant Dilley's article  "Paying Attention to Caregiving", published in Books and Culture. Dilley responds to Anne-Marie Slaughter's book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, which deals with the problem of making jobs and personal lives get along. Here's a quote the article includes from Slaughter's book:

To make them equal, we liberated women to be breadwinners too and fought for equality in the workplace. But along the way, we left caregiving behind, valuing it less and less as a meaningful and important human endeavor.

In one sense we have to wonder how people didn't see this coming. But being the available caregiver sometimes has long-feeling stretches of inaction. Caregiving can feel a lot like lighthouse keeping: boring, unnoticed, unappreciated, but also very tiring since the need for vigilance never lets up. Not that many people have lighthouse keeper personalities, but every family needs an available caregiver anyway (and some need more than one, and some people need care but don't have family, and non-human entities like churches also need caregivers, etc.).

Workplace rigidity is a problem for both genders, [Slaughter] argues, but women bought into it decades ago when second-wave feminists with short-sighted, conformist thinking set out to claim equality in the work place and failed to hear the door lock behind them. Feminist journalist Susan Faludi calls it a "failure of will." "We have redefined feminism as women's right to be owned by the system, to be owned as much as men have been owned," she writes in "Feminism for Them?" "Women have led the charge to join men in the enclosure."

Being "free to work," in most jobs, means that you're not free to leave work. When your friend needs a ride to chemo, your grandma fell last week and is alone all the time, your baby is six weeks and one day old, your brother doesn't have anyone to be with him when he gets the news, your wife is sick and really needs rest and help with the babies . . . you get to go to work.

Slaughter falls prey to conflicting ideals. In the same breath she asks for "higher wages for paid caregivers" and also "high quality and affordable childcare." Setting aside the complex issue of government subsidies, the problem, as Elaine Blair put it in The New York Times, is that one group of women is in economic conflict with another group. Some women need cheap childcare to make ends meet. Other women—the providers of care—need a livable wage. 

I think this is where the middle class is most blind. Everybody wants to pay the people who care for their children as little as possible, and to say and think that their children are well cared for.  This demands a huge act of charity by the child care provider, who is by definition a person of less means than those who pay her only part of their own earnings, and whose work is a lot less comfortable by every measurement. Parents are all too willing to cash in on this wrong-directional generosity and think nothing of it.

Dilley concludes by saying,

I, too, am a caretaker, although a less illustrious one. The sheer volume of janitorial work I do is offset in part by the knowledge that I'm raising eternal beings for eternal purposes—and someday, I'll stagger through Heaven's gates waving flags made of spit-up rags.