Monday 5 September 2022

Wish a Caregiver Happy Labour Day!


The feminist scholar Arlene Kaplan Daniels coined the phrase "invisible work" to describe the many tasks that women have traditionally performed in their families and communities. Picking apart our common understanding of what constitutes “work,” Daniels wrote (in 1987): 

We distinguish work from leisure activity (that we want to do because we enjoy it) and from other activities in the private realm of life — personal grooming, child care, homemaking. In modern, industrialized societies, perhaps the most common understanding of the essential characteristic of work is that it is something for which we get paid. This idea is associated with activity in the public world, which is dominated by men and separated from those private worlds of family and personal relationships where women predominate. There may be exchanges in households and friendships, but they are not monetary. Even activity in the public sphere, such as volunteering and community service, is not work if it isn’t paid. Any activity we do for pay, wherever it is found, even if we enjoy it, must, by definition, be work. But any effort we make, even if it is arduous, skilled and recognized as useful — perhaps essential — is still not recognized as work if it is not paid.

Daniels was talking back in the 80's about what constitutes work. But her observations still ring true, especially about contemporary women or men who assume an intensive caring role. The work of caring has no monetary value, and therefore no moral force or dignity in the public consciousness. Governments have always capitalized on this conception of care that is not “work” to protect their shrinking health and social care budgets. Market prices affect our definitions of what is work and what is not. Twenty years ago, giving someone a bottle of formula via a stomach tube was a nursing task — today anyone in a family can perform this job, no university degree required and no pay received. But consider what is required to bring an elderly relative with dementia to the shopping mall. Can it be called work? Of course it can, but it doesn’t have to be paid to be recognized as valuable. 

There are other kinds of work involved in giving good care. There are qualities that describe a kind person, a good parent, or a good friend, but these same qualities are also central to good care for vulnerable people. Maintaining this height of alertness and level of emotional giving is tiring. 

A different definition of work is called for if caregivers are to be protected from exploitation, be rewarded for our contributions, and have a hope of retirement from our duties. The physical and emotional toil of dependency work has something to do with love, but it should never be taken as an extension of it. The extent to which a carer has to become “transparent” in order to provide good care, acutely listening and watching for signs of need or distress, cannot and should not be sustained without reward and rest. 

Assuming that a more appropriate definition of invisible work will evolve based on the sheer numbers of citizens involved in giving care, what kinds of rewards can society offer? Every individual is likely to seek a personal answer to that question. Certainly, some will want cash compensation either in the form of pension benefits or direct payment. For others, the rewards of familial affection will be enough. 

But the principle that persons who give care must be allowed to choose a reward is the idea I wish to put forward. A person coerced into giving care without regard for their own health, fitness, aspirations or talents is a recipe for bad care with dangerous implications for all concerned. But, rewards given by the state in the form of payments are hardly ever without strings attached. Funds must be spent on this, but not that. Every expense must be fully accountable on a “worthy” expenditure. A family who receives government assistance to buy food might find itself in hot water if they choose to purchase a Christmas tree instead of a turkey during the holidays. I am sure that in the case of putting money and power into the hands of individual families, many tax-paying citizens would wring their collective hands at the thought of letting mothers run amok in malls with government funds. My response would be that there will always be a few people who behave badly in the public and private domains. But in a democracy, we do not construct a single public policy based on the poor judgement of a few misguided citizens. Most parents do their best to nurture their children. It’s just that in some cases, it takes a village. 

 Eva Feder Kittay envisions a new ethic for long-term care by nudging us towards a new conception of equality. She writes: “By viewing our relations to others as nested dependencies, we start to frame equality in terms of our interconnections…for the disabled and their caregivers alike. Each gets to be seen as some mother’s child.” To position interconnectedness as central to or synonymous with equality is the very core ethic critical to ensuring wellbeing for me and every other member of my family. We are all some mother’s child. And caregivers WORK. 

Happy Labour Day to caregivers everywhere! 

Adapted from my first book, The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I've Learned From a Life of Caregiving, 2014

1 comment: said...

Such an important post Donna. The "invisible" care work you draw attention to is compounded because when care work is considered invisible, it also means we are less likely to value that work. This complicates the caregiver's situation because it minimizes the care contributions of caregivers while excluding them from explaining their situation and work.

I so agree with you-a different, more inclusive definition of "work" is so needed.