Women cannot afford “nice”: The unpaid labor of gendered caregiving

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Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Karen Kelly-Blake, PhD

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde

Much has been written about finding meaning in illness. Others have written about finding meaning in caregiving. But taking care of someone else’s s!#t has its own intrinsic meaning, and for much of the time, it’s not all good.

For some, doing this work may allow them redemption—to repent for past wrongs, or it might allow them to display their humanity in ways they have not done before. Some may experience joy with self-sacrifice. I wish you well. Amid the crucible, women are performing all sorts of gendered work, and especially gendered care work. What do I mean by that? Women perform the majority of caregiving work to family and friends, i.e. women are the ones taking care of someone else’s s!#t. This work is unpaid, labor intensive, and career limiting if not career destroying.

Multitasking woman with six arms illustration
Image description: An illustration of a faceless woman with six arms, each arm holding objects that represent a particular set of tasks: correspondence, computer work, food, entertainment, cleaning, and childcare. Image source: Multitasking Vectors by Vecteezy.

Care work offers few rewards, but it is necessary, and it is often silently expected of women. Unpaid labor that diminishes or denies opportunity for growth and sustenance is unfair, unjust, unsustainable, and wrong. Caregiver resilience may be a thing but is most likely a statement of privilege. Women do the work to the detriment of self-care, careers, outside friendships and interests, and other family relationships. Un- and under-paid gendered care work is a real and present danger to the overall wellbeing of women. As a society, we cannot keep telling women that this kind of gender discrimination in care work, especially for their family, is okay. It is not okay. Women must acknowledge all the ugliness that comes with taking care of someone else’s s!#t—the resentment, anger, frustration, disappointment, loss, fear, disgust, exhaustion, defeat.

So, who will do this work?

Dare I say, salaried home health assistants with all the benefits afforded fully employed persons—health insurance, retirement, educational assistance, PTO, etc. BUT then, who will do that work? Women, and more specifically women of color and immigrants. Whether women do it as unpaid family labor or as salaried health aides, women do care work. It may be reasonable to assume that the salaried worker may be better able to handle the emotional demands of the work. The unpaid family care worker is burdened with history, regrets, slights, insults, lies, disappointments, unforgiven and unforgivable acts, whereas the salaried care worker is not burdened with that baggage, and thus, may be a better and perhaps even a more caring caregiver. Absent the burden and weight of historical relationship bonds, women—as daughters, sisters, spouses, and mothers—may be able to find meaning in just being themselves.

Although the inequity of gendered work has always been there, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed revealing light on this inequity, just as it has on racism. Women are performing job duties remotely from home, becoming teachers, chefs, activity directors, housekeeping staff, laundry workers, and of course the calm in the storm, etc. Working the second shift does not go far enough in describing that reality—women hold on average about 100 jobs that are unpaid! These jobs historically have been the purview of women, but gendered work in the home is the cause of much friction in marriages. Moreover, women are balancing care of children with the care of parents, at times both their own and those of their spouse. Those women fortunate enough to retain their jobs and work remotely were immediately immersed in work that was unfamiliar and, in many cases, unwanted—24/7 care and attention to children, spouses, and others. For those caring for the ill, the disabled (mentally, physically, or cognitively), or the aged, or any individual with any range of functional and psychological limitation, the pandemic significantly increased the workload. Many people do this care work because they want to, out of whatever love and obligation they have for the care receiver. For others, there is no one else to do the work and it may feel, and indeed be, life limiting. Engaging in this work during a pandemic is especially challenging.

Oftentimes, a crash course in highly technical aspects of care (flushing ports, inserting feeding tubes, cleaning wounds, managing LVADs, etc.) leaves one completely bewildered. This disjuncture between necessary specialized care exposes the schism in care work that overwhelms and burdens.

Photo of woman on the floor with hands over her face
Image description: Image description: A woman sits on the floor leaning against the back of a couch. Her elbows are resting on her knees with her hands clasped together over her face, eyes closed. Image source: Pixabay.

Because of shelter-in-place orders, the pandemic has also heightened concerns about domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and alcohol and substance use disorders. We consequently will need to ramp up behavioral health and trauma-informed care services. Sadly, history predicts how unlikely we are to effectively meet this challenge. Essential caregivers unable to work remotely have had to expose themselves and their children to increased risk of disease, because their children had to remain in daycare or in multigenerational spaces with no means to isolate.

Gendered care work can no longer hide under the auspices of family love and selflessness. Caregivers oftentimes die before the care receiver. There is nothing heroic or laudable about a preventable early death. Too much togetherness can breed resentment. There is always something needed, an ask or a want. There is little give in return. Even a sincerely offered “thank you” neither diminishes nor alleviates profound fatigue.

How do we mitigate the harmful effects of such inequitable gendered expectations?

  • Recognize the gender inequity of care work and the harm such blindness inflicts.
  • Pave the way for long-term care access, regulation, and insurance.
  • Pay care workers (both in institutional and home health settings) a salary with PTO, retirement, and benefits (educational and promotion opportunities).
  • Provide paid family leave for family and friend care workers, so that they can focus on the care work they want to do without worrying about economic self-harm.
  • Ensure enhanced respite care and family mental health support.

Taking care of someone else’s s!#t is hard, labor-intensive work, both physically and mentally, and it must be recognized as such. We can no longer silently accept the gender discrimination inherent in care work. We all must bear the burden and the weight, and take care of each other’s s!#t.

Disclaimers: The title is gendered caregiving, which, for the purposes of this blog, focuses on the traditional gender binary of women and men doing caregiving. While clearly in the minority, men do provide unpaid care work. I afford no special credit for doing this work because one is a man. It is akin to saying, “my husband is babysitting the kids”—um, no they are doing the hard work of parenting. My goal is to highlight the burden of care work that is performed primarily by women. Women do not get gold stars for work that they have historically been expected to do.

The author acknowledges her own lifelong role as a caregiver. I do not aim to speak to every person’s experience with doing this work. Instead, I seek to highlight that the continued gender inequity and unpaid labor of care work harms women. If we are to be a just society, it is imperative for us to take care of the caregivers.

Karen Kelly-Blake photoKaren Kelly-Blake, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Medicine in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, July 30, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Kelly-Blake: The Burden of Serving: Who Benefits?; Patient dumping: why are patients disposable?Incarcerated AND Sick: At Risk for Pain, Injury, and DeathWhite Horse, White Faces: The Decriminalization of Heroin AddictionRacism and the Public’s Health: Whose Lives Matter?Concussion in the NFL: A Case for Shared Decision-Making?


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2 thoughts on “Women cannot afford “nice”: The unpaid labor of gendered caregiving

  1. One thing here is, not only this type of work is expected of women, it seems like, unless a woman does it, it will not get done. This is somewhat a pattern see, for example, there is a traditional couple, the wife gets ill that needs ongoing care, rarely will the husband drop what he is doing in life to take care of her, (I say rarely not never); instead, a female relative from her side of the family be it a sister or a daughter, will take on the task; if there is no relative he will pay somene else to do it. On the other hand, the husband gets ill, most of the time, the wife takes care of him, no questions asked (or at least gives it a good try for some time and continues doing so if paid care is financially prohibiting). Many times, from the mouth of men, I have heard this -‘men don’t care’. May that be some relevant reason to this gender disparity and unjust distribution of burden? Is there another way? How can women advocate for more fairness on this and what can be done at the individual level for women to be more assertive about the distribution of caregiving burden within a family unit? Should advocacy also fall on them?

    1. Thank you Dr. Fluegel for your comment. You ask several questions. Broadly, I don’t think it’s that “men don’t care”. There are no societal expectations for men to do this work so men are less likely to do it or feel compelled to do it even when there is no one else available. Men will do care work but that work may be limited to specific chores, e.g. prepare meals but not help with toileting or bathing especially if the care receiver is female. You ask how women can be more assertive–we have to speak up and say it. For some that will be difficult for a whole host of reasons related to how women are socialized and expected to behave in relationships and families, BUT women will need to establish their own boundaries and ask for help. That help may come from other family members, friends, or community based services, and some women may decide that they cannot do the work, and that is okay. Advocating for the extensive work that needs to be done to address gender inequity and the unpaid labor of care giving is a societal problem. Women cannot do it alone and that should not be the expectation. The pandemic has only spotlighted an issue that was never hidden or unknown and affords us an opportunity to upend the gender discrimination inherent in care work.

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