Those idealising the unpaid carer ignore the messy realities of life

Justice minister Phillip Lee criticised British society for “outsourcing” care work. 

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I am a bad mother. A bad sister, a bad daughter, a bad granddaughter. There is no generation of my family to whom I am not failing to deliver some form of essential care.

On an average weekday I drop off my children at school and nursery, then embark on an 80-mile round trip to work. My youngest son will already be in bed by the time I return. I haven’t seen my parents or brother in weeks. The last time I visited my grandma’s care home was in 2016.

I guess I’m part of what justice minister Dr Phillip Lee considers a “sick society”, one in which care work has been “outsourced” and people no longer take responsibility to “look after their own”. Speaking at a meeting with Age UK, Lee suggested that the people of Britain may have become “a bit selfish”:

“We’ve chosen to live lives that are fundamentally ludicrous. We are putting our families all over the place and we are expecting people – invariably from abroad – to look after our elderly.”

If only we could return to the good old days, when care work was carried out exclusively in the home. Things were so much simpler then, when no one was an actual human being with variable needs and dependencies.

These days it’s much more complex. Not only have we all developed a “blatant addiction” to iPhones, but women have gone and got themselves inner lives. Time was when one half of the population (men) could rely on another (women) to do caring for free. What’s more, all families were loving and stable, and everyone waited their turn before getting ill.

There was never an overlap between carer and cared-for and people made sure to pop their clogs before their children reached old age. Plus paid work was an optional extra, at least if you were female, and middle class. Financial dependency on men wasn’t remotely risky, so women could indulge all those unpaid caring instincts to their heart’s content.

As Lee points out, things are different now. As a parent in her 40s, I am a part of what is known as “the sandwich generation”: those with ageing parents who are working and raising their own children at the same time. Only in my case, someone forgot that to mention that there are only supposed to be two slices of bread on either side.

There are four generations in my family, and each has its own specific needs. My grandma is 99 while my youngest son is two. In-between are my parents, who are in their 70s and care for my disabled brother, who is in his 40s. Of everyone, my partner and I are the only able-bodied people in paid work.

I suppose if we were half-decent people, we’d have some sort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque set-up, with all of us living in the same house, parents and grandparents crammed top-to-toe in one bed, and me at the stove making cabbage soup rather than swanning off to the office like the career bitch I am. Sadly, that’s not what we’ve done, what with life not being a work of fiction. Instead we muddle through, supporting one another as best we can, but also asking and paying for outside help.

I’d like things to be neater. I’d like to be more like Mrs Bucket. Still, I can’t help thinking the problem isn’t just my own lack of moral fibre, nor even the time I spend on Twitter. It seems to me that most people don’t live neat, layered lives. Need spills over between generations. Sometimes individuals require care at every stage of their lives.

The belief that the multi-generational family is a magic unit that can meet all care requirements tends to be marketed either as a return to wholesome, traditional values or a rejection of capitalism. This might be the case if all families were the same, but they’re not. Instead what we’re left with is a convenient way of avoiding any collective social responsibility.

There’s a profound irony in someone claiming to be challenging individualism, when all they’re really doing is presenting the family as another isolated, self-contained unit, one which doesn’t owe a duty of care to outsiders and isn’t owed outside care in return. And then there’s the fact that any attempt to drive care work back behind closed doors will impact one half of the population more than another.

As Janice Turner wrote earlier this year, “politicians of left and right are always telling us that the solution to our screwed-up social-care system is the family […] In practice, [this] all amount[s] to the same thing: women, chiefly daughters and daughters-in-law, toiling away unpaid”.

For many years feminists have been asking why it is considered selfish to outsource care to paid workers, but not for one class of people (men) to outsource it to another (women). We still haven’t been given an answer.

Any idealisation of the past as a “more caring time”, or of other communities as “more devoted to their elders”, necessarily glosses over the gender politics in play. Women have not been angels of the home, devoted nursemaids and uncomplaining domestic drudges simply because they were nicer human beings in the days before the iPhone was invented.

As Janet Radcliffe Richardson pointed out in The Skeptical Feminist, “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women”. If we were naturally predisposed to devote ourselves to the sick and the needy, there would have been no need to prevent us from doing anything else.

Phillip Lee makes a distinction between care “delivered by people who truly care” and care work performed by “people who are paid to care”. In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal argues that this distinction is both artificial and gendered:

“Adam Smith wanted to conserve love in a jar. On the label, economists wrote ‘women’. The contents weren’t allowed to be mixed with anything else and had to be locked away. […] If we really had wanted to conserve love and care in society, instead of excluding it we should have tried to support it with money and resources. We should have organized the economy around what was important for people. But we did the opposite. We redefined people to fit our idea of the economy.”

Which is what we continue to do when we insist that paid work is “selfish” and unpaid (women’s) work is virtuous.

If it is true that the best care comes from people we know – and I’d say that depends on the people – it shouldn’t automatically follow that this care must not be supported and funded by society at large. Wouldn’t a selfless society focus not on guilt-tripping individuals into taking in ailing parents, but on making sure everyone contributed to a social care system that met the needs of all?

When someone calls you selfish, it’s hard to respond with denial. The chances are, you probably are. I know I am. But just as care work is messy, so too are human beings and families. We’re not all good or bad, and there’s no generosity in righteously telling others to take care of their own. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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