The Kiddy Pool: Who Cares for the Care Workers?

The Kiddy Pool: Who Cares for the Care Workers? May 7, 2013

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

Who cares for the Care Workers? Who looks after the ones who look after everyone else?

Sunday night’s episode of Call the Midwife was another intense installment as the Poplar community grappled with a tuberculosis epidemic along with the everyday births, deaths, lives, and loves. In season 2’s episode 6, Sister Bernadette is diagnosed with the disease, and her fellow nurses and midwives must carry on their work without her assistance while she travels to a sanitarium in hopes of recovery. This plot twist raises many questions (notably, about the relationship between Sister Bernadette and Dr. Turner), but the one that stands out for me is who cares for the care workers?

Care work often refers to looking after the physical and emotional needs of vulnerable populations—children, the infirm, the elderly. Those who practice care work are disproportionately women and are often paid little (if at all) or less than higher-status positions that are considered more cerebral; nurses, for instance, are much more likely to be female and to change bedpans than doctors, but both engage in kinds of care work. Call the Midwife consistently draws attention to the conditions of care work and poverty in London’s East End of the 1950’s. One of Dr. Turner’s strongest arguments for procuring the x-ray van for Poplar is that the tenements’ crowded conditions, poor ventilation, and insufficient sanitation made the disease spread even more rapidly than in wealthier areas of the city. The scene reminded me of a season 1 episode where nurse Jenny Lee felt horrified by the poor hygiene of one of her patients; one of the nuns replied (to paraphrase) that many of their patients are not used to being cared for, or about, and extend that care (or lack thereof) to themselves.

It’s not that indifference and neglect are symptoms of poverty, but that poverty exacerbates those conditions, making the constancy of care work even more draining as it calls upon the workers’ physical, emotional, and financial resources. Care work can seem, at times, like a battle against attrition, where, as Call the Midwife portrays, there is always another mouth to feed, and we all get a little older each day. In many of the shows’ storylines, the nurses and midwives of Nonnatus House can do little more than make their patients comfortable, easing their suffering and offering compassion rather than a cure. But really, that’s not a little thing at all. The same hands that deliver newborns into the world hold the hands of the dying as they depart. They usher life in and out in homes bustling with ordinary activity; women labor as weddings take place and meals are cooked and served, loved ones die above a crowded pub. It’s all care work, and it is the stuff of life.

Who then, cares for the care workers? Who looks after the ones who look after everyone else? I remember all the times I have nursed my daughters while I struggled with a bout of the flu (or, in one case, pneumonia), incidents made even harder when my husband caught the same bug and we could not even take care of each other. Small children struggle to understand that mommy or daddy is sick or tired or hungry—that caregivers need care too. That holds true even more for those of us who never get a break from care work, whose lives are ordered (with or without pay) around taking care of others. Don’t forget to take care of the care workers, those who serve as the hands and feet of the body of Christ. Even Christ knelt to wash the feet of the disciples. Care work is often invisible, repetitive, and taken-for-granted, yet we all need it, and many of us practice it for others at least at some point in our lives. If we look around, we can find the care workers around us, offer our thanks, and provide them with some much-needed care as well.

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