Where Gendered and Institutional Care Collide

Where Gendered and Institutional Care Collide March 5, 2021

As with any crisis, the pandemic is revealing various negative things about the social systems we inhabit. One that recently caught my attention is care: gendered care-work, institutions that pretend to care for us, and the omnipresent self-care advice.

Photo by Félix Prado on Unsplash. In public domain.

I have been grouchy about the gendered nature of emotional labor for a while now (see this post, for example). An extension of gendered emotional labor can be seen in the phenomena known as kin-keeping and worry-work, which refer to the tasks of family relationship maintenance (who in the family is tasked with sending birthday cards, buying gifts, organizing parties, etc.) and the tasks of list-making and chore-delegating when one is running a household. Obviously these tend to be pretty gendered in the U.S….and honestly, one of the reasons I’m glad I’m divorced is that those tasks all sorta “naturally” fell to me because…I’m not even sure why, I guess I gave the impression of being good at them, even though I loathed them?

See, no one pops out of the womb being automatically better at meal prep and planning or at organizing the family calendar. One’s chromosomes do not give bonus points at learning these tasks. It’s at once utterly arbitrary and predictably patriarchal that so many of these invisible care-taking tasks fall to women and femme-type people in the U.S.

So when I read this article about how the pandemic lockdown showed that the economy exploits women, I was like OMG YES. It’s largely based on Silvia Federici’s work, and though I wasn’t familiar with her writing before, I plan on catching up. To briefly sum up mainstream feminism’s relationship to thinking about domestic labor:

mainstream feminism — not to mention mainstream economics or politics — has mostly ignored domestic labor. Instead, it has measured women’s empowerment by their presence and influence in the workplace, which is attained by outsourcing housework and child care to less economically advantaged women for a low wage. Even so, women remain mired in housework. It’s common now to hear the term “the second shift” (coined in 1989 by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild), which describes how the work of maintaining a home and caring for children still falls disproportionately to women, even if they have full-time jobs and pay for help. What’s more, people who are paid to do domestic labor or care work (like elder care or house cleaning) are, as a group, badly compensated and denied workplace protections or benefits. These jobs are held mostly by women of color and immigrants. The arrangement is hardly a success for women at large.

These “care work” jobs? The ones that are highly gendered, badly compensated, and yet utterly necessary for human existence? Of course the pandemic upset all these arrangements, and of course women (especially women of color and lower socio-economic status women) have borne the brunt of it. While I’d encourage you to go read the article in full, this part also leap out at me, where Federici argues

that it’s not “natural” that the kinds of work that involve care and sustaining life were the province of any one gender; neither is it natural or inevitable that people be subjugated by an economic system that benefits a very few. These were merely conventions useful to the rise of an economic system that has become so all-encompassing that we no longer dare to imagine another way. It was made this way for someone’s profit, Federici argues. This way of things can be reversed.

Many of these problems are cultural in nature (e.g. norms and stories that people are accustomed to and view as natural), but many are also institutional in nature. And that’s where Emma Dowling’s work comes in. I’ve just ordered her new book The Care Crisis but in this excerpt from it, published at the Verso Books website, she brilliantly explains why self-care is inadequate in a society that relies on institutions that deny their participants basic care:

It is evident that the rise of self-care has created a huge consumer market, another facet of the wellness syndrome and the prerogative of privilege, thereby easily delinked from the social relations individuals exist within. Nonetheless, the idea of self-care really stems from progressive and radical impulses. Within professions that involve care for others, such as nursing, therapy or social work, self-care practices are crucial to avoiding compassion fatigue, burnout and exhaustion. Self-care practices redirect care away from the sole focus on others and towards protecting oneself so as not to be used up in the attempts to help others – whether one wants to help, has an obligation to help or is paid to help. Providing care under duress or in particularly difficult or precarious working conditions necessarily impacts on a person’s ability to care, but also on their ability to maintain positive perceptions of self-worth. For example, someone experiencing compassion fatigue will start to feel overwhelmed and overexposed, like they are running on empty. This intensifies when they have been working under conditions that do not provide them with support and respite in order to replenish their caring capacities. They start to feel drained, are tired all the time and the smallest of tasks feels overwhelming. They feel they cannot cope and they start to blame themselves. The more someone blames themselves and the more it feels like there’s no change in sight, the more despair they feel.

As a teacher, all of this resonates deeply with me. Many of us are not being supported enough right now – perhaps our wages are insultingly low, or the safety measures inadequate, or the job security utterly lacking – and self-care is a crummy bandaid when you’re bleeding out from multiple ragged wounds.

In other words, self-care is only a patch when actual care is lacking. What would actual care look like? Universal access to health care regardless of employment status or family relationships, and access to life-sustaining interventions under those conditions too, whether that’s UBI or disability support or something else (I’m giving some major side eye to how, in the U.S., many adults on disability support would lose it if they got married…so much for marriage equality movements, eh?).

When you have mostly women in both domestic and institutional positions that require them to not only do their literal jobs but also do care-work jobs and tons of emotional labor and it is a relentless 24/7 situation, what do you think is going to happen?! Not that the pandemic isn’t also hard for many men too (plus people who may fall outside a men/women binary), but the burdens of care-work placed on us in both formal and informal settings can be overwhelming.

And this leads me to greater philosophical questions about what care is, and how we can and should distribute it. Theoretically, adult humans should be able to “care” for themselves: you’re a grown-up, so get your own place, get a job, do your own laundry and cooking, etc. Especially in Western individualistic value systems, being independent is a much-prized attribute. And I do think adults should mostly be able to care for themselves, but then what about adults with disabilities and chronic conditions? What about elderly adults? In reality, we are all complexly interdependent, intertwined, inter-reliant, like it or not.

I would like to see an ethics of care that acknowledges our interdependence…and then doesn’t proceed to carry out the default state and dump the bulk of the care-work on women. We (and here I speak as a neurotypical adult who is not disabled) can never know how much or how little care we’ll need at a certain times in our lives, or how soon we may need more assistance in our daily tasks. Concepts from disability studies are quite useful here; many of us who identify as nondisabled are only temporary able-bodied; death and disability comes for us all eventually, it’s just part of being human.

I view humans are all needing to both give and receive care over the course of our lives, in various ratios, but it needn’t automatically slide into a neoliberal “self-care if you want to avoid burnout” regime. The distinction I draw here between emotion work and emotional labor definitely applies: emotion work is when you examine your own emotions to figure out how you feel about something and what to do about it, which is a task all people should practice in my opinion, whereas emotional labor is managing your own emotions in accordance with external expectations, as folks who work retail often must do…they’re both doing the job they’re explicitly paid to do (selling stuff; customer service) and managing their emotions to appear cheerful and smiley the whole time in keeping with (often gendered and racialized) workplace norms. We all have to do emotion work sometimes if we want to be on top of our emotions enough to be good companions, but we should NOT all have to do emotional labor all the time, just like we should all have to do care work from time to time as humans living in community, but we shouldn’t have to be force-fed rhetoric about self-care while juggling 5 other kinds of (probably uncompensated) care work. Whew, that analogy made sense in my head, anyway.

Kate Manne, of course, has incisive observations and cutting criticism about this very topic in the chapter of her book Entitled that tackles male entitlement to domestic labor. She notes that even “paid care work among men is strikingly unpopular” (128, italics in original) and that “Men’s failures…to participate properly in household and child-rearing labor appear to affect women in every demographic group” (127). In other words, men could be helping even out the ratio, but many are choosing not to, due to a variety of factors such as hegemonic masculinity and the promise of privileges that lie ahead if they just manage to be manly enough. I’m not going to quote more Manne even though I want to because this blog post is running a bit long and I’m already infuriated.

What solutions, then, to the conflagration of formal and informal practices that demand care work from (mostly) women, that tell us to just do more self-care so we feel better at the end of the day, and then continue to exploit us? Is Federici’s notion of a wage for housework feasible? Do heterosexual men need to get with the program and give up their entitlement to having a spouse who is part secretary (gotta remember all those family birthdays, after all), part homemaker, and part romantic/sexual partner? Do we as a society need to entirely overhaul the distinction between care and self-care by remodeling how our institutions work for us in the first place?

I wish I had answers; all I have now is incandescent rage (plus relief at being divorced, because oh the stories I could tell). Perhaps, by putting all these topics into dialogue with one another – (gendered) emotional labor, institutional (and devalued) care-work, the facile message of self-care being broadcast into every corner of existence – we can gain a handle on this tricky issue.

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