Black mother working in front of laptop while cradling an infant

Care Crisis

Why We Still Think Caregiving Isn’t a Job

Our struggle to value caregiving has capitalist roots, but changing economic policy starts with dismantling the idea of caregiving as the altruistic woman’s responsibility.

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Are women more naturally suited to love and nurture? Are they more naturally suited to sacrifice their interests and autonomy for the good of their homes and families? A global crisis has made glaringly apparent that, whether they’re naturally suited or not, they’re expected to be.

Since February 2020, more than 2.3 million women have dropped out of the U.S. workforce, most of them to stay home as the primary caregiver for their families, and they’re unsure of when they’re ever coming back. (Of course, there are racial disparities, too: Compared to 6 percent of women overall, 8.5 percent of Black women and 8.8 percent of Latina women were unemployed in January.) It’s a depressing data point that’s repeated in nearly all the coverage of what’s happened to women since statewide lockdowns temporarily closed campuses and office buildings and sent parents scrambling to manage their paid jobs and kids’ schooling entirely from home—that is, if they didn’t have frontline or essential jobs.

Since last month, politicians have been trying to address damage from the fallout. On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that includes measures to expand child-care assistance and increase tax credits to help parents, especially “women who left the labor force to take on caregiving duties.” On March 3, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth introduced the Marshall Plan for Moms, a resolution that prioritizes economic relief for mothers. Despite endorsements from activists like Tarana Burke and Ai-Jen Poo, the plan has stirred controversy among progressives and feminists who find its most widely discussed platform problematic at best and harmful at worst: that every mother receive a temporary, monthly $2,400 stipend for her unpaid labor and losses.

Ms. magazine suggested that instead of putting money in the hands of mothers, the “only way to build back better and revive our economy is by getting women back to work.” Newsweek published an opinion piece titled “We Should Not Pay Women to Be Moms” arguing that a monthly stimulus check should instead go to “child-care providers,” not mothers, and that when you “encourage legislation that prioritizes parenting by one gender, you encourage an indivision of labor.”

Sure, that last point makes good sense to me. But it’s the phrasing of “getting women back to work” that raises my blood pressure a little. As New York Times opinion writer Elizabeth Bruenig notes, many progressives and feminists also take issue with Biden’s American Rescue Plan, namely its child tax credit—up to $3,600 for children 5 and under, and up to $3,000 for kids 6 to 17—claiming that it will set women back and discourage them from working outside the home.

Really? The plain fact is, women are the caregivers most unfairly impacted by this pandemic. Without getting into the economic and political mechanisms necessary for long-term support, as a culture we finally need to interrogate our ideas behind caregiving, because despite what many believe, it is not an inherently regressive or repressive occupation, and it’s not an inherently solitary or female one, either. Frankly, no matter how liberal or progressive we see ourselves to be, we clearly struggle to value caregiving as a critical service to society. Why?

“What happened in the U.S. was a strange thing,” says historian and family scientist Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were. By the early 20th century, “we stopped seeing [child care] as work.”

Before the Industrial Revolution, most paid labor had been performed by both men and women at home, whether it was farming, baking, sewing, or metals-making in shops on the property. The division of labor was unequal, of course, but men and women did share many core responsibilities: Wives, also known as “deputy husbands,” were trained to know arithmetic and animal butchering in case they had to sub for their husbands, and husbands were expected to care for their babies and nurture kin and social relations like those with their neighbors, Coontz explains.

To earn income, women combined piecemeal jobs with their housework, but that became difficult once factories began to provide steady pay and employment between 1878 and 1898. The new market economy eased and accelerated the transformation of raw materials into consumer goods—and in the process cheapened women’s labor. But with wages rising and market prices falling, many families did see huge benefits: They could now free up some time and afford to have one person at home to tend to sanitation and other household needs while another adult made money outside the home.

“It was not a patriarchal plot,” Coontz says, “but an understandable adaptation to an early stage of capitalism.”

It wasn’t a plot perhaps, but women were denied many opportunities of the new market economy. As they began to lose access to convenient piecemeal labor—sewing pillows as they watched their children, for example—women became idealized as caregivers and nurturers (although Black and brown women were never so romanticized). By the early 1900s, gender roles had hardened, separating men’s responsibilities from women’s and vice versa. Child care became viewed as altruistic yet, combined with the devaluation of children and family care, became easier to dismiss as work that mothers just did for free and out of the goodness of their hearts.

It’s important to mention that many other cultures, including Black American and Indigenous households and even our colonial past, have long relied on different models of care for children and elders and have provided systems of support that look very different from the nuclear family status quo we’ve come to accept as normal (and which, incidentally, loses relevance every year as U.S. households become more diverse).

More than 100 years later, the U.S. has seen advances for women in the workplace, but unlike other developed countries, it still lacks universal health care, child care, or paid parental leave—in other words, public infrastructure for children and working mothers. The U.S. got close to ensuring universal child care in 1971 with the Comprehensive Child Development Act, but it got shut down by President Richard Nixon because it would lead to “communal approaches to child-rearing … against the family-centered approach.” And damn it, there goes my blood pressure again. But that sort of roughly summarizes how we’ve arrived here today: Women’s labor force participation at a 33-year low because the social safety net is so weak and caregivers have reached their breaking point.

“We have to stop seeing it as a female occupation,” Coontz urges. Although individuals and households are evolving, she adds, “our political and economic systems are still behind.”

And that’s not women’s fault. A Gallup poll from 2015 found that 56 percent of women who have a child younger than 18 would ideally like to stay home and care for their house and family, including both women who stay home and those who work outside the home. (A Gallup poll from 2019 showed more women prefer working to staying at home, but when you narrowed it to women with kids under 18, it was split right down the middle.) What the results from that poll reveal to me, a part-time working mom with two preschool-aged kids living with her partner and health-compromised mother, is not necessarily that women don’t want to work at all. Instead, it reveals a system that is broken and failing to serve families—but especially mothers.

Why? As one stay-at-home mom wrote in a response for Time, “given the wage gap, the lack of solid family policies, the lack of maternity leave, the discrimination against women in the workforce based on family reasons, and the cost of child care, for many, leaving the home would cost more than staying, in addition to causing huge strain and stress in our daily lives.”

But not leaving the home also bears its costs, as many know. The Center for American Progress reports that, in the long term, time out of the labor force can yield a dramatic loss in lifetime earnings and benefits. For example, the policy institute calculates, a 27-year-old woman making $50,000 per year who spends three years out of the labor force will lose a total income of nearly $500,000 in lost retirement assets, benefits, and wage growth.

The People’s Policy Project, a left-leaning think tank, sees free child care as part of the solution, including paying family caregivers “a weekly benefit that is roughly equal to the per-child wages of childcare workers.” That’s more like it to this parent. Like many moms, I prefer to work part time so I can spend the rest of the week caring for my 2-year-old and 4-year-old and, well, doing things other than working (and I can’t afford daycare). However, my job as a part-time freelance writer doesn’t pay the bills, and my partner’s work barely does. Living with my mom makes things easier in terms of child care and covering basic expenses, but it’s also a privilege many do not have.

Daycare, while offered by feminists and progressives as a way to help working mothers, is “not always practical,” says Matt Breunig, president of People’s Policy Project and author of its Family Fun Pack report. “If you live in a rural area, you might not have another 2-year-old” in the community to meet enrollment. He adds that daycare might also not be culturally appropriate in some instances.

If we want to break out of this capitalistic way of thinking about caregiving, we have to consider real, not-so-capitalistic solutions: paying home caregivers, paid family leave, universal child care, universal health care, flexible work schedules, higher minimum wage, family allowances, and on. You know, building a system that gives parents an actual choice.

To be clear, I don’t think women should permanently be assigned the role of caregiver. That does not liberate anyone. But I’m not sure paying them, or any family member for that matter, will erode progress. We’re so behind as a society that it’s like dying of thirst but refusing to drink water from a straw. And right now we have many thirsty women.

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