You, Your Mother, Your Daughter

Why do we women assign ourselves the role of family caregiver? And what do we get for it? Economist Nancy Folbre considers these questions and their possible answers, in the context of looking after ill, elderly or disabled adults. Some women find it satisfying, yet many feel they have no other choice. Frequently, the cost of the needed care would be prohibitively expensive if purchased at market rates. There may be no other capable family member or willing provider available. Rather than walk away, women (more than men) feel “a moral duty central to cultural ideals of womanhood”. They will assume the responsibility and the accompanying stress, in spite of the toll on their physical and mental health and the cost to their financial security. As an unintended consequence, they increase the likelihood of their own poverty, especially in retirement, and the need for their own daughters to care for them. So the circle remains unbroken:

“…older women remain dependent on younger women for unpaid care. They have an economic stake in younger women’s sense of obligation. The bittersweet result is that the social organization of care reproduces some aspects of gender inequality. And vice versa.”

This social dynamic will continue to reinforce itself over and over again, unless some other intervening force is introduced, like a rock against a wheel to keep it from turning. Waiting for a natural evolution to break the link between gender and economic fragility is not a viable solution. Intentional, concentrated effort in personal interactions, social policy, public discourse, and political pressure offer much more potential for practical success. That’s what this mothers movement is all about.

Here’s Nancy Folbre’s post in the NYT Economix blog.

About Valerie Young

Valerie Young is a public policy analyst who focuses on the economic status of mothers and other family caregivers. She promotes social justice by arming mothers with information and a healthy dose of outrage. She is the Advocacy Coordinator at the National Association of Mothers' Centers, and is a reporter for The Shriver Report and contributor to Brain/Child Magazine. Follow her blog, Your (Wo)Man in Washington, on Twitter @WomanInDC and on Facebook as Valerie Young and Your (Wo)Man in Washington.
  • Joannie

    Hi Valerie,

    Nancy Folbre is an important thinker in this regard and has written heaps. But for me Martha Fineman's work in The Autonomy Myth alongside Eva Kittay's (as I've probably mentioned earlier) work on dependency theory provided a framework for me to think about the issues. You said:

    Rather than walk away, women (more than men) feel "a moral duty central to cultural ideals of womanhood". They will assume the responsibility and the accompanying stress, in spite of the toll on their physical and mental health and the cost to their financial security.

    Yes, I agree I think women experience this relationship to care in terms of a moral duty, but I think that the moral duty is collective rather than private. In conjunction with this, as opposed to feeling a moral duty to care, the way I see it, women are negotiating intersubjective dynamics between themselves and their infants/children.

    I like the work by Jessica Benjamin in this regard. In Like Subjects, Love Objects and Shadow of the Other – In particular how she talks about these intersubjective dynamics between mother and infant that requires the recognition of the subject, mother-infant, infant-mother.

    Naturally these issues are complex and fraught. If they weren't women would have had it sorted long ago – but a picture is emerging and some battle lines being drawn. I would also recommend Selma Sevenhuijsen' work on an ethics of care in this regard.

    best for now, Joannie

  • Rosanne

    Two weeks ago, when I was pushing my almost 92-year-old mother's wheelchair to a waiting car after she was released from yet another emergency room visit (only to be followed by last Thursday's more critical rush via ambulance to the same hospital, where she remains today), she noticed other elderly women being helped in and out of the ER. She glanced at those women, and then at the younger, often mirror-image women who were holding their hands, navigating their wheelchairs, steadying them on their walkers, racing alongside the ambulance stretchers. She looked up at me, back at them, and then said, simply, "Daughters. Daughters. Daughters." Indeed.