Carework is the Gender War

Every woman who has to cut back on her career to care for her elderly parents, her partner, a sick child, or even a friend is ignored because she's not "productive." She's not contributing to the GDP and is seen as “dropping out” of the workforce, the only thing that matters. In most cases, she’s offered no security net. She’s not paid and she’s given no praise.

And yet it happens.

Of course, we shouldn’t know why. Economists would say that to sacrifice yourself and your future earnings is completely irrational. Why would anyone jeopardize their lives to care for people who can offer you nothing in return?

And yet it happens.

It happens, of course, because women are socialized as girls to care for others. I would love to make the argument that women are naturally more giving and self-sacrificing than men but that would be gender essentialism.

What I do think needs to be looked at fairly critically is that our gender socialization as children sets us up as adults for this dynamic. When I was growing up as a millennial child in the 1980s, nobody ever gifted my baby brother a doll. No one ever encouraged him to be nurturing or cultivated his gentleness. It was taken for granted that he would one day grow up, get big and play football.

But there was definitely the expectation that I, a three-year-old girl, be nurturing towards him.

This gendered expectation was a bitter one for me. Though I had no initial objections to having a little brother, circumstances in our family changed after his arrival. My father’s myriad addictions were getting out of hand and my mother had to leave, I know now for our sake. But then I didn’t understand and, of course, I blamed my brother. It was easy with my three-year-old grasp of logic to come to that conclusion. Dad hated having kids and so having kids made him take drugs. MAKES SENSE, I thought. Sure.

But truth be told, no one then actually gave a shit about how I thought about any of it. Whether they were conscious of my developing neurosis or not, my working-class family simply didn’t have the time to give a shit. My mom, while supporting us and our drug-addicted father, was working two jobs before the divorce and she still had to work those two jobs afterward.

When we moved back in with my grandmother at the inn, everyone had to work. No one had free time. There were always chores to be done, things to get folded and put away. There was a rhythm to work that everyone had to harmonize with or else suffer the wrath of my drunk Irish grandmother, who still very much believed in corporal punishment and shaming, long after those disciplinary tactics had lost vogue with my mother’s more “woke” contemporaries.

Obviously, because I was just a kid, I wasn’t expected to work as hard as the adults. But I was obligated to care for my little brother, at an age I think now we know to be too young to be that responsible.

And yet it happened.

Now here’s the rub. I was bad at it. And why was I bad at it? Because I was depressed! I was genuinely depressed! Not just a little bit sad but full-blown depressed because I had just lost my father. I was blown away by grief and had no idea what the hell was happening to me. I was angry and resentful and the last thing I ever wanted to do was care for my brother who in my head was responsible for our parents’ divorce.

But no adult ever made this connection for me, helped me to understand it. That would have been carework and I was not going to be getting much of that. I was instead just made out to feel like a bad little girl, a failure of femininity, unable to live up to the unstated expectations of girlhood that I should always delight in caring for babies. There was no expectation that the adults should care for me and addressing my obvious needs at that time.

My brother was a baby and that took precedence. If something had to give, it had to be me. How could you argue against that? You can’t. Clearly he was hopelessly dependent and so I had to become a bratty four-year-old who just couldn’t get over the loss of her deadbeat idiot father.

That’s actually my origin story. I became at a very, very young age the blacksheep of my family, diagnosed as crazy at the tender age of four. Crazy not because I was actually depressed after the loss of my father but because my depression made me functionally incapable of doing the carework that was expected of me as a four-year-old.

It would take probably a decade of therapy for me to understand that the implicit message I got from all of that was that my actual feelings as a girl were never legitimate and that I should never expect to be cared for by anyone. That’s the kind of fucked up that haunts your brain for life.

Anyway, because it’s so personal, this gendered expectation of carework is such a big deal for me. I think this is where the gender war really takes place, in these tacit expectations of who will be “doing kinship” throughout their lives and who is freed from such obligations to go on and think about other things.

When I was writing my dissertation, the thing I wanted to make really clear was that lifeplanning is a gendered phenomenon. It’s not equal. Based on my interviews with single millennials between the ages of 25 and 35, it was so obvious to me that women as girls had so often planned their lives out in reverse, working from the age 35 and going backward. I even called this phenomenon the “reverse timeline.” When you asked women about their life plan, they were organizing every aspect of their adult lives with the clear and unambiguous intention of family formation. They imposed deadlines on themselves for partnering, marriage, and childbirth, strategizing which years of their future lives would be best for taking off work and caring for children. Years before even meeting the man they were to marry, they had an idea of how it had to work out given what we know about human fertility.

But when I interviewed men, they simply didn’t think like that. They talked about marriage “happening when it happens.” They didn’t want to “spoil the magic” by over-planning it. Though often these men had fairly rigorous five-year plans for their careers, they had no such plans for their private lives. While I didn’t say this plain in my dissertation, I got the sense that men were, compared to their female counterparts, almost preoccupied with retaining optionality not just of who they partnered with but how they would live these years out before starting a family. They wanted to be free not just from the expectations of starting a family but even from the burden of thinking about it.

While economists, of course, would say that is rational, what was also obvious to me was that in maintaining this (I think delusional) sense of infinite optionality, there was actually no preparation for future family life going on, which is ultimately irrational seeing how most men I spoke to still very much wanted to become fathers. Few men had formed any idea of the kind of partnership or marriage they ideally wanted. Many even admitted out loud that they had never really thought about what it would be like to have a family, just that they knew they someday wanted kids.

So what happens when these men and women marry? Well, I’m guessing that what happens is that women end up shouldering a lot the work that their “partners” didn’t anticipate in their lifeplanning trajectories. Women chose careers after college because they offered parental leave flexibility and so they end up the ones leaving. And all that anticipatory planning and self-sacrifice will be erased, swept under the rug of gendered expectations. After all, isn’t it “natural” and obvious that mothers would be the primary caretaker?

So what happens is that the most well-intentioned men, the ones who described themselves as being “cool with the idea of being a stay-at-home dad” still end up working outside the home and doing less housework than their working wives. And despite their best efforts to fight it, women end up doing most of the domestic work and end up dropping out of the workforce in larger numbers.

It just somehow keeps happening that way. Women just keep acting against their rational interests. Fucking crazy bitches, amirite?

But it’s not just childcare where this inequity in carework shows up. When I was training to be a death doula, one of the most shocking things I was told, over and over again, was how common it was for the husbands of terminally ill women to abandon them. I had read a study that showed husbands are seven times more likely to abandon a cancer-stricken wife than the other way around. And when parents need senior care, it’s daughters who are far more likely step in to do that kinship work, far more than sons.

And because carework is so taken for granted as a natural extension of women’s gender expression, it’s not paid well. There are few protections for the “informal” caretaker who has to stop her life to care for a sick aunt or a failing parent. A woman has a hard time explaining to a future employer that the gaps in her resume are episodes of extended caretaking for seniors that she hadn’t anticipated in her career planning and that her brothers assumed she would just do since she was “the girl.”

As a sociologist, I could spend days digging into the literature and pulling out a ton of studies that show how much more kinship work women do than men. It’s a cottage industry for research in gender studies to replicate these findings. But the point is that carework or kinship labor is just so clearly and plainly gendered that it’s undeniable.

I’m not sure what the way out of it is. My story serves to illustrate that carework isn’t an option for women, it’s expected, even from young girls navigating trauma. We are trained from very tender ages to punish ourselves with shame and guilt when we do not provide ourselves readily to others, even at great cost to our own wellbeing.

But this isn’t really the conversation we’re having about gender. We love numbers and statistics and think publishing those studies over and over again for the past forty years is having the conversation. And maybe it is. But for some reason it still never gets politicized. It never gets seen as the everyday warzone where gender inequality is really being fought.

Maybe, I guess, because it hits too close to home.