In my last post, I mentioned that there was a detectable change in attitude towards family carework. By way of example, note the regular featuring of economist Nancy Folbre in the New York Times “Economix” blog. The media’s increased sensitivity is also evident in the high profile enjoyed by Maria Shriver’s “A Woman’s Nation” project. The White House Council on Women & Girls represents the Administration’s focus on federal policy and functioning as it affects females. Background teleconferences are held regularly giving advocates access to senior policy staff in both the President’s and Vice President’s offices, most recently addressing the proposed FY2011 budget’s impact on women. Books on women, families, and carework continue to hit store shelves, such as This Is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today by Kristin Maschka, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, by Michael Chabon, and a second, soon-to-be-released, updated edition of Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, (which has a very special place in my heart!)
At long last, we seem to be getting beyond the gauzy image of the ever-patient, all-sacrificing mother, and moving, thankfully, towards a more reality-based understanding. Family carework has been invisible. It is now emerging from the shadows because those who typically provide it, women, now make up half the paid work force, and earn an essential portion of household income. Women’s paid labor is moving their unpaid labor into the daylight. It’s the well known “second shift”, or her “other” full-time job. The household requires her income, but it continues to demand clean clothes, meals, child care, transport to lessons, or doctor’s appointments, or parent teacher conferences. The multiplication of tasks forces much more to be done in a finite amount of time, resulting in astonishing rates of work/family conflict reported not only by mothers (90%) but also by fathers (95%).
Phoebe Taubman, author of Free Riding on Families: Why the American Workplace Needs to Change and How to Do It, points out that while family carework may be free to the receiving child, or elderly parent, sick family member, or in a larger sense, to society, it is not free to the family member who provides it. In fact, this free labor, which supports every single monetary transaction, economic event, and the rearing of the next generation of workers and citizens, quite peculiarly benefits almost everyone except the careworker. The woman who decreases or eliminates her working hours to care for young children will never make up the seniority, time, promotions, training, and raises she’s missed. The decrease in her earnings and increased time out of the paid labor force will decrease her Social Security benefits, pension, and retirement savings. Because she is a mother, when she does work, she will likely be paid less. When a woman, or a man, redirects time and energy from paid work to taking care of a spouse or elderly parent, he or she is saving that parent a small fortune in medical bills and services. Positive effects also accrue to society at large. Elder care services provided by family members (usually women) would total billions of dollars if paid for by Medicare or other private or public providers of such services. However, the family caregiver will increase his or her stress, re-arrange the work-schedule, cut back on hours, and pay more out of pocket expenses, neglect personal health needs like regular exercise or routine checkups.
As Taubman says, we live in a country hostile to the needs of families who must work and look after each other. How else to explain a system that requires better training and compensation for those who care for our cars than those who care for our children? With no right to paid family leave or sick days, no flexible schedule or right to even request one, no affordable, high quality child care, it’s no wonder some parents conclude the system is simply unworkable and stay home until school begins. The household’s economic stability suffers, and the ability to withstand a medical emergency, or the layoff of the other working parent, if there is one, is weakened. Hanging on to paid work, though, can mean that your children just don’t get the attention they need, or your ailing mother or father dies alone. Such heartbreaking consequences are not so rare. In fact, they are the logical result of treating families as exclusively private, personal concerns, unsuitable for government intervention. Reality requires a different view. The strength we have achieved is impossible without the squeeze put on the unseen, unpaid work of women and families. More women at work, and earning more of the family income, reveal the other essential role of careworker that so many women fill. This role is not valued, and in fact costs family careworkers plenty, and throughout their entire lifetime.
This free ride is over, and it’s time to get real.