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.