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“Off Without Off”


“How was your weekend?” I ask my adult education students at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Brockton. “Did you have any time off?” “Off without off,” is the usual answer.

For these female service employees, there is no such thing as “off.” There’s only the question of which kind of work they are doing — low-paid work in the hospital or no-paid work at home.

Their husbands work hard, too, in factories and warehouses. But there’s a difference. When they come home exhausted, they rest. They eat the food their wives prepare for them, put in front of them, and then clean up.

This basic work imbalance that breaks down along gender lines across the socio-economic spectrum is well documented and intimately familiar. Even when families share the cooking and cleaning across gender lines, women still notice that they do more than their fair share of the mostly invisible mothering work. The costs of this imbalance are high. Women hone the selflessness that seems to be an integral part of mothering. Their radar is finely calibrated to pick up and respond to the needs of others. Men, meanwhile, seem to screen out some of the incoming neediness messages. They have more time for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with either of these qualities; in fact, they are both necessary. All parents, whether men or women, need time when they are fully present for and tuned into their children. They also need a break from that — the opportunity to be cared for themselves and/or to follow pursuits outside the parenting role. The problem with these qualities is when they are monopolized (or nearly monopolized) by one gender or another.

How, in a better society, might we ensure that everyone has more equal access to care — both the giving and the receiving of it? Parecon (www.parecon.org) lays out in great detail the ways that work would have to be structured in a better society in order for it not to unfairly concentrate power and decision making ability in the hands of a few. A similar effort needs to be made in the kinship sphere — the place you go when you are “off” or “off without off,” as the case may be. How could family life be organized to ensure that caregiving work is not concentrated in the hands of women?

The principles that guide a parecon-ish society would do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to addressing gender imbalances outside the home. In a participatory economy, if there were any income inequality, it would favor those doing the most tedious and difficult work. There would be no question of women being financially dependent on men, so a major cause of the systemic pressure on women to agree to stay in domestic situations that were unfair or imbalanced would be eliminated. The structure of institutions would ensure equal access to decision making, so women and men would be equally experienced at taking on empowered roles. Parecon would create outside systemic pressures that would help put men and women on equal footing in the home, but I’m not sure it would fully address the intimate and very gendered nature of caregiving in the home.

Part of the problem is finding structural solutions to private, familial configurations. One thing I hope for in a good society is that there are diverse family configurations — with very little public input about what is right or wrong about how to be a family. There would have to be prohibitions on certain things, of course, such as child neglect, child abuse, etc. But I hope we would avoid prescribing how people might choose to love each other, make commitments to each other, raise children or not together, grow old together, etc. I hope we would embrace diverse models, trusting that there are probably nearly infinite ways that people can positively interact over the short- and long-term.

I would not even want to prescribe equal amounts of mothering and fathering work in heterosexual couples. Even if it could be proved that equally sharing the mothering and fathering across gender lines would produce a whole generation of non-gendered caregivers, I would still not support it. Who am I (or anyone, for that matter) to know what is right and sensible for any given family at any given time? When a baby is first born, the nursing mother will be doing most of the mothering work. That’s obvious and is dictated by biology (assuming the baby is breastfed). Fathers can do a lot of nurturing in this context, so the imbalance does not have to be enormous, but the fact remains that a nursing mother is going to tune into her child’s basic needs in a direct biological way that a man is not likely to experience. Perhaps a mother will choose not to nurse, and perhaps a father will be the primary caregiver, and so develop the intense bond that comes from being constantly tuned into a baby’s needs. Or maybe the parents will equally share this work, and maybe even share it with others, too. It’s not the job of the public to decide how families carry out these roles.

But it is the job of the public to make sure that each new generation has more than just private family to depend on. Why? Because it will help de-gender caregiving work, which is a key way that sexism reproduces itself. Socializing caregiving work but preserving individual liberty in families will begin the process of unraveling sexist kinship structures at the same time that it supports diversity in families (see New Family Values by Karen Struening). It’s a process that will take generations and that will require (obviously) other efforts in other realms of society as well, but it should be a key focus of attention for a society that is committed to non-sexist practices in all levels of daily life. Here are five reasons why we should socialize caregiving work:

1. Children represent the future.

The next generation — whether your offspring are included in it or not — will inherit our collective messes and triumphs. They will be the engineers that sort out what to do with the garbage we leave behind. They’ll have to figure out how to preserve whatever treasures we create. They are the ones who will take care of us when we are old. They are tasked with nothing less than carrying on. Not only is it their right to be born into a society that looks out for them, but we better hope they have such a society, if only in our own self-interest.

2. We need women’s contribution in the public sphere.

We also better hope we can find effective ways to de-gender the caregiving work. If women are doing the lion’s share, the simple fact of the matter is that they will be more worn out and less able to participate in other aspects of society, and so we will miss out on their contribution. Just as there can be no true democracy if some groups of people are ill-equipped to participate because they do unempowering work all day, so there can be no true democracy if some groups of people are sleep-deprived or are overwhelmed by private caregiving responsibilities. We care about democracy not just because of the principle that says everyone *should* have a say, but because we can do with nothing less than our collective imagination and will in the ongoing work of making a better world.

3. No matter what the gender configuration of caregiving in each family, every person needs access to caregiving work via public institutions (in the same way they need access to empowering work).

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have argued that a balanced job complex should include a fair mix of empowering and uempowering work so that everyone is equally empowered to participate in decision making. But what if this leaves out another whole kind of work — care giving?

Care giving is neither tedious nor empowering. It is both and neither. It requires both creative energy as well as endless patience. It is in a league of its own because the care giver, although often performing rote and repetitive tasks, is in a position of responsibility regarding the emotional well-being of the person being taken care of. This responsibility has unfairly fallen on women. Nancy Folbre in The Invisible Heart defines “caring labor” as work that “is done on a person-to-person basis, in relationships where people generally call each other by their first names, for reasons that include affection and respect. … Much of this work is done on behalf of family members … Much, though not all of it, has an explicitly compassionate dimension” (p. xi).

There have to be publicly structured ways to share care giving work or else the biological/gendered pressure for women to monopolize it will win out. We can’t dictate what private families do, but we can make sure that all individuals, no matter how they were “mothered” or “fathered” have access to the work of care giving — and so learn about it themselves and hone those skills.

Would everyone perform direct one-on-one care giving? Probably not. Some people may not have the disposition, and those people could engage in any number of indirect ways of providing care. But my guess is that almost everyone could find a way to participate in direct care giving. Given the wide range types of care giving, it would be hard not to find a way to fit in. Whether changing diapers, coaching a sports team, teaching chess, setting up an apprenticeship at your workplace, or simply providing an extra pair of arms to hold your neighbor’s baby when needed, you would be contributing to meeting human needs.

In the process, all the young ones would have access to caregiving from a great variety of sources. Thus they would experience it as a non-gendered activity, and as they grow up, they would be better able to pursue their own inclinations and proclivities in that field in a way that was at least not defined by gender.

4. The more care giving is socialized, the less invisible it will be.

Another benefit of including care giving in a balanced job complex is that the work of care giving becomes structurally impossible to make invisible. This is not to say that everyone has to help raise everyone’s children, but they do have to participate in creating a safe, nurturing, educational space for the next generation to grow into. They have to be part of the web that makes sure that other people’s needs are getting met. Thus, they have to be tuned into and aware of the mechanics of caring. This will lead to better decisionmaking in the same way that if you experience rote and empowering work, you make better decisions about how to organize work because you are more invested in fairness, etc.

A society that sees caring for children as a collective responsibility and that creates institutions that share caregiving work will make better decisions about how to organize daily life, the economy, politics, etc. (For now, my focus is on children, but clearly there are many other age groups and types of people that would benefit from caring. Indeed, I can’t think of group or type of person who would not.)

5. Finally, if successive generations receive caring (in some form or another) from all adults, care giving work will become less and less woman-centered. Even in a society that embraces diverse families, women are still the ones who give birth and have the capacity to nurse. These biological pressures alone will probably mean more women being the primary care givers in the early months or years of a child’s life. Women’s potential to be the primary caregiver, however, does not have to mean that caregiving is seen or experienced as “women’s work.” Nursing moms could have food delivered and prepared by men. Men (or women) whose balanced job complex included supporting and nurturing families with newborns would mostly support and nurture the mother and/or other family members — cleaning, cooking, caring for siblings, reading out loud, playing music, preventing a new mother’s isolation, etc.

If there are social supports for old people to stay in families, then there could be another lap nearby, another set of arms, another source of lullabies — great assets for any family with a newborn.

Outside the home, there could be emotional support for people in the newborn’s family. People working as playground monitors would help solve disputes, keep kids safe, apply Band-Aids when needed, and walk children home when they are tired. Sufficient teachers, tutors, and mentors could mean older siblings arrive home relaxed and confident rather than in desperate need of maternal support.

The nursing mother would be providing one element of nurturing in what should be an elaborate web of nurturing. Children growing up in this context would perceive nurturing as gender neutral, even if it is sometimes at least partly informed by biology (as in the case of breastfeeding). Children would learn caregiving skills from men and women. It would be seen as a valued and integral part of everyone’s work. This would be true whatever the family configuration might be — single mother, heterosexual parents, homosexual parents, multiple parents, extended families, whatever.

In all families, there will be times when parents are “off without off,” but, in a better society, upcoming generations will be equally well-equipped to tune into the family’s needs. In addition, the whole effort will be less stressful because families will enjoy a lot more support from outside institutions that value caregiving work, make it visible, and include it in everyone’s balanced job complex.

This commentary is an initial step in fleshing out some ideas about how we might organize kinship structures in a better society. Thanks to Michael Albert, Paul Kiefer, Justin Podur, Steve Shalom, and Karen Struening for their helpful comments. They get credit for making this piece stronger, but they are not responsible for its weaknesses. I hope to address the latter in ongoing work. Comments (to [email protected]) are welcome.

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