Motherhood and caregiving, for love and money

If you are a parent or have a parent, caregiving matters.

As I have written over the years, I believe that “Motherhood is not a job, it is a relationship.” I still think this is the most useful way to conceptualize motherhood, but I understand that motherhood is a big, emotionally laden idea that is not easily contained in one simple sentence. Motherhood is culture and gender. It is an essential role that is both idealized, and dismissed. Being a mother is a heck of a lot of work, yet motherhood does not typically provide many of the rewards or recognition that a paid job does.

Some cultures and societies may treat motherhood as a career, but typically in the United States we do not do that. I am more comfortable thinking of motherhood as a “calling” rather than a “career.” And I would hope that parenting is a calling for men, too–a calling, a role, a relationship that is incredibly meaningful and intense, but one that is not all-consuming. We can be parents and take on other roles and identities as well.

It is time to untangle the knot of motherhood, by separating motherhood, the relationship, from caregiving, the work. Now in real life that is hard to do, but a separate understanding of family relationships and caregiving work may help us in the future. Not all of us have children, but all of us have parents, and I truly believe that the aging of the Baby Boomers will force us to confront the full spectrum of the realities of caregiving.

I have been there. My mother was there in her late 60’s, in the thick middle of the generational sandwich herself, as the person in charge of overseeing her 92-year old father’s medical care, legal needs, and family business; while also babysitting her 10-year old granddaughter on a regular basis.

Six months after my grandfather father died, my mother got sick, and I became her caregiver as she went into hospice care.

I am still a caregiving daughter for my father. And my husband is a caregiving son for his mother. Even if the elders don’t live in your home, looking after their affairs (accounting and taxes, home maintenance or downsizing), managing medical care, appointments, and transportation; and maintaining a relationship with your elder is a major time commitment.

Elder care is an inevitable part of life and I try not to begrudge it, though I will say that while caregiving can be an honor, it can also be a heavy burden. With elders, you experience the work of caregiving in a setting that is more scary and sad than the hopefulness of raising a baby. It takes the romance away from caregiving. And, while many people assume that mothers should drop everything to care for their kids, I ask you to turn that assumption on its head: expecting working adults to drop everything to provide unpaid family caregiving for their parents is totally unrealistic and would be undesirable–a recipe for financial crisis as well as emotional and physical burnout.

What can we learn from looking at caregiving through the lens of elder care? Caregiving is real, essential work with an economic value. Yet that work is often invisible and uncounted. Ideally people would have a healthy support system with many strands. Unfortunately, typically the work falls disproportionately on women, daughters.

According to Thomas Day, the director of the National Care Planning Council,

Informal caregivers are family, friends, neighbors or church members who provide unpaid care out of love, respect, obligation or friendship to a disabled person. These people far outnumber formal caregivers and without them, this country would have a difficult time formally funding the caregiving needs of a growing number of disabled recipients.

Depending on the definition of caregiving, estimates of the number of informal caregivers range from 20 million to 50 million people. This could represent about 20% of the total population providing part-time or full-time care. The typical caregiver is a daughter, age 46, with a full-time job, providing an average of 18 hours per week to one or more of her parents.

Among adults aged 20 to 75, providing informal care to a family or friend of any age, 38% care for aging parents and 11% care for their spouse. About two-thirds of those caregivers for people over age 50 are employed full-time or part-time and two-thirds of those–about 45% of working caregivers–report having to rearrange their work schedule, decrease their hours or take an unpaid leave in order to meet their caregiving responsibilities.

A recent study estimates these people lose about $660,000 in wage wealth over their lifetime because of work sacrifices. And estimates of productivity losses to businesses because of time off for caregiving range from $11 billion to $29 billion yearly. The average amount of time informal caregivers provide assistance is 4.5 years but 20% will provide care for 5 years or longer.

Seventy-six million Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age. We have an elder care crisis looming over our heads that will require us to grapple with the economic work of caregiving as well as the intangible value of love and relationships. Families provide love and caregiving–but there is no reason that we have to “go it alone” when it comes to caregiving. What this country needs to do is wake up and make that invisible work visible. Instead of talking about the “productivity losses” of caregiving, why not count informal caregiving as an “economic contribution,” which is surely is? In our current system, where informal caregiving is treated as little more than missed hours from paid work, caregiving activity is an economic loss to the people providing unpaid care.

We need to find common ground in our discussions about family, and craft policies that honor both the fact that most parents have to work outside the home to support a family, and also that the “informal” care provided by family members (be they parents or children) is an essential service that provides genuine economic value.

Looking at caregiving from the perspective of adult children caring for elders takes the most pernicious aspects of “choice” out of the discussion–I believe we focus too much on the individual choice to have children in a way that is bad for public policy. We leave families out to dry with little support by saying “You chose to have kids, so deal with it” when raising the next generation is in fact essential for society as a whole. Women from around the world are aghast that American women accept the status quo of not even having paid maternity leave. Our American exceptionalism can be wonderfully optimistic, but it can blind us to the fact that we are getting an incredibly raw deal when it comes to family caregiving policies. Worldwide, 178 countries offer paid maternity leave, with the few exceptions being countries including Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. Over 50 Western countries also provide paid leave for fathers.

No one “chose” to have a parent, and looking at caregiving through that lens exposes some of the absurdities of our current approaches to social policy. We each have the family we were dealt, and for the most part we are all working hard to do the best we can.

There is so much common ground here for the interests of mothers, fathers, and adult children–if you are a parent or have a parent–that is just about all of us! Let’s not let ourselves get caught up in Twitter wars and divisions that separate us and keep us fighting with each other. We need to come together to fight on behalf of sane and compassionate public policy that supports all families.

New York Times forgets that Gen X has any women in it

Argh. Argh argh argh. I am so sick of writing posts about how the media so routinely and pervasively excludes women’s perspectives from their coverage of humanity without even realizing that something is missing. You’d think someone would notice when an eighteen-hundred word feature categorizing an entire generation was published without addressing women. But apparently not.

A. O. Scott’s generational profile Gen X Has a Midlife Crisis is currently featured on the home page Week in Review on While covering Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, Sam Lipsyte’s new book The Ask, and the oeuvre of John Cusack, Scott only managed to throw the tiniest scrap of attention toward anything having to do with women:

At a certain point, Dad buys a sports car, or starts a rock band, or has an affair or walks out on Mom or quits the law firm to make goat cheese. When this kind of thing happens to Mom, it’s not a crisis but an awakening.

Even the article’s artwork is all-male, and conspicuously white-collar:

But I don’t have a penis! Does that mean I don’t count?

You can imagine how blind this article looks from my perspective, having immersed myself in a world of fantastic, thoughtful, intelligent women authors and bloggers for the past seven years. Many of us have even been writing about Generation X for a very long time. But I guess that it will take more than a blogosphere of smart women to get the New York Times’ attention. And as far as Gen X mothers go, I suspect that A. O. Scott’s But what if you never gave up adolescence in the first place? narrative ran out of steam a good five to fifteen years ago. We’ve been caregivers dealing with the day-to-day, hour-to-hour needs of our families for long enough to have the adolescent cobwebs swept out of our brains.

So am I having a midlife crisis? Yes, absolutely, thanks so much for asking. Like many Gen X women, my crisis now involves sandwich generation issues, as I wrote about recently. As my daughter grows into her tween years and my parents reach their elder years, I feel more squeezed in the middle than I ever could have imagined. And we’re just getting started, which is a little scary. The crisis is getting my attention and forcing me to wake up to the fact that I must create a sustainable path for myself and craft a life that will be physically, mentally and emotionally nourishing for everyone in the family. We spent a lot of time this week leading up to Mother’s Day talking about how to do just that. It was a highly unsentimental yet effective way to mark the holiday.

The supreme irony for me (see, irony, I am Gen X) is that while women have come so far, and each generation is reinventing self and motherhood as they go on, at the same time these core caregiving issues have not been solved or shared equally enough. While A. O. Scott is busy musing on the merits of Hot Tub Time Machine versus The Big Chill, I’ve been having therapy sessions that sound like they’re coming right out of The Feminine Mystique. We seem unable to escape the gravitational pull of the issues of work, life, identity and fairness that come up again and again. And I’d love to be able to discuss these issues beyond the fenced-in neighborhood of a mom-blog, in a societal context that is even larger than motherhood itself. And I wish with all my heart that caregiving was not an issue that fell primarily into the laps of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

As you can tell, I don’t have all the answers, but I wish The New York Times would wake up and recognize the validity of my questions.