Caregiving Is Not Empowering

Caregiving has traditionally been a female occupation, even when it hasn't always been a female calling. Men can be sensitive, competent caregivers. Women can poison their children. No biological imperative drives women to catalog their children’s vaccinations. There is no glory in changing dirty sheets, when they smell like sleepy formula drool, or when they are nicotine brown and stained with blood. Nobody sees this part of keeping others alive, and the casual obligation of women to perform these functions goes largely without remark. (And shame on you who would equivocate between power and the personal strength required to look after another person. It’s not the same, and you know it.)

Emotional and domestic labor are cultural necessities, embedded enough as to be almost invisible. We’ve all heard the joke about the kid's magical dresser that always has clean clothes in it somehow. We laugh because the mom has been doing their laundry the whole time, and we identify with one of the characters, or both. We all relate to taking care for granted. Examining the division of labor between the sexes has been one of the better efforts made in the name of equality. More fundamentally, acknowledging that this is labor at all has been a coup driven in part, or necessitated by, the commodification of these activities. Nurses treat the sick and the dying, daycare workers tend to children, therapists validate our feelings—but they aren’t caregiving, not exactly. 

Caregiving is differentiated from occupational caretaking in that the latter is paid and provided to strangers. Occupational caretaking requires emotional distance, a distance enforced through variable shifts and too many crying faces to remember. The escort wants cash, not a check. (So does your housecleaner, and so does your therapist.) Human prerogatives to affiliation and the like do not factor into a service economy. Caretaking services generate wages, where caregiving does not, and yet caregiving persists. Caregiving is as mundane as it is profound. We are human and we will always do this or we will cease to be human. It is valuable, and it is good. But that doesn't make it empowering. It isn't empowering when men do it, and it isn't empowering for women either.

Power means you can make a thing or person do what they would not have otherwise done. Humanity at any scale orders itself and confers power as a matter of fact. This is, perhaps, how we are able to order ourselves at all– at the expense of some, and to the benefit of others. Power makes businesses pay taxes, and governments change laws. Caregiving, the act of doing for another what they would otherwise have had to do for themselves, does not give power. When caregiving becomes transactional, it ceases to be caregiving. Driving your bloated blacked-out sister to rehab doesn’t mean she owes you a thing. More to the point, it doesn’t mean you can make her. You will eventually have to call the police, who have an authority you do not. You will watch them take her away and be shocked by your relief at their dispassion. 

Caregiving may win favor, affiliation, intimacy, or satisfaction-- but it does not influence except through the threat of taking that support away. It’s an implicit threat, elemental to dependency, the way an addict doesn’t have a problem until they run out. When people talk about caregiving being empowering, then they are talking about coercion. At best, they are talking about proximity to power. The throwaway decision made to appease a favorite child-- the red popsicle and not the blue. This is the type of power by proxy to which women have historically been limited. Claiming empowerment through unpaid assistance is a retrograde attitude resold, and resold largely to women.

Feminine virtues like softness and beauty tend strongly to be transitive; being soft and beautiful is worth nothing at all, inherently speaking. These are characteristics defined by their subjective experience by others. Perhaps, again, this is how they came to be feminine ideals. A person can be both caring and powerful, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Women are required to be uniquely nurturing; the expectation that women excel in their family life while also holding positions of power illustrates this point. She is not empowered by her family life here, she is obligated to it, fulfilling though it may be. I’ve never seen a female candidate for public office called out about her student loan debt, but she is nothing, of course, if she has bad hair.

Perfect hair will not escalate a cease and desist action. A clean sink will not dictate public policy. A million years of spotless sinks and perfect china will not amount to one change in the same time. Maybe that is the point. Caregiving is similar in that regard. The misapplication of "empowering" doesn't advance the needs of women or men; it's a repackaging of chauvinism using social justice buzzwords. Consider the last time you heard or read something to this effect—it was almost certainly coming from a woman, because this is gendered rhetoric. A more muscular feminist movement would never tolerate this line of reasoning, or what it has done. Claiming empowerment here is nothing more than approval seeking; the only people who benefit from this message are the people who are getting work out of women for free.

by: Spooky Fitzgerald


Instagram:  @spooky_fitzgerald