Caregiving is not a choice for any of us!
Lynn Harris wrote a thoughtful, detailed feature on Salon.com, Everybody Hates Mommy. And unfortunately, yet predictably, the haters are coming out on the comments. The second commenter wrote in to vote in FAVOR of Harris' synopsis of anti-parent sentiment:
"I am sick and tired of young mothers' sense of entitlement. It was your choice to get pregnant. Deal with it. You do not get a pat on the back or a seat from me because you decided to reproduce."
So first of all, I hope you'll read Lynn's piece and post a supportive comment to show that we are out there in the public dialogue, too.
The "choice" narrative has really been stuck in my craw lately. It's a version of "rugged American individualism" run rampant, and it shows up in so many places. Unfortunately, as "choice" has become our guiding metaphor, the concept has become weakened by the ubiquity of consumer choice. It's been devalued to the point of "What's your choice? Chocolate or vanilla ice cream?" I am not going to go to bat for a choice as trivial as that one, and I worry that motherhood has been trivialized in that manner.
It may be a choice on some level for individual women to have children, but it's not a choice for children to have mothers. And it's not a choice for society to bring new citizens on board! The way we treat families in this country shows that we do not truly value our children, which is truly a tragedy. Just go into any school that is lacking basic supplies and see how valued those children feel by society.
And devaluing parents devalues children and interferes with caregiving. As I have written before, in the United States we don't have basic job protection for parents, health care, which we are working on now, and other social benefits that are standard in every other wealthy country. At international conferences, women from Canada to New Zealand to India have come up to tell me that the mothers in the United States are putting up with a terrible deal, and we barely even know how bad we have it. That's a real downside to American exceptionalism--we just assume that the way we do it here is the best way, perhaps the only way to do things, and we are unwilling to learn from the rest of the world.
We need to come to grips with the fact that caregiving is NOT optional. Every powerful man was once a screaming baby with a woman feeding him, wiping his butt, and tucking him in at night. Perhaps it was his mother, perhaps a nanny who was a woman of another race. A few years back I heard Professor Jane Brown talk about why people are so squeamish about seeing mothers breastfeeding, and she said it is because it reminds us of our "creaturliness," which ultimately reminds us of our mortality. I think the same might be said about caregiving in general. Powerful, wealthy men can cling to the illusion of "choice" to eventually move beyond the world of caregiving, leaving that to the women and minorities to take care of. When Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona recently said during the health care debate, "I don't need maternity care, so requiring that on my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive," I was so thankful that Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan was there to retort, "I think your mom probably did."
Jon Kyl may want to live with the illusion that he never needed care, and will never need it again, but the fact is that ALL OF US needed intense caregiving in our early years, and many of us will need it again in our elder years.
This is why even the most rugged, healthy young individualists need to worry about caregiving. People can "choose" to be selfish bastards if they wish, but what happens when their parents get old and need care? What happens when they can't manage to juggle their job and their Mom and Dad's care, or can't afford to pay for professional elder care? Then they'll find out what it means not to have a "choice." And I can tell them, it will happen sooner than they think, perhaps as they themselves are hitting their early forties and their own careers are starting to reach the stratosphere.
I've gotten a preview of this myself, especially since my parents are divorced and therefore they don't have each other to lean on. I love each of them dearly and I know that I am privileged to have personal savings and a flexible work schedule that allows me to be with them when necessary. I literally do not know how I would be able to juggle a strict 8 to 5 job like the one I used to have, with the family caregiving needs I am responsible for on both ends of the generational spectrum.
As a country, we need to get a handle on this, now. We are in serious denial about what the aging of the Baby Boomers is going to mean to our country. Especially now, with many seniors' retirement accounts diminished by the financial meltdown, and adult children under financial stress as well, we need to find ways to value caregiving in all its forms, and create support systems that allow families to provide care and remain economically sound.
In my optimistic moments I hope that if we're willing to move beyond denial, caregiving can become an issue that brings many people together. When Gloria Steinem spoke in Raleigh a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised but pleased to see that the first issue she talked about was valuing the economic contribution of family caregiving.
This issue is eternal but for too long it has been invisible and marginalized: at best, sentimentalized, at worst, scorned. Our the modern generational twist makes this truly a lifelong issue. As challenging and intense as parenting is, we need to face the fact that we may be caring for aging parents for more years than we raise our children. Did I mention that my 93 and 91 year old grandparents are still alive, one on each side of the family? So even as I worry about my parents, they are each concerned about one of theirs, as well.
We need to value all of our citizens and family members, from young to old. So don't tell me to deal with the fact that I am choosing to care for my child any more than you are choosing to have parents.
Correction: post updated to reflect the fact that Lynn Harris' piece is a feature on Salon.com, not a post to Salon's Broadsheet blog.