Caregiving, unpaid labor, the motherhood penalty, the gender wage gap. These are terms that get thrown around in academic journals, economic studies and angry online posts, but what do they mean and how do they affect the lives of modern women? Let’s talk about caregiving by defining what it means.
What is Caregiving?
Merriam-Webster defines a caregiver as a person who delivers direct care, as in childcare, to elderly people, or to the chronically ill. Such a short definition for such an all consuming job. There are endless tasks around caregiving; cooking, cleaning, laundry, dishes, shopping, doctors’ visits, supervision, educational enrichment, emotional support. Caregiving is never “finished”, families must eat several times a day, requiring food prep, creating dishes to be washed and food stocks to be replenished. Clothes must be continually washed, folded and put away, bills must be paid regularly. The list goes on. Take a moment to consider how much of your day is consumed with these tasks. If you’re a woman it’s likely a considerable amount of your time and if you’re in a hetero relationship, statistically it’s far more time than your male counterpart. The UN Department of Statistics Time Study data shows that in the US in 2015, American women performed almost twice as much unpaid domestic work and more work overall each day.
Caregiving is Life Giving
Caregiving is real work. Humans, quite literally, cannot survive without it. Every person on the planet is a beneficiary of caregiving at various stages of their lives, usually at their most vulnerable. Aside from food and shelter, children who do not receive human touch and contact will die. At some point in the later years of life, many aging family members will not be able to care for themselves. The chronically and terminally ill among us need almost constant care. Even fully independent adults need care when they become injured or fall ill. Not only is caregiving real work, it is vitally important work for our families and our society. So why is most of this work uncompensated?
Caregiving is Underappreciated
Most caregiving is untracked and unquantified, meaning that there are no current systems in place to track this invisible work. The above referenced time study from the UN Dept. of Stats tracked 40,000 households, which is large by academic study standards, but cannot begin to represent the more than 122 million households in the US. Further, all of this uncompensated domestic work is not included in the GDP (gross domestic product), which in a main driver of US economic policy. Not surprisingly, most of this unpaid work falls to women. Globally, women perform far more of the domestic work than men. On average, women spend 4.5 hours per day doing uncompensated domestic tasks. Men spend about half that time.
Even when caregiving is compensated, it is often grossly underpaid. Domestic workers are amongst the lowest paid in our nation. Further, domestic workers are not protected from unfair and unsafe working conditions. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance,
“…Domestic workers are excluded from many of the basic protections guaranteed by the Fair Labor Standards Act to most other workers in the United States — things like minimum wage, overtime, sick and vacation pay.”
Childcare workers, housekeepers and elderly caregivers care for our most precious loved ones. They do the work that makes all of the other work possible and they are deserving of respect and recognition.
Caregiving Can be Isolating
In every home across America, some form of caregiving is happening. Cats are being fed, plants are being watered, babies are being diapered, toys are being picked up off of the floor, bathrooms are being cleaned, medicine is being dispensed. But in our single family homes and apartments, we’re doing the majority of these tasks as individuals. We struggle through our days feeling lonely and sometimes inadequate. “How is it that I was busy all day long, but my house looks WORSE than it did this morning??”
We’ve all heard of the stereotypical, hypothetical interchange between a working husband and a stay at home mom, where the husband walks into a chaotic, noisy house, with piles of laundry and dinner nowhere in sight and asks, “What did you DO all day?” Now to be fair, most modern husbands I know wouldn’t be foolish enough to endanger their relationships like that, but the truth is that this is the internal dialogue of many stay at home moms. We hold ourselves to impossible standards. We often wonder where our days went and why we didn’t accomplish more. The same can be said for working mothers, who are put in the difficult position of having to, quite literally, do it all.
Caregiving Can Strain our Relationships
Heteronormative gender roles are sticky and while we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Men are doing more childcare and domestic work than ever before. Stay at home dads, we see you too. If it’s hard for us moms to relate to our working peers at a cocktail party, it’s got to be a million times harder for you. Toxic masculinity makes it hard for men to be taken seriously as caregivers.
As far as we’ve come, there is still a strong societal expectation that good mothers do the domestic heavy lifting and good fathers bring home the proverbial bacon to support the family. This puts men and women into small and stifling boxes. Research shows that when household tasks are shared more equitably there is a positive impact on marital satisfaction.
Caregiving Impacts Financial Freedom and Earning Potential
Whether a parent chooses to stay home with their kids, or is forced to give up outside employment for financial necessity, the economic costs are impactful and long lasting. The Center for American Progress estimates that American workers lose 3-4 times their annual salary for each year they take off to care for children or other family members. The younger you are, the longer lasting the effects. And because women still only make 80% of what men make, it often makes more financial sense for women to take time out of their careers, further perpetuating the negative gender pay gap cycle.
Even mothers who take little to no time off after having children are hit with an average 4% penalty per child. This is primarily due to a cultural bias against mothers. Shelley J. Correll, a sociology professor from Stanford conducted a study where employers were given resumes that were either neutral or had references to motherhood. Employers were half as likely to call back mothers.
Why Does all of this Matter?
We think caregivers are unsung heroes in our society. They hold together the fabric of our families and our communities. They kiss boo boos, give hugs, serve food, wash stinky socks, offer life giving and life affirming care and love. We also think they get a raw deal and we want to do something about it. How can we seek to advocate for a cultural shift in the way we see caregiving?
We think it’s all about tracking and measuring this important work. As the economist Morton Marcus of the Kelly School of Business writes, “If labor is uncompensated, it is unmeasured and hence culturally invisible. It does not mean that the labor of the homemaker is without value. Yet without measurement, without compensation, that effort is diminished and demeaned in our eyes.” So why and how should we measure caregiving?