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But, Aren’t Women Natural Caregivers?

My good friend, Lorraine, had what I like to call a Come-to-Jesus moment. She came to the realization that the life she thought she wanted as recently as a decade ago would have made her miserable. Furthermore, she awakened to this truth: she wasn’t even hardwired for the life she’d thought she wanted.

“I think the universe did me a favor by keeping my soulmate away from me during my childbearing years. If I had to do this shit every day for YEARS, well, I would make my husband and our offspring miserable.”

Like many women, Lorraine is single and childless mostly by circumstance. At 48, she has found herself unmarried and without a child mostly because she never made much effort to acquire either. She would have preferred a husband (she thought) and if their marriage resulted in children, she would have enjoyed caring for said children (she thought.) On a recent trip home for the Christmas holiday, she became the primary caregiver for the old folks in her family. Elders who were not so frail that they needed full time help, but who took full advantage of having a younger, more able bodied daughter and niece to run errands, cook meals and negotiate the tedious details of doctors’ appointments, prescription refills and grocery shopping. Lorraine cared for the adults who had once cared for her, but she was clear that she did not enjoy it. She also found she did not naturally possess the skills (or patience) one would need to be a good caregiver.

Lorraine joked that she was “shook hard” by this epiphany. She didn’t find honor in managing the lives of family members she loved dearly? She didn’t take pride in serving as the caregiver? Found it the complete opposite of a joyful necessity? She thought about how she had imagined her adult life as a teenager and young woman. While she was not aching to be a wife and mother, she assumed that when she became both, she’d fall happily into the roles. That’s what women do, right? Sure, women have their moments of fatigue when taking care of their families, but overall, they relished in the role. Eventually came to see it as some sort of super power. I am the backbone of this family. I keep us together. Right?

On a recent episode of my podcast, I talked with Doreen Yomoah about this assumption. That women, by virtue of their gender, have some innate skill, which makes them the default option when a child needed to be nurtured or an older relative tended to. Doreen works for a research center that explores this persistent myth that women, in general, are genetically predisposed for the role of primary caregiver. Through her work, she sees how many of us are so bought into the messaging that it should be women who take care of children, husbands, and parents that we never question why women are so “good at” taking care of others. Is it because we possess this special gene that men lack or is it because from the time we are old enough to be aware of it, people are making us take care of others whether we want to or not?

Young girls get their training for caregiving at Thanksgiving when they find themselves alone in a room full of toddlers they did not give birth to. Hours before, these toddlers would have arrived with adults who were legally and morally responsible for them. However, the 12-year-old girl cousins happen to look up from the television to find babies crawling around them. Their aunts and uncles have gone off to some other part of the house to hang with each other and just assumed their offspring would be kept alive by these older children who had been blessed with the caregiving gene. Meanwhile, the 12- year-olds who were not blessed with this magical gene are outside playing football.

It is very telling that even in this, the year of our Lord: 2019, women who come to Lorraine’s conclusion are surprised when discovering this about themselves. I don’t like giving care and I don’t believe I am predisposed to it. As I said to Lorraine, “I’ve known I was not a caregiver since I was 12.” While I may seem more enlightened for having my Come-to-Jesus moment while still a girl, I instinctively knew that I could not vocalize my knowing feeling that being a primary caregiver would not suit me. That I would be opting out of the role as soon as I was allowed to.

Because it was clear to me as a girlchild with little control over my daily life, I would not be allowed to say no to what so many assumed was my duty. Children would be left in my care without my permission and a cursory, “I am just going to sit in the front room talking with your mama for a while. All you have to do is give him his bottle when he cries.” Helping my grandmother manage her house would become my Sunday responsibility before it would my older and more capable brother’s. I would be expected to be a free babysitter to my sister’s child well before anyone ever thought to ask my brothers if they could go over to her apartment and take the baby off her hands for a few hours.

Yes, it goes without saying that some women are blessed with this magical gene of caregiving. These women do find honor and joy in nurturing children and managing the lives of vulnerable family members. However, as Doreen said on Unchained. Unbothered., “Women are just socialized from the time we are born to be primary caregivers. We are not naturally better at it than men.”

I am not suggesting that women abandon their old folk and refuse to care for their children. What needs to happen is we start calling a thing a thing. Women still take on the lion’s share of caregiving because we exonerate men from the duty even when many of them are just as capable as we are. There is no caregiving gene. There is just training. Girls are drafted into the training even before they’ve reached puberty. Boys get to skip it, if they choose. Not surprisingly, they opt for football.

4 Responses

  1. This post was on point.

  2. Great post! Somehow, caretaking for my husband’s mother fell to me through this system. I was happy to help find her an in-home caregiver (seriously, bless people who enjoy caretaking, like our comfort keeper), but there is no way I was moving her into my home and taking on that responsibly full time, like many assumed I would. No expected my husband to quit his job to care for his mother, after all.

    • That last sentence slays me. If there are protocols to follow, the one that makes the MOST sense emotionally and logically *is* the human being the sick woman raised from birth would then happily return the honor and care for HIS mother. One would assume that his life partner would, of course, assist and not allow him to take on that burden alone, but it is astounding that it was assumed it should be you, the spouse who is not her child, who would alter her entire life and deplete herself caring this sick woman. I applaud you for making it plain what your contribution to her care would be.

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