There's been an interesting discussion in a number of American Feminist Blogs about a New York Timesarticle on caring for elderly parents. Or, because it's the New York Times, how rich women are giving up careers to look after elderly parents, because then they get to bash uppity women, and act like everyone has a six figure income, all at the same time.
Things aren't quite as bad in New Zealand as they would be in America, because we do have something resembling a public health system (La Lubu's comments in Jill's blog are just one example of how much worse an insurance based health system is). But the issues in terms of who does the care and how, is just as bad here. Paid caregiving work is treated badly enough; unpaid caregiving work is ignored. The only minimum provision is that you can use your own sick leave for a dependent (but if you had a good employer, you would have a case to make for leave to take your mother to the doctor, but only if you could show that you'd still keep the same level of productivity of someone who didn't take their parents to the doctor).
The discussion on Feministe was the one I found most interesting. Jill said:
I should make it clear that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (it’s one of those things that, I think, is beyond classification as “good” or “bad”). It’s obviously not ideal that one gender is expected to devoting their entire lives to the service of others. But, not to get too cheesy, I think it’s valuable to not lose sight of what really matters in life — and while I hate to see things like caring for family become socially mandated for a group of people by simple virtue of their vagina-possession, the flip side is that it gives women the option of quitting their jobs or taking time off without too many people second-guessing them. I don’t think the same can be said for men. Imagine a 50-year-old man announcing in the boardroom that he’s quitting in order to care full-time for his elderly parents.Now comenters on her post rightly pointed out that the thing that's stopping more men from giving up their jobs to care for their children isn't a lack of a vagina, but power and priviledge. But it shows how important that we both challenge the sexism that mean it is mostly women who do the work, and challenge the way the work is valued.
It is mostly women who do unpaid caring work looking after elderly parents, and our society would fall apart if we didn't do it. On an individual basis there are lots of different reasons that it's ususally the women who do the work (they live closest, they have more flexible working hours, they earn less and so cutting down the hours they work makes more sense, or because they're women), but on a societal level the reason women do most of the unpaid caring work is because we live in a incredibly sexist society. In fact I'd go further and say one of the reasons we live in a sexist society is because capitalism can't afford to value caring work, and therefore it is incredibly important that it gets done for free.
We need to change the way women's work is valued, as Jill said:
I’m saying that I think caring for others is valuable, important work, and that it’s thoroughly fucked that it’s underpaid and undervalued, but I’m glad I have the option to do it. I’m tired of a system that places what men do as the epitome of achievement, and I’m definitely growing tired of the idea that to be successful, women have to emulate whatever men have traditionally done, because that’s what’s good. I want to live in a world where I can take time off from my job to take care of my parents when they need me — I just want that world to hold men to the same standard, and to value my work as a caregiver as much or more as they value traditional “male” work.