TWO SIDES OF AN IDEA
Lore has it that a person without a compass, tramping a long distance in the wilderness, will slowly veer sideways, make a circle, and end up where she began. When I first laid out these essays on the blue rug in my study, starting with the first essay I thought to include and ending with another I’d just drafted, there it was—that circle. In the center is the idea that love and care, the very basis of any social life, are a source of great confusion in America today. We do a caring act. But why do we do it? Are we motivated by personal desire or obligation, or by what blend of each? Are these motives anchored to family or something like it? Го friendship or something like it? Are we motivated by civic pride, devotion to God, professional pride, or the desire for money? And what happens when the institutions to which these anchors are attached themselves change—as when, in the United States today, family bonds grow lighter or shift, the state withdraws support for the poor, companies cut benefits and reduce job security, or the care sector of the economy expands, recruiting from across the globe? What knots, disconnects, and surprises appear—apparently unrelated—-in the daily expressions of love and care and in our feelings about those expressions? When a Thai nanny in Redwood City, California, tells me she loves the American children she cares for more than her own children back in Thailand, is this an example of a rich country “extracting” the ore of love from a poor country? And, if so, what social anchors for love and care do her children have?
Emotion, gender, family, capitalism, globalization — these are the topics. But I invite the reader to use the ideas in all of them to help figure out what affects the fate of love and care. That’s the question at the center of the circle.
For, over the past twenty years, we have witnessed a growing care gap. Informal systems of kin care have grown more fragile, uncertain, and fragmented. Yet newer institutional forms of care are not universally in place or uniformly humane. The larger structure of American society has become less caring too. The class gap has widened. I. arge corporadons increasingly hire and fire workers as market demand dictates.
All of this has altered the nature of the public world that American women, during this period, have entered in huge numbers. In 1900 less than a fifth of married women in the United States worked for pay; in 1950 about 40 percent did, and in 2000 close to 70 percent did.1 Indeed, whether a husband is present or not, six out of ten mothers of two-year-olds and over half of mothers of one-year-olds are engaged in paid work. Nowadays the grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors to whom one might have turned for caring help are also working. Fathers haven’t cut back their hours but, if anything, have expanded them, while a growing divorce rate has led many fathers to leave all care of their children to their ex-wives. So there are fewer hands at home. At the same time, many people can’t find or afford good paid care. And neither the government nor private corporations are stepping forward to bridge the gap. On the contrary, in recent years both the state and capitalism have stepped back from previous commitments (the state through welfare reform, capitalism through the growth of the contingency labor force). Instead, both have tossed the care ball back to the private realm, where few are home to catch it. We have “dead-beat dads” it seems, in both the private and the public realms.2
All of this is bad news for care. Children and the elderly were far worse off in the America of 1690,1890, and 1930, of course. Still, those who make the argument that “it used to be worse” sometimes do so in the spirit of emotionally bracing us to accept the tough news of today’s world. I don’t want to do that. We don’t need to imagine an unrealistically idyllic past in order to recognize today’s care gap as a care gap.
And it’s one that has led to a curious outcome. On one hand, the work of caring for young and old seems to have moved down in honor and monetary reward, and become work to get out of, to pass on to someone who can’t get a better job. On the other hand, care has moved up in ideological importance, as part of an intense and hazy quest to create a kinder, gentler family and nation. Ideologically, “care” went to heaven. Practically, it’s gone to hell.
Indeed, despite escalation in public rhetoric about care, we are asking increasingly anxious questions about the practical realities of it. One set of questions focuses on the informal care offered by family and friends. Is a father or stepfather the “real dad" in a small child’s life? Are the ex-husband’s parents the primary grandparents of a child or does a child now look to the parents of a new husband? In what way does a long-hours dad share the care of his elderly mother with his siblings, his wife, the home healthcare worker? Is a neighbor looking in on a twelve-year-old, or is the child old enough to stay alone until working parents come home? Given the new pressures at work, when can working parents make it home?
As we supplement or replace family care with paid care, how do we make it work in a humanly meaningful way? As the “artisanal” family becomes the postindustrial one, tasks formerly done inside are increasingly outsourced to specialists—childcare workers, eldercare aides, hospice workers, summer camp counselors, psychiatrists, and for the affluent, chauffeurs, family photo assemblers, and birthday party coordinators. Less and less do we produce care. More and more we consume it. Indeed, increasingly we “do” care by buying the right service or thing.
While many paid forms ol care are vast improvements over the unpaid care of yesteryear, paid care raises challenging questions. A re we okay with the fact that baby may say his first word to the childcare worker, and grandma her last word to the nursing home aide? If we reserve for such moments some sense of private awe, how do we reconcile this with the demands of our workplaces, the equality of the sexes, and the very structure of honor in modem life? That’s the basic question.
Many of the essays in this book try to capture and magnify moments in the circle around it. A child eavesdrops on a phone call in which a parent hires a babysitter A man wants more thanks from his wife for doing the laundry’. An advice book tells her to drop him. Private moments of confusion or conflict about care are often direcdy linked to contradictory’ social pressures in society at large. Sometimes these pressures originate in one place and show up in another, as in what doctors call “referred pain.” Just as pain in a leg may originate in a slipped disk in our back, so too a painfully deteriorating bond between parent and child may link back to a company speed-up or government retrenchment. Increasingly we feel in our moments ol detachment and neglect the referred pain of unfettered global capitalism itself.