Not Caring For Gender

by Catherine Conlon, Virpi Timonen, Gemma Carney and Thomas Scharf

Conlon_blogimage_October 2014The popular Irish refrain that a ‘woman’s work is never done’ is premised on the view that caring and femininity are two sides of the same coin. In Ireland, the family continues to be the primary source of care for children, older adults and people with disabilities, with (most) care provided by women. But not all women are equally involved in caring. While researching solidarity between generations in Ireland, we talked to 52 women aged 18 to 102 years and heard about important changes that women are initiating to the place of care in their lives. Having the perspectives of both older and younger women illuminated negotiations between family generations of women, driven by a concern among older women in particular to intervene in how caring constrains women’s lives. Renegotiating care in women’s lives amounts to ‘undoing gender’. However, women’s capacity to negotiate the place of care in their lives differed depending on the resources available to them and their families.

In low-income families, young women grow up witnessing parents, especially mothers, sustaining the family with meager resources and suffering strain. They see ‘close up’ their family’s needs for help and support and assume responsibility for meeting those needs by direct care giving early on in their lives. Getting involved in caregiving may mean giving up other opportunities in order to be a resource to the family rather than a drain on resources as 21-year-old Lisa describes:

[My grandparents] are looking after me since I was small. Now I think it is my turn to give back to them what they [have] done for me… [Caring for my grandparents] would probably stop me from doing things that I need to do [for my education] because I wouldn’t be focused on myself. I would be more focused on them and their health and what they need.

Growing up in middle or higher income families means witnessing less need for help and support within the family and across family generations. As a consequence, young women in these better-off families forge a sense of having freedom to pursue diverse opportunities in education, employment and other self-directed pursuits. This is facilitated by the security of knowing that care needs that may arise for older family members can be met by purchasing care services using the family’s financial resources. In these families, emotional support rather than care labor is the principal input from younger family members.

Older women meanwhile are taking a critical view of how caring constrains women’s lives. They observe the multiple roles and demands on younger women and temper their own expectations of receiving family care accordingly. Witnessing younger women in the family combining paid employment and childrearing, older women respond by withholding expectations of help, support, or care from them. Higher income older women instead look to any available public (health and social care) supports and privately purchased services to provide for their anticipated care needs. In tandem with initiating change to the place of care work in the lives of younger women, older women are renegotiating the place of care in their own later lives by for instance withholding or limiting their involvement in grandchild care. By signaling limited availability to care for grandchildren, older women initiate a break in practices of reciprocation, and free their daughters from the obligation to provide elder care. Sinead, a 37-year-old employed professional and mother of two, described how her mother had explained to her that she did not want to assume the role of caring for her grandchildren. The effect of this has been to break any expectation of reciprocating care between generations:

Not that I wouldn’t want to do it [elder care] for [my parents], I would gladly do it, but they are hugely independent and I think they would find it very difficult [to accept help]… Whereas I would never have wanted my kids to be a burden on my parents now, you know, I know that my parents feel that they don’t want to be a burden on me.

Just as interdependence and reciprocity in giving and receiving support characterized intergenerational family relations for women in lower socioeconomic groups, being freed from care obligations was playing out as a reciprocating process among family generations of women in middle and higher socioeconomic groups. Reciprocity in caring relations is therefore taking a new shape. Older women are initiating changes to the place of care in their later lives and, by extension, in the lives of younger women in their families through new processes of reciprocation where withholding, for example, grandchild care is reciprocated by withholding of expectations or demands for elder care. Freedom from extensive care obligations is a new form of reciprocity among (higher income) women across family generations and involves ‘undoing gender’.

Catherine Conlon is in the school of social work and social policy at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Her article, co-authored with Virpi Timonen, Gemma Carney and Thomas Scharf, is titled “Women (Re)Negotiating Care Across Family Generations: Intersections of Gender and Socioeconomic Status,” and published in the October 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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