Care and Caring

(I need to write about the past few days, because Shit Has Happened, but this first.)


So, this afternoon, I’ve got the social care person from the council coming around again, to sort out… I’m not really sure what. I think the financial implications, or something. But I’ve been thinking about a couple of narratives on care, which I keep hearing.


Actually, this all came about because of a discussion on having children, or not having children, in which someone said to me that I was selfish for not having children, because “I would sponge off their kids to look after me when I’m old”. I reasoned that I would rather pay a carer, instead of derailing a family member’s career or family life, since doing the former meant that I’d get professional care without the faff of family baggage, and would be creating much-needed jobs for usually young, usually poor, usually initially under-skilled workers. So, effectively, I wasn’t sponging off their kids, I was giving their kids a job. I was, categorically, making sure that there was a care industry, which meant that if their kids chose to continue their careers instead of looking after their ageing parents, there’d be a care system already in-place to take over.


So, narrative one is that paying a carer is a sign of someone being “abandoned”, and that all care work should be done for free, by family.


Let’s poke that a bit:


Plumbing is a job that’s usually done in the home, and that pretty much looks like anyone can do it, right? You just turn off the stopcock, unscrew the pipe join, cut it a bit shorter to add a connector, clip the connector on, braze in an elbow-joint, then put the new appliance on the extension. It doesn’t take many tools that you don’t already have, and any extra that you’d have to buy, you can buy cheaply. And you’ll pick it up quick enough.


And yet, very few people just expect to do their own plumbing. So why do we expect people to just provide care? Yes, you can probably go to the shops to get food for an ailing relative, but how can you guarantee that you’re doing it adequately- that you’re not forgetting something that they’ve also forgotten, or that you’re doing it at a time that’s right for them, without also making a mess of your own schedule, or how to know the balance between trying to get them to eat better-quality food, and bringing them the things that they like? Beyond that – You know how to wash your own hair, but what about doing someone else’s? How about how to dress them, without causing too much pain or emotional discomfort? What about if they need help with managing their sex life, or getting to an STI clinic, or dealing with incontinence? As a family member, you’re going to find that much more distressing (and they’ll find it much more distressing) than they would with a professional who, when you get right down to the knuckle, is being paid, and who has decided that the renumeration offered is financially “worth” the bother of wiping someone’s arse or making four hundred cups of tea a day.


Hiring a carer, or having one hired for you, is no more “being abandoned” than hiring a plumber or an electrician to repair your house is “being abandoned”. In fact – Think how many people with plumbers or builders or joiners in the family who’ll need building work done and will say “Oh, no, I’ll not ask our Andy, he’s got to be busy at work,” or (from the perspective of Andy) “I’ll do it at mates’ rates, but I still need paying”.
And yet, somehow, we forget that caring work – Whether it be the physical or emotional labour – is real work. And the burden does pretty much uniformly fall on daughters – Not always, and certainly not enough to say that sons are exempt, but if there’s two adult children, society will usually expect the daughter to care for her parents, and the son to not, because he’s got his own children to look after.


It’s even more pronounced when we’re talking about hiring housekeepers or cleaners -At least a nurse or a carer has some obvious skill that the general population doesn’t have, usually (in the public imagination) physiotherapy, or dealing with IVs, TPN and stoma, whereas people find it more difficult to parse that a professional cleaner or housekeeper will usually be a much better and more efficient worker than anyone could manage for themself.


It does look a bit like we’re not counting it as “work” because it’s “women’s work”.


And from that, we get to the kind of native suspicion of carers – Think how common the narrative of “My nurse was stealing from me” is, or “The cleaner ran off with the silverware” or “It turned out that the nice girl from the shop who brought my groceries was also selling my painkillers” is.


There’s two axes there – Class (“They’re poor, their employers are rich, so of course they’ll be tempted to steal”) and gender (“They’re women, who’ll accept money to do the things that women naturally should just do? They must be defective somehow. I bet they’re not beyond stealing, since they’re stealing already by not performing this labour for free”), and sometimes there’s a racial component too, especially in places where carers or nurses are usually recent migrants or the children of migrants.


Then there’s the “Nobody is that good” angle. When we’re being more honest, and realise that being a carer is a difficult job and not paid anywhere near enough for the amount of skill needed, we wonder “Are they doing it for the £8 an hour, or are they getting perks in the form of whatever’s in the fridge, the change bowl, and the medicine drawer?” which often comes in when the families of the person being cared for start to resent the (seemingly) more time that the carer gets with their relative than they do.


Even though, as we know, it’s not really “high quality” time, or not always – For every nice day where you sit and drink tea and talk about the war, there’s two where you’re hauling laundry and being reminded that you’re an employee.


There’s the other big point of discomfort (Ha, you thought I’d get through this whole post without mentioning class, didn’t you? Nope…) class. Most of us consider ourselves, if not solid working-class folk, at least not the hated bourgeoisie – The kind of people who don’t have aspirations above our place in the world, who don’t think we’re better than other folk.


It’s a bit of a paradox that in trying to define ourselves as “Not thinking we’re above ourselves”, we say “Thus hiring a domestic worker degrades them, and us into the bargain”. Because that’s really saying “Being paid for a day’s work is degrading”, or “Being paid to do traditionally feminine jobs is degrading” or even “I think that some kinds of work shouldn’t be renumerated.”


There’s nothing shameful in hiring a carer, because being a carer is not shameful. Nobody is degraded by getting money to do housework, or to go shopping, or to clean arses. All of those are jobs that need doing, and anyone that can do them well deserves to be paid for it. In deciding to hire a carer or a housekeeper or similar, you’re not saying that your time is worth more than their time, you’re saying that they will do a more efficient job than you could – whether that be because they’re better at it than you, or simply because that is their job, rather than trying to fit it in around another job – and that they deserve to be paid for their expertise.


And all this is even before we get into the social and familial implications – It’s easier to maintain a normal family relationship, or friendship, or partnership, when one participant in the relationship doesn’t have to compartmentalise the difference between “Percy, my friend that I love, and whom I sometimes help when it’s appropriate” and “Percy, the person who needs me to do these tasks for them, or they will starve atop a pile of their own shit” and indeed when the other partner doesn’t have to compartmentalise between “Friend that I love” and “Friend that I rely on to be fed and clean, so dare not piss off for fear of returning to the shitheap”.


It’s all the stranger when we consider how much work it was “normal” to contract out at different periods of history – Having a butler or a housekeeper, or even just a cook or a maid, was common amongst the upper and upper-middle classes right up to the Great War, and even now you see adverts for families looking for a live-in nanny or a full-time domestic. Beyond that, having personal servants to wash your hair, help you dress, wake you up in the morning and other remarkably personal duties (Even if, in a small household, that was just one duty of a more general member of staff) was pretty common right into the Regency – Indeed, look at drop-fronted travelling dresses, which became popular with fashionable young upper-class women in the 1810s; They meant that they could get dressed without help, pretty much for the first time. The old cliche of having someone lace you into a corset? Admittedly, it’s always skewed (People get confused between tightlacing, a niche 1900s practise, and corset-wear in general, so always imagine that the reason for having a lacing assistant is because of tightness, not because of the difficulty of putting on a lot of layers, most of them fastening at the back, when wearing a mountain of petticoats, or a pannier, or farthingale, or even much later a crinolene) but once you were into the social strata where you had to dress properly, rather than just skulking around in a tea dress or workwear, if you were a woman you pretty much always had someone to help you dress, even if that was just a friend or a sibling (Read anything by Jane Austen, and note that in the poorer middle-class families, the sisters will help to dress each other. In the richer ones, they’ve got servants). Men as well could expect to have a Gentleman’s gentleman, someone who’d, if not always button them into their shirts, would at least link their cuffs, help with a cravat, set their wigs straight or even just lay out their clothes for them.


The degree of personal care that’s considered “personal” changes, along with fashion. I could talk at length about how the smoking jacket set the stage for people going on pub crawls in kigurumi.


In short: There are so many reasons that having a paid carer is a good and useful thing, and there are similarly many reasons for having a paid housekeeper.




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