In Issue Four of Kill Your Darlings (released on January 14), Emily Maguire records three women’s experiences caring for ill and disabled family members. Read an exclusive extract from the essay here.
Care, the nursing historian Marie-Françoise Collière wrote, ‘is at the very root of women’s history, as it is around care that the main part of women’s destiny is woven’. This is true for Wendy, who has cared her entire life and swears she will do so until the day she dies. ‘When Mum’s gone,’ she tells me, ‘I’ll find someone else who needs me. I wouldn’t know what else to do with myself.’
She tells me repeatedly that speaking to her is probably a waste of my time: ‘My life’s nothing to talk about.’ It’s a sentiment I’ll hear again and again from family carers.
Collière argues that, as medicine became professionalised, ‘anything related to care became taken for granted, considered unworthy, requiring “lower skills” and scanty knowledge, limited to routine procedures and “know-how”’. Non-professional, unpaid carework became ‘invisible work done by invisible women.’
There are male carers, of course, but they are in the minority. More than 70 per cent of primary carers in Australia are women, and American research shows that daughters are three times more likely to become primary carers than sons; this blows out to four times more likely when the parent is severely impaired. The gendered nature of care is, as the Sydney Morning Herald’s Ross Gittins has argued, ‘a feminist issue with similarities to the need for child care – although it gets far less attention than the problems faced by younger women.’
The disparity in male/female care reflects the traditional division of labour in families. In our culture, as well as in many others, women and girls are still expected to take on all or most of the domestic responsibility. The gender pay gap is also a factor: women still earn only 83 per cent of the male wage, so leaving work or reducing work hours in order to take on family responsibilities is considered less of an economic sacrifice. As historian Emily Abel points out, care work is undervalued not only because it has traditionally been seen as ‘women’s work’, but also because the people who need care – the sick, the disabled, the elderly – are also undervalued.