by Shaker Marissa
As feminists, we talk a lot about something society seems to not even really notice: That one of the biggest burdens of sexism, outside of violence, is unpaid carework. This can range from the obvious, like parenting, to the hard to quantify, such as remembering birthdays on someone else's behalf. But most of the time, when we are discussing these burdens, we are talking about the work that grown women do. There is, however, another group of people that the unfair burden of unpaid carework sometimes falls upon.
I'm talking about children and teenagers who are the primary caretakers of family members.
For most of recorded history, women have shouldered the primary responsibility for family carework, but in families where there was just too much to do, or especially those poorer households where women took on paid employment (as they have always done since paid employment began, whatever Republicans may believe), the burden then fell to their daughters. Sometimes, it fell on sons if there were no daughters or they were very young.
In the United States, the phenomenon of children taking care of adults is on the rise, due to a number of factors. Obviously, one of the largest in that most women now have some form of paid employment by necessity, meaning that they are simply not available 24-7 to care for the sick or disabled. Another is that, unlike other industrialized nations, not only do we not have a nationalized health service, but, in addition, we also lack a functional social system of family support for those with severe/chronic illnesses or disabilities. The third wheel of this trainwreck is the fact that, with good reason, people are choosing to have fewer children, and often later in life. These facts combine to create a world where your 12-year-old kid may be the only person who CAN take care of you if you lose your health.
The phenomenon has grown to the point now where it is estimated that 3 percent of households in America have a child who is a caretaker, finally starting to catch the attention of the mainstream media, including the New York Times, which just published a piece about it, available here.
The piece triggered a big response in me, because I was one of those kids—the good daughter who did her duty. I'm not saying that I regret that I was able to help my father live a more dignified life, and was able to have him around as I grew up. But I am saying that it was an enormous burden, the ramifications of which I am still dealing with today.
My father had a severe brainstem stroke when I was 14, during Christmas break. He was completely paralyzed, and had to be on life support for 6 weeks. We were extremely lucky, in that he partially recovered from his paralysis, was able to get off of life support, and after a full year of physical therapy, was even able to walk, although only for short distances and unsteadily. He still requires basically 24 hours supervision to this day, because he has to take such high concentrations of blood thinners, that minor bruises could kill him from the bleeding, and additionally his ability to feel pain never completely returned, so it is hard for him to know when he has injured himself.
The cost to our family was huge. I'm still paying on what it cost me. My grades took a severe hit that year—a combination of sleep deprivation, emotional turbulence, and being an unsupervised 14-year-old. I never was able to get them above a B average after that, which made it hard to get scholarships later. We lived in an isolated area, several miles by major highway to town, so I was pretty much stuck at home since there was no safe way home if I stayed after school. My mom had to work really long hours to pay our bills, as we had always been a 2-income family, solidly working class.
In addition, I couldn't take an after-school job when I got older, because my dad's condition was just too dangerous for him to be alone. When I graduated, and wanted to go to school, going away wasn't an option, and, financially, going to school full-time wasn't either. So I did the part-time community college route, and ended up getting married just out of high school. It worked out, but I don't think I would have gone that route so fast if I hadn't been so desperate to have a good friend to lean on. I had my kids early, too, mostly because I figured that I might as well have them when I was clearly going to be home with them, instead of trying to figure out young children and full-time employment. I waited out my mom's retirement; she finally got it this last year, and now I am trying to pull my life back together.
I still haven't finished school. I'm finally in my last year, and it is getting increasingly hard to explain to people why I'm not done yet at 28. I've had several promising internship interviews, for a career based on my degree, but they tend to dry up when they realize I'm not 22. I tend to get callbacks when I explain my age because of my kids, but never when I explain my missing decade that I was taking care of my dad.
I wonder what I might have done with the last 10 years if I had other real options. You know, other than letting my dad end up in some institution, because we didn't have the money for a real nursing home or to have someone come to the house and help.
And I worry about those kids who had it worse than me. After all, my mom COULD work and support us. We had health insurance. We owned our house. I was in reasonable health and without problems of my own. I had some money set aside for college, and a husband who truly supported my ambitions, and understood my obligations. Take away any of these things, and I would likely be in a much worse place.
And so while it's nice that people are talking about this now, I have to ask: Why haven't we been talking about this before?