To talk, as I have in this blog, of networks as the fabric of community is to describe society in the abstract terms of sociological theory; but the links in the chains of dependency are real persons. Every day, I learn more about the work of women I know in the childrearing and eldering networks, as I have called them. Even as women have taken wage labor jobs, they continue to bear the burden of caretaking. As far as I know, men have not, in a significant way, stepped in to assume this work. Three daughters, all grown women, looked after their ailing, elderly mother for the years of her decline. One of the women lived with her mother.The other two daughters, living on their own and working at career jobs, came to their mother's home daily to prepare her meals, bathe her, watch television with her, assist her medication, and lighten her life. I often talk with one of the women, B_, whom I count as a friend, on my evening dog walks. She lets her dog, Princess, out in her front yard. Princess's barking is the canine early warning system notifying that Bear and I are near. Her mistress comes to the yard fence to converse for a few minutes. This woman is a bright, strong, attractive personality. She not only was, until her mother's death last month, caring for her mother, but she also cared for her boy friend's children for several years, until the relationship ended. Several years ago, she successfully fought cancer. I know her sisters stood by her side. She has not mentioned to me that any man was by her side in this ordeal.
Another woman, B_, also living near us, is taking care of a close relative with late-term cancer. This care must be emotionally draining, as well as physically tiring. I walked over to her house two weeks ago, one noon day, when I saw her sitting by her front door basking in the sun which had broken through our rainy winter. She was obviously exhausted. I just had to rest, she said, I am so tired. She runs a day care in her home. When our son was kicked out of school and required by the school board to do community service, she took him in to help her, with the school board's approval, to fulfill this requirement.
Next door to us, a woman, A_, lives with our neighbor, T_, who is stricken with a debilitating brain disease that is destroying his body. Over the past year, his condition has worsened. When we had him to our home for Thanksgiving, last, he could not sit up in his chair or hold his head up to feed himself. I and other guests helped him eat. Several weeks ago, also in a sunny break in the rainy weather, he and his caretaker were walking around the block. He leaned on a wheeled walker, which he could push, even in his distressing half-collapsed posture. Bear wanted to meet him. She strained at the leash, trying to jump up on him. Of course, we could not let her do that. He has talked to me about how he wishes to be buried - in his van.
My wife takes care of her elderly mother, J_. Her mother is a wonderful friend with a vivacious attitude toward life. She lives alone, but intermittent health problems have knocked her down in the past few years and required help in her home. Recently, her foot became infected. She has to sit with the foot up. My wife has taken her to the doctor and stayed with her during the day, when she has the day off. I have occasionally helped, mainly to drive her mother to appointments or pick up medicines, but my contributions are minor. Her mother is such a wonderful conversationalist and raconteur that I get more out of the duty than I am able to give.
Everyone knows many women who are taking are of elderly parents or relatives, while holding down jobs, perhaps while raising children, amidst all the other commitments of our contemporary communities. It is not news that I observe the same phenomena in my neighborhood among my neighbors. I know other women friends and acquaintances, who live out of our neighborhood, who carry this burden. My wife's best friend, C_, cares for her elderly widowed mother, who is becoming discouraged about living. S_, a professional woman colleague of my wife, and her sister, neither of whom are married, care for their elderly parents, who live in their home. A retired woman friend, J_, now struggling with cancer, cares for her adult son, who is somewhat disabled. Repeated across America, in home after home, these relationships are the basis of a conservative society taking care of itself. I know no man who exercises a similar role, though I easily imagine there must be some men somewhere doing so. There must be many men who are paid home assistants. There are certainly many men who work in the health care industry, as physicians, nurses, and administrators, who have daily contact with the elderly persons for whom they are trustees, so to speak; but their relationships are not direct, hands-on, daily caretaking. The role of caretaker of the elderly remains women's responsibility. Caretaking expresses value commitments. Networks are values at work. The question has been asked often before, but needs to be asked often again: Do these values create a fair distribution of the burdens of work in our society? It is important that they do. A conservative society has to justify itself in terms of everyday justice.