When they say you just need to be more resilient
They deny your respite and tell you to use a self care app instead
Certain things about care work will always be difficult and arguably should be difficult. Facing aspects of the human condition: embracing varying and changing abilities, learning to work through interpersonal conflict, understanding your full self, accepting the inevitability of death, and letting go of the illusion of control are difficult aspects of care work that are ultimately rewarding. Challenges like these bring life meaning.
Other things are just draining: Sliding into poverty because of the choice between paid employment and unpaid care work. Being compelled to take paid care work, even when it doesn’t provide a living wage or benefits. Dealing with insurance denials. Performing unpaid outsourced administrative and medical labor to boost the profitability of hospitals and nursing homes. These challenges don’t add value to our lives.
Sahaj Kohli recently noted how our need to be resilient is often the result of systematic issues.
A little while ago I wrote a response to the pop sci ideas about chronic stress that keep popping up in my readings.
The jist of it is that I keep being told that humans have chronic stress as a maladaptive (and irrational) response to things that aren’t harmful because we haven’t evolved quickly enough to thrive in the conditions of modern life.
I disagree with this, since the things that cause chronic stress seem like valid reasons to be stressed out. Do you feel like you’re overreacting?
The thing that seems maladaptive is that humans devised the modern world and yet it triggers chronic stress (and thus a cascade of health issues).
While the catch phrase of this school of thought is that zebras don’t get ulcers, I’d argue that’s because ulcers are caused by bacteria. Zebras in zoos are often put on antipsychotic medication to manage their stress. Zebras living in the modern world are just as stressed out as we are.
Think of all the house pets that are on psychiatric medication to manage their stress response. Animals don’t thrive in the conditions of modern life. It says something that psychiatric medications that work in humans work for many other living creatures, from zebras to zebra fish. Chickens in factory farms are fed various chemicals to address their anxiety.
Humans aren’t the only living creatures that change their environment. We’re not the only ones who adapt the context of our lives and accidentally make things harder.
The take away from this rabbit hole is that the things that shape our lives are always changing. The modern medical system is barely older than living memory and has undergone huge changes within my lifetime. It’s the same thing with our modern ways of earning and spending money. We created these things and we can change them to better suit our needs.
The answer is to keep changing the things that shape our lives, not hope future generations will evolve to be more resilient in the face of chronic stressors.
It’s not an accident that the modern world triggers a cascade of chronic stress.
That’s what’s supposed to motivate us to be our best selves.
Uncertainty — knowing that if you fail you will fall — is by design. It’s why parents worry about coddling their children and why health insurance is tied to your job. This system is designed to reflect the belief that if people get things they don’t deserve, they’ll just mooch off the system. There is no belief in the inherent worth of human beings (or anything) built into this worldview.
Attachment theory holds that children raised in a secure, loving environment will still choose to venture out into the world. They’ll become emotionally mature adults. That security is believed to encourage self-motivation and creativity — things that lead to hard work and innovation.
Then there’s the more pervasive idea that security and stability is mollycoddling and the fastest way to ruin children and adults. They believe instilling children with a sense of inherent worth builds entitlement and encourages exploitation. That if we know we have access to affordable housing we won’t work hard. That if we have health insurance by right we will use more than we need. That if people are guaranteed a living wage and income when they can’t work, everyone will slack off and feign disability. In this view, we need to ration everything and create barriers to make sure people don’t get more than they deserve.
Are our politicians okay? What a strange, miserable view of human nature so many of them seem to have.
Certainly, those fears aren’t supported by the number of family caregivers doing unpaid work, the number of people who do volunteer work, and people who choose low-paid careers that feel meaningful to them. Obviously, people are not only motivated to perform work if they’re paid. People don’t do their best when they’re chronically stressed out and terrified that one wrong move will lead to ruin.
I hear these same arguments from my friends: the world needs to be difficult and threatening, otherwise people won’t work hard. Safe people turn into lazy people.
How is it that they have managed to get us to believe the worst about our neighbors? To think that the things that harm us are to our benefit? That providing people with affordable housing, medical care, and social support would be bad for them?
For the record, these same friends comfort their children when they cry, feed them nutritious foods, coordinate their education, provide for preventative and acute medical care, and generally mollycoddle them to the best of their abilities.
It can be a surprise to realize how much we’ve internalized the idea that compassion is harmful and criticism is helpful.
‘Aren’t people too soft on themselves these days?’ ‘I need self-criticism to motivate me to achieve my goals.’ Or, ‘If I’m self-compassionate, won’t I just sit on the couch and eat Ben and Jerry’s all day?’
In The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility, Bruce Waller notes:
“[I]n a just world, ought should imply can. After all, it does not seem fair that there are things I ought to do, that I am morally obligated to do, but that I cannot do. If the world were just — as we deeply but not consciously believe — then whenever there is something we should do, we would be capable of doing it.”
How much of the burden of care work is the emotional turmoil of not being able to do what we feel we ought to do, what we feel morally obligated to do?
We require a certain amount of stability in order to perform care work. So many of us lack that stability.
The way our health is influenced by social factors — like income, working conditions, education, social status, social support, and physical environment — means that the people who are most likely to feel they should perform care work are least likely to be capable of performing care work.
Being capable of family care work requires being physically able to perform these tasks. To have the intellectual abilities to learn how to navigate medical and insurance systems. To have the financial security to allocate your time to providing care rather than paid employment. To outsource the tasks, like childcare and housework, you are no longer able to perform. To have an employer who will allow you to take time off, adjust your schedule, and perform administrative care work during office hours.
Paid care workers are among the least able to fulfill their role as caregivers to their own family, thanks to erratic scheduling, unpaid transit time, no paid time off, no health insurance, no retirement plans, and low pay.
Caregivers will never stop needing to be resilient.
It will never be easy to watch someone suffer. It will never be easy for our social and family roles to shift. It will never be easy to have a crisis throw all of our personal weaknesses into stark relief.
How many of our leaders are emphasizing resiliency in order to shirk their own responsibility to caregivers and people who need care?
A lot of them.
When an insurance company, a hospital network, or an employer pitches self care and resiliency while denying people the material needs they require to take care of themselves and their loved ones, this is what it looks like:
Feel like you need to let it out? Since you can’t personally travel to Iceland to primal scream into the wilderness, Iceland’s tourism board allows you to do it virtually. Go to their website, record yourself screaming, and choose where you want your primal scream to be broadcast.
Care work is often considered a women’s issue. While care work is gendered, there are still a ton of men who are serving as caregivers. It’s important to not overlook the way masculinity influences the way care work plays out and the men actually doing this work. New America has been studying the role of men in care (childcare, disability support, and eldercare), all available here: Men and Care in the United States.
PHI has collected the stories of direct care workers. It’s worth checking out.