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Walking Away is Impossible
The leverage workers lose when someone's life depends on them
Back in February, I cleared my calendar, set up my work out-of-office message, and focused on taking care of my newborn daughter and recovering physically from a birth injury. But there was one writing commitment I said yes to that month.
Jake Meador, of Mere Orthodoxy, asked me to write the cover essay on care work for the magazine’s third issue, and I was delighted to do it. (Especially since I got to knock out two of the books on my 2022 reading list and count it as research—the essay is heavily indebted to Eva Feder Kittay’s Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency and Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America.
Here’s a preview of the piece:
Care work doesn’t fit neatly into the paradigm of wage work. In her book, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency, Eva Feder Kittay notes that when your work is taking care of someone who depends on you, you don’t have the power to walk away from a job the way someone on a manufacturing line might. In group homes and some other 24/7 care situations, Kittay notes, “workers are mandated to work overtime if their replacements fail to show up and must remain on duty until relieved.” Preschool teachers similarly can’t simply clock out if a parent doesn’t show up at pickup.
Even when no worksite policy mandates that a care worker remain on watch, many workers stay for overtime or take on tasks that go outside the work they are compensated for, because they know their charge intimately and are moved by their need. This can be framed as a kind of emotional blackmail — the worker has their “no” taken away. But Kittay sees an alternative way of thinking about it: the worker wants to be able to say “yes” to their charge’s need, but the “yes” can be too costly for them to be free to offer.
Workers who care directly for the vulnerable have the relief of knowing they aren’t working what David Graeber terms “bullshit jobs.” They can see that their work matters. Without their help, their charge could not use the bathroom, might not eat, would die. But that means they lose the leverage other workers have to strike, engage in work stoppages, or sometimes even to quit.
In Full Surrogacy Now, author Sophie Lewis claims that abortion is the kind of strike available to surrogate mothers. When they face exploitation, Lewis suggests, they can refuse to work, which means severing the connection between themselves and the child who depends on them, delivering a corpse where their employers hoped for a child. Few consider this option, no matter how dire their circumstances. Care workers are close to the people entrusted to them; they learn to see the world through their charge’s eyes in order to understand their needs.
Although it is admirable when someone makes tremendous sacrifices to care for others, there is always something tragic about it, too. We see the saintly person at the center of the story, disregarding their own needs for the sake of another, but, at the peripheries of the story, there are others passing by, like the priest and the Levite who hurry by the man left broken and bleeding on the side of the road. The Catholic Church recognizes certain lives as embodying “white martyrdom” — the laying down of one’s life not in a single moment of death, but denial of self through poverty or celibacy. The martyr’s witness is always a testimony to God’s goodness, but, as with the “red martyrdom” of those killed for the faith, the actions of the person demanding the sacrifice can be wicked. It is good to serve the poor, it is sinful to impoverish.
As I’ve written here before, I’m skeptical of the “Wages for Housework/Care Work” approach, because I don’t think care work fits naturally into the interchangeable/transactional model we have for economic exchange in the workplace.
I want people to receive the material support they need to care for the vulnerable, but I’m leery of fitting it into a framework that cuts against the particular strengths and vulnerabilities that come with this work. I really appreciated having Kittay and Glenn to wrestle with in MereO.