How caring is seen as an ethical duty – Part 1 of 3
Trigger warning: This article contains content that some readers may find upsetting.

“No person, and no society can survive without care” (Livnat and Villa Braslavsky, 2020, p.270). It is a fundamental fact that every human will be cared for at one point in their life. Most people will become carers in their life too, whether for their child or elderly relative. Despite this, caring roles are often underappreciated and under-valued both emotionally and financially. Care is a complex term; it is synonymous with both positive and negative words such as dependency, friendship, mutuality, burden, tending, duty, sacrifice and deserving. Whilst childcare is a form of care, this discussion will focus on the care of the disabled, chronically sick or elderly. This series aims to break down the overlooked and undervalued notions of care into three sections. Part 1 will discuss how caring is seen as an ethical duty, before moving to Part 2, which showcases how caring contradicts individual narratives under capitalism, and finally Part 3 on how a carer’s time is unappreciated. Since the majority of caring is performed by women (Age UK, 2019) it cannot be discussed without linking it to both classic and health related feminist perspectives. When discussing care, the definitions covered in this discussion will be both formal (paid and contracted) and informal (unpaid and favour based).

The motivation for this discussion is my first-hand observations of caring that has been provided to my aunt by my grandmother. My grandmother (75) is currently a carer for her daughter/my aunt (39) with Down’s Syndrome. My aunt is a pure medical miracle from being born with a massive hole in her heart, surviving a brain abscess, COVID multiple times and living much longer than any life expectancy a doctor has labelled her with. Every year when she goes for health check-ups, most doctors don’t know how she’s still standing. The story that has always haunted me is that when she was born in 1983 a nurse offered to smoother her with a pillow. It’s hard to comprehend this practice happening by today’s standards but is a solemn reminder of how people viewed disabled people and the prospect of caring for someone for the rest of that person’s life. I could never imagine a world without her effervescent joy for life, incredible kindness and humorous wit, which could have all been erased because of a snap decision based on her condition. After being a carer for 39 years, my grandmother will soon need care herself, so my other aunt quit her full-time job to help them both out. Until beginning this research, I took the many factors of caring for granted. In my mind it was a given that my grandmother would look after my aunt since they’re family, it’s what you’re supposed to do. The invisible contract of family ethics and obligations made me assume this, as my grandmother has committed two thirds of her lifetime to being both a mother of three daughters and a full-time carer.

Caring is entangled with ethics and a woman’s ‘duty’
Care is constructed as an ethical obligation and part of a woman’s duty, which underestimates and undervalues the effort it takes to conduct caring roles. Care ethics can be derived from the principles of virtue ethics (Tong, 1998) which states that doing good deeds delivers good consequences. Most people care for others because it is the right thing to do, and sacrificing a portion of your own time could make the world of difference for those who need it most. The most traditional form of care throughout history is through the community. Community care takes place outside of medical institutions (Twigg, 2000), and rests on the connections and commitments people have made within a community such as neighbours and friends (Fine and Glendinning, 2005). The most common form of informal care now is the care provided by family members. It comes from the ethics of the ‘subjective turn’, which entails returning the favour of care to a (normally elderly) relative who took care of you when you were younger (Pickard, 2010). Care places itself as one of the highest moral obligations that people undertake for those who are present in their life (Tong, 1998). Yet, despite this ethic, women are still disproportionately represented in carer statistics.

Care is positioned as part of a woman’s DNA (Twigg, 2000). Initially most of the roles for a carer are very similar to the normal domestic activities undertaken in the home, such as shopping, cleaning, washing and cooking. Most of these caring activities take place in a domestic space of the home of the cared for, which illustrates that the domestic space for caring is a space that is reserved for women (Fine and Glendinning, 2005). The labour of caring operates on top of the sexual division of labour that is constructed by the patriarchy (Kuhn and Wolpe, 2013)( (Vogel, 2013). It naturalises the type and amount of work done by women by developing a narrative around biology that sees women as more capable and naturally gifted at these tasks than men (Pickard, 2010). Tong (1998) compares philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau (1985) and Mill (1881). Rousseau’s opinion is that women have a natural capacity to display patience and docility compared to men (1985). Whereas Mill (1991) argues that this ‘innate nature’ for caring stems purely from social conditioning and the patriarchal idea that women must sacrifice themselves to care for others. This view of caring being part of a woman’s DNA is a concept that has become a core pillar of feminist debate for many years in regards to domestic work, but has also been expanded into the realm of emotional labour too.

Emotional labour is defined as the ability to control both your own and someone else’s emotions (Delgado et al., 2017). This is demonstrated in roles such as nursing, where behaviours such as listening to patient’s stories, stroking their arm and making jokes are taken for granted by the medical profession since they are not present on medical charts and in textbooks (Hochschild, 2012). Emotional labour goes beyond the job description, requiring acting and improvisation skills, as well as emotional intelligence to interpret someone’s emotions and act accordingly (Twigg, 2000). The Florence Nightingale model of nursing states how a woman should use her head, heart and hands to cultivate a healing space for their patients (Livnat and Villa Braslavsky, 2020). Care is considered such a feminine trait that Pickard (2010) goes as far as to say that “being a good carer is indistinguishable from being a good woman and neither of them negotiable” (p.483). Since much of caring labour is domestic labour, which is normally carried out by women in their routine of labour, it is taken for granted because it resembles the normal domestic routine. Care work lacks the fast-paced drama of medicine (Twigg, 2000), it is mundane and repetitive on the surface but requires emotional labour, intelligence and resilience, which is rarely celebrated or accounted for in the economy. For my grandmother care is such an intrinsic regime of daily life for the past four decades, and it has been woven so tightly with her duty as a mother. Whether my aunt is four or forty, she will always be her child for whom my grandmother has a duty to provide care, which showcases the argument from Pickard (2010) that being a good woman/mother and good carer are completely inseparable.

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Twigg, J. (2000). Bathing – the Body and Community Care. 1st ed. [online] London: Taylor & Francis Group. [Accessed 8 Jan. 2023].
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Melissa Brodie is a third year Sociology student at the University of Liverpool, finding interests in health and lifecourse, digital studies and feminism. She has thrown herself into everything university life has to offer from playing the alto saxophone in two bands to being the personal relations and charities representative of the Liverpool University Royal Naval Unit. Her family have inspired this piece and continue to support her academic journey.  Melissa Brodie | LinkedIn