Male caregivers need feminism, too

As more men start caring for elderly parents, sexist assumptions hold them back.

Published December 1, 2008 6:19PM (EST)

I'm not a big fan of the "Men do traditional women's work; are shocked to learn it's hard" genre of human interest story, but John Leland's article in Friday's New York Times about men caring for elderly parents is actually pretty good. It acknowledges some of the unique problems men face with taking on this traditionally female role, without the usual implication that this means women are somehow "naturally" better suited to it, and thus the status quo is best for everyone. In fact, I'd say this article is a great argument for why men need feminism as much as women do.

For instance, Leland points out that men are less likely to use employee-assistance programs for caregivers because, as one man who looks after his mother puts it, "I think it would be looked at like, when they hire a male, they expect him to be 100-percent focused. I don't want to appear to be someone who has distractions that detract from performance." The idea that any employee should be "100-percent focused" on his or her job, to the exclusion of fully participating in domestic life, is something women have been working against for decades -- it's just that employers have too often taken that to mean women are lousy employees, not that everyone needs a decent work-life balance. The sexist assumption that men are more committed to their jobs and women are more easily "distracted" by petty concerns like ailing parents (or children) hurts both genders.

Similarly, the expectation that female children should be their parents' caregivers -- and men with no sisters, presumably, will hire help -- stands in the way of some men being as involved as they'd like to be. Amy Torres, helpline director at Fria, says, "Nursing homes have a very difficult time dealing with male caregivers. It's unusual for them. The male caregiver is made to feel their interest in their relative is inappropriate." As a woman, I can't imagine being told that my interest in my elderly father's health is "inappropriate," which goes to the root problem here -- the sexist assumption that women are "natural" caregivers, ergo men are not.

I think it's scandalous that a grown man being compassionate, nurturing and responsible is considered such an unusual sight that nursing home employees will be suspicious of his motives. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I listened to a friend of my boyfriend's talking about how his 5-year-old daughter just cries about everything -- due to "some kind of girl logic" -- while his son "naturally" understands that crying is to be reserved for especially devastating occasions. When people are still teaching their kids that only girls are supposed to have and express feelings, is it any wonder that middle-aged male caregivers are seen as weirdos?


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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