16 Jul Sharing caregiving responsibilities: a personal reflection on gender roles
I have always thought I was fairly good at sharing work and caregiving responsibilities in a gender equal way. But now, at the end of my forties, I discover that I have come to occupy a traditional feminine gender role. Despite knowledge of gender theories and trained bargaining skills, I carry an uneven large share of caring for my father who has dementia. I hear myself justifying to my friends why my brother cannot take his share. And I accept my dad’s sexist remarks as part of his illness, despite their humiliating character. Despite my teenager rebellion against patriarchy and my professional career as a gender scholar, I look in the mirror and see that I have become the patient, supporting daughter my father always wanted me to be. And that I struggle to claim my own space.
Times have been different. When me and my husband had children, I was prepared by my education in women’s studies to do some serious bargaining about work and care responsibilities. We had the classical conversation at the kitchen table, during which we decided that he would take a small part-time job, I would have the large part-time job and we would use professional childcare as well. We both took parental leave when our children were small, equally dividing our share in changing nappies, reading our children books and going to the petting zoo with them. We also divided the heavier housekeeping jobs, like doing the laundry, changing the beds and cleaning the toilets.
We both faced critical remarks about our role division from other parents at the schoolyard. Regularly other mothers gave shocked reactions about my -in their eyes- long working week. They were hasty to declare that they did not have children ‘to be taken from them’, ignoring my explanation that my husband took his share as well. Reactions to my husband’s caregiving role were even worse. It was assumed that he was lazy, that he didn’t like his job and that he was dominated by me. The message for my husband was clear, choosing time for caregiving was not tough for a father. Despite these stereotypical reactions, our family flourished and after years of struggling with balancing tasks we now both have full-time jobs and two healthy children at university. Both our daughter and our son are self-confident, can cook their own meal and declare themselves feminists.
Against this background how is it that I, have fallen back into occupying a traditional gender role, when I least expected it? Maybe it is because with my dad, the dementia crawled in slowly, showing small signs of existence that he preferred to ignore. Also, because my father has been divorced twice and so has no partner that functions as an informal caregiver and because my brother was burnt-out two years ago and decided to distance himself from our dad who absorbed a lot of his energy. There was no clear decision to be made about how to organize caregiving responsibilities, just a situation that gradually emerged and that I felt responsible for. This week things will change. After I paused my visits during the corona crisis, the health of my dad worsened so seriously that his neighbors raised an alarm. On my request, his general practitioner and administrator have been able to arrange hospitalization in a care home for him. A situation he objects to, but we think his safety and life condition will be much better there. In the care home, he will receive daily care and have daily company. With a heavy heart, I transfer over the responsibility to professionals. And luckily my husband and kids will accompany me when we move him. It is good to share this rite of passage with them, in a new balance between work and caregiving.
By Inge Bleijenbergh, an expert in participatory action research that works with the chair Research Methods at Radboud University.