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Heather Wylie pursued her doctorate in sociology from UC Davis and is a sociology teacher at Shasta College.  Her monthly Op-Ed column for Shasta Scout discusses the challenges facing our community through a sociological lens. You can read more about Heather here.

Structurally sounds bridges, roads free of potholes, reliable internet access, pipes that provide clean drinking water — all examples of infrastructure that we can collectively agree is fundamental to a functioning society.  So is “care work,” and it’s time we start to recognize it as such. It goes by many names – “emotional labor”, “nurturing”, “support”, “care taking”, “mothering”. Whatever you call it, care work is infrastructure on par with highways, trains, and airports. And for too long, this essential public service has remained invisible, unvalued, and ignored — because it is largely done by women.

“Care work,” both paid and unpaid, wasn’t even considered worthy of study until recently. Defined as “caring for children, the elderly, and those who are sick and disabled,  including bathing, cooking, getting groceries, and cleaning,” this type of work was the “normal and natural” work of women (Nobles 2020). Early religious scholars framed the care taking of friends, family, and community as women’s divine responsibility. Later, during the scientific revolution, biology justified women’s role as society’s “mother”. Hormones, “the female brain”, and ovaries were scientific “proof” that women were more natural caretakers. In the 1980s and 90s, sociologists and gender activists would argue that there was nothing “natural” about women’s care work. Instead, it was the product of socially constructed ideas of gender.  Missing in all of these debates was how economically valuable women’s unpaid emotion work was to society as a whole.

The pandemic has given me, and us collectively, insight into how much we truly rely on care work, and how quickly things fall apart without it. Let’s start with parenting. We expect parents, and those who care for children, to provide for their basic needs — food, shelter, education. But this pales in comparison to the need we collectively have for children to grow into emotionally functioning adults that contribute to society in meaningful ways. As I sent my son back to college in the midst of a global pandemic, I made sure his tuition was paid, his housing confirmed, and that he had food in the fridge. But it was our late-night calls and my reassuring texts (based on frantic, online searches for “teens, stress and COVID-19”) that kept him there. Sure, I get a happier kid because of my care work, but you all get a college-educated pilot that can handle stressful situations. You’re welcome.

But I got off easy. I was able to keep my job. I had access to resources to help me through it. Most women in the US haven’t fared as well. The expectation that they, and not their male partners, do the emotional heavy lifting of parenthood this last year erased decades of progress — and it happened fast. January 2019 marked the first-time women made up more of the work force than men here in the US. However, weeks into the pandemic, 5.1 million mothers of young children stopped working for pay. As of this spring, 1.3 million are still out of work (Mollenkof 2021).

Decades of unequal pay that continues today, meant that it was women who were forced to “choose” to leave the workforce as COVID-19 changed day-to-day life. Someone had to stay home with kids whose schools and daycare centers closed under nationwide stay-at-home orders. The financial necessity of keeping the higher wage earner working, combined with the expectation that online learning support and childcare were “women’s work”, shoved women back into the home, derailing college and career plans.

But dashed hopes and dreams weren’t the worst part. It’s the intense, unrelenting care work in the home that’s taken its toll. Helping children manage online coursework, juggling the demands of sick family members, providing emotional support in a constant state of uncertainty, adjusting expectations: this and more is what we’ve asked — no, demanded — of women, free of charge. And imagine if they hadn’t given it. While things have been unbelievably hard these past 15 months, imagine how much worse off society would be without all of this unpaid emotional labor.

Care work isn’t limited to the home. Women shoulder their unfair share in the workplace as well. Consider our newest “front-line workers” — teachers. As a college professor, my job, on paper, is to provide instruction, participate on college committees, and assess student performance. In reality, more and more of my time, along with that of a disproportionate number of my female colleagues, is spent providing emotional support for students. Grading is pushed until after dinner because we spent the workday checking in with the students who lost housing, jobs, or custody of children. We do this because we care but even more because that’s what’s going to get them to graduation. And society needs graduates. Here’s the rub: not only is this work unpaid, it’s invisible, and thus, not valued.

But again, I’ve gotten off easy in my cushy college job. Our early, middle, and high school teachers have truly been in the trenches of care work, of course, before the pandemic, but times 10 since. The quicksand that has been the last 15 months — online, in person, hybrid — has exacerbated existing stressors for students and created new ones — all things that absolutely get in the way of students learning. Talking with a North State high school math teacher opened my eyes to what care work looks like on the front lines of education. “Calculus is absolutely the last thing my students care about, but even more so, need right now,” said Denise. “I’m in constant social worker mode handling one crisis after the next.” And what struck me as we finished our conversation was that she was proud not because any of her students had done particularly well in her class this spring but because almost all of them had hung in there until the end. “I feel like I got them across the finish line…because how much worse off would they be if they didn’t graduate?” How much worse off would we all be? We need our youth to succeed, and we’ve done it on the backs of the unpaid and unseen care work of teachers.

Or consider the health care professions. Our nurses, home health aides, and medical assistants — predominately women — get paid to administer medications, administer doctor’s orders, and document care. They don’t receive compensation for taking the time to listen, to empathize, to show kindness, to take that extra step — but we all know that this is essential to quality health care. This, as much as any medication or procedure, helps us get well. And while it’s not written into any job description, the expectation is there, that these women will (and should) go above and beyond. But we don’t “see” the value of care work in health care in any meaningful, tangible way. And we should.

In short, we need to treat care work like roads and bridges — essential, publicly funded, infrastructure. Debates continue to rage over exactly what this would look like, but consider three areas where we could (and should) consider support for more equitable and valued care work: childcare, elder care, and paid sick leave. More accessible, high-quality childcare by well-paid early childhood professionals would recognize that not only should the burden of child rearing not fall unfairly on the shoulders of women but that the care work they provide in the raising of our next generation is valued. Generation X women, aka “the Sandwich Generation,” are not only caring for children but also disproportionately shouldering the burden of elder care. Instead of asking them to drop out of the labor market, we should support the high-quality care that our seniors deserve with more accessible, and better paid home health care services. Finally, let women (and men) do care work in the home without fear of losing jobs, homes, and security with universal paid sick leave. No parent should have to choose between putting food on the table and being there for a sick child.

It’s time to start caring about care work. Care work is the connective tissue of society: without it, nothing else works. By seeing care work for what it is — infrastructure — we can start to uncouple it from outdated gender stereotypes and provide the support and compensation it deserves. Seriously, we wouldn’t ask men to voluntarily build bridges free of charge on I 5. We need to stop asking women to do the same at home or at work. They, and society, deserve better.

Heather will be responding to comments on this post on the Shasta Scout facebook page.  Join the conversation there!