Caregiving struggles are not a family’s circumstance or an individual’s issue, but the result of our collective failure at imagining community-based and non-gendered care.
The amendment to the Maternity Benefit Bill, that provides for 26 weeks maternity leave, has received much appreciation. It was even listed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi among his government’s achievements in his speech at the Red Fort on August 15. Yet, as a caregiver of two, the amendments are of no use to me.
No, I am not among the 8-10 crore workers in the unorganised sector who still remain untouched by maternity benefits. Nor am I a father who gets a measly fortnight as paternity leave, if at all. I look after my parents, whose old age demands daily care, weekly medical treatments and consistent close attention. Yet, there is no leave policy that will help me and lakhs like me, who care for the elderly.
Despite our pride in our special bhartiya values for the aged, we seem to misunderstand care as childcare.
So, some rather common but crucial forms of care – for the chronically ill, the disabled, the elderly – remain unaddressed. Elderly care in particular is moving towards a dire strait as India’s ageing population is expected to touch 173.1 million by 2026. But who will care for these millions? Going by our social norms, it will be the younger members of the family. Serving their elders may earn them some supposed spiritual merit, but not any leave.
Without any institutional support, some outsource a chunk of the care labour to nurses or helpers. The rest of us, who do not and/or cannot hire help, have to devise and cut their own path through the eddy of nine-to-five jobs, household chores, childcare and whatever else that we pack into our lives.
At the current stage of my parents’ lives, their day-to-day need for medical consultations and conversations (other than those about tablets and syrups) can best be met by family. For me, then, the only acceptable alternative has been to bypass full-time work and take on the hyphenated identity of a part-time, home-based, researcher-cum-caregiver. One year later, as I continue to discover the delights and frustrations of my choice, it is fascinating to reflect on the conversations it has and hasn’t yet triggered.
Feminine or feminist ethics?
Owing to my withdrawal from full-time employment, I am afraid that I have become the poster child for achhi beti or the good daughter, especially among my senior relatives. I am seen as someone whose primary goal is to serve her old parents, someone who turns away from fun parties for their bed time dose of laxatives. I have been called a female Shravan and a desi Anne Marie-Slaughter.
During walks in the park with my parents, elderly folk have paid me compliments. Whenever the neighbourhood’s female sweeper sees me along with my mother, she informs me that the Gods will shower me with rewards. Although each time I begin talking about the difficulties of caregiving, it is as if I stand to lose those rewards.
I admit to having an appetite for praise and may even have ingested some ‘good girl’ lessons along the way, but the ‘good daughter’ is not quite me. I do not support the idea that it is the highest duty of individuals to care for their parents. I also take issue with the fact that care is almost always performed by women within the family (the mother or the wife) and by poor women from outside (nurse and nanny). Caregiving is of course human and good, but not when it is accompanied by the stark inequalities of gender, poverty and caste.
Besides, the ‘good daughter’ paradigm is a cultural booby trap, designed to blindfold and steer women into submissive, people-pleasing roles. The goodness of the daughter is for others, not herself. Once, before a week-long work trip, an elderly relative asked me, “If you travel, who will take care of your parents?” My work identity got pitched right against my parents’ well-being.
Outside the family circle, some seem to carry a contrary impression that by playing the good daughter, I fail to push the envelope far and “lean in”, Sheryl Sandberg-style. Rather, I regress into domesticity and compromise the decades-long struggles of our feminist foremothers, I personify patriarchy’s pet cliché – the sacrificing woman and that I have made a wee contribution to India’s falling share of female labour participation. Even my father suggested that I may be underutilising my capabilities that are meant for “the greater good, not [for] one’s near and dear.”
Unlike these simplistic impressions, my decision is based largely on the absence of satisfactory caregiving alternatives. Besides, my feminism teaches me to care without naturalising it and objects to the devaluation of its unpaid labour (although I wish elderly care was as much a feminist issue in India as say, childcare). What makes caregiving non-feminist is looking up or down at it, objectifying daughters as caregiving assets or smearing it with the tyranny of female goodness.
Beti bachao, budhape ka sahara pao (save the daughter, find old age support)
The care-versus-employment comments, however, reflect a larger worldview.
In India, the discourse around sewa (selfless service) has long pitched sons as budhape ki lathi or the proverbial old age crutch, even though the actual carer may be his wife or sister. A doctor treating my parents once asked if I have a brother. But there have been exceptions to this norm. Daughters – including those who support their old parents financially – have become the caregivers.
While caregiving by daughters is yet another instance of the feminisation of care, author and activist Kamla Bhasin reflects on why this is relevant, “Daughters are raised to serve her husband, in-laws, not her parents. Her parents call her paraya dhan (another’s wealth), her in-laws call her paraye ghar ki (one who belongs to another family). The family property, business, name are all linked to the son, not the daughter. Yet, there are women who are the primary caregivers of their parents”.
For many married women though, approval from the marital family determines their role in their parents’ care. As a researcher on mothering and an associate professor at Ambedkar University of Delhi, Rachna Johri adds, “Mothers feel assured only when daughters could successfully negotiate parental care within a successful marriage”. The mother of the feminist writer-editor and activist, Juhi Jain, has lived with her and her partner for the past 22 years. Since Jain has no siblings, her mother was seen as her responsibility: “My in-laws did not take it kindly. They felt they have no place to go to since my mother lives with us. My natal family was relieved that they did not need to look after my mother”.
Simultaneously, the popular notion ‘Beti ke ghar ka pani nahin peete’ (avoid even drinking water at the daughter’s marital home) still holds clout for many. It asks parents of a married daughter to not make any demands from her.
Till Jyoti (name changed) was single, her Bihar-based parents survived on the remittance she sent from Delhi where she worked as a domestic helper, but declined any help after her marriage. Kamla’s mother refused to move in with her even when she was lonely and unwell. “She changed her mind only under compulsion and passed away in my house. Her last rites were done collectively by her son and daughters. Barring a few, people congratulated us for defying anti-daughter ideas. My mother’s fears about the public had been disproved,” she said.
Married daughters can be spared responsibility of old parents because they are expected to focus on ‘their own’ families. With single and childfree daughters, the assumption is that there are no real claimants of their time. However, stress, guilt and helplessness are experienced on both ends of this care spectrum. My parents sometimes see themselves as a liability on me and I can think of my performance as inadequate and challenging.
Rakhi Sehgal, a labour researcher and trade union activist, is a caregiver to her over 80-years-old father as well as to the children of her late brother. “When my mother was stricken with cancer, I returned from the US to be her full-time carer. She encouraged me to enrol for a Ph.D., saying, ‘go create your own life’. Because she let me go then, now I am not as angsty or guilt ridden about creating my own life”.
Radhika Sachdev, a content development entrepreneur, highlights the pros and cons of being a caregiver. “When I decided to adopt a child, the agency wanted me to prove that as a working woman, I had a support system to look after the child. I became the provider, my mother the surrogate mother… But then my father is more like my 80-year-old son, and at times, like my father-in-law, it wears me down”.
As for me, I am trying to resist the alienation that full-time employment or full-time care can bring by trying to create a middle ground. But, it is not even half as easy as it sounds. There are constant anxieties about one’s ageing parents and about one´s own self that need to be managed, amid all the rest.
Our work culture emphasises on long hours and thus organisations turn away part-time caregivers or accommodate them in reductive, dead-end roles. Instead of punishing caregivers, should we not have their back? After all, by casting care as an individual obligation, we allow the state to shirk its share of responsibility in caregiving and business to grab it as their ‘market’. Caregiving struggles are not a family’s circumstance or an individual’s issue, but the result of our collective failure at imagining community-based and non-gendered care.