In 1971, Germaine Greer, debating with novelist Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall, destroyed the concept of the independent male artist; this year, Caring and Unpaid Work, an Irish Government study found that “45% of women and 29% of men provide [unpaid] care for others on a daily basis”; with my own experience of twice giving up fulltime paid work and relocating in order to care for elderly parents, I can corroborate what the lead author, Helen Russell of the Economic and Social Research Institute, states:

“Caring and other household work is vital for the well-being of individuals and society but because this work is unpaid, it is largely invisible”

Other than being a supportive uncle and friend, I have not had the opportunity to bring up children and I greatly admire those who do that very demanding kind of caring. At the other end of life’s journey, caring has a different aspect. Whereas the former, hopefully, ends in happy, healthy, well-adjusted children going off into the world and becoming (somewhat) independent of their parental carers, the latter situation, inevitably, ends in death.

Another difference is that, whereas unpaid caring for kids is considered (whatever the reality) both valuable and fulfilling, unpaid caring for elderly relatives is often seen as an inconvenience. While quality of life may influence decisions about care more than economics, a common view is that either those cared for at home selfishly restrict the life of their carers – or that the latter are so unsuccessful in life that they cannot afford to put their relatives into a carehome. This is even the case when there is some support at home by community professional carers.

This view of failure may be especially prevalent about (and among) men returning to live with an elderly parent in need of care. Because, at the end of the second decade of the new millennium, society still seems to judge female caring as both instinctive and praiseworthy – and male caring as both unnatural and embarrassing.

I started by referring to a famous feminist because unpaid caring is, clearly, a feminist issue. The Irish statistics show that it’s overwhelmingly done by women and I see no reason not to generalise those findings to other countries with a similar social set-up. In countries with more ‘traditional’ gender roles, I suspect the results for each sex would be even more imbalanced. And yet I feel that valorising the caring done by women is not the only answer.

We need to both make visible and socially acceptable the unpaid caring done by men. That way, more of us might do it!

Not in the way we are so used to seeing on TV: tall, dark-haired, handsome and athletic young man, in pressed white shirt and tailored suit, perfectly manicured and coiffured, gives a gleaming smile unblemished by the coffee, toast and fresh orange juice lovingly prepared by petite blonde attractive wife – in heels and apron in perfect kitchen – kisses her and their blonde girl, ruffles the dark hair of their boy and heads out to the office. He’ll kiss the smiling girl goodnight in another scene, may even read her a very short story, and most defiantly will be teaching small, dark and cute but frowning Junior to hit things, or, preferably, kill them.

That’s not caring. This is:

  • Constantly doing food shopping (with no car) cleaning, laundry and dishes.
  • Running up and down the stairs, breaking concentration, because you’re working from home and staving off domestic disasters.
  • Frequently phoning and meeting various social workers, careworkers and medical professionals.
  • Catching up on broken sleep (because you need time to get your head together before bed and are up early to let the paid carers in).
  • Not applying for fulltime work.
  • Deprioritising dates, meeting friends, practicing sports, doing creative arts and crafts.
  • Having the same conversation ten times in one hour, with decreasing length of answers, and patience.
  • Missing personal deadlines and renegotiating professional ones.
  • Not managing your own money effectively, because it’s not a priority.
  • Being unable to plan ahead.
  • Having friends (who’ve never cared one hour for anyone) give you unrealistic advice to ‘solve’ your situation.
  • Falling out with family and friends because you’re so stressed.
  • Alternating having immense patience with having none.
  • Having to apologise to people frequently for your short temper.
  • Not being able to turn your phone off when away from home.
  • Being grateful when family members arrange to take over caring for a weekend, once every few months.
  • Not going on holiday for years.
  • Suddenly bursting into tears because you realise the goalposts have moved and the situation has deteriorated.
  • Feeling guilty at feeling relieved when it’s all over.
  • Not, ever, seeing someone in your situation on TV.

Germaine Greer was right. None of us is independent. Some people provide us with services because we pay them to do so, some because they don’t feel they have a choice, some because they care about us. Society is better, more aware and more efficient, when we acknowledge the existence and unpaid labour of carers – and care about both.

(Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Candle” into the Public Domain)

Candle lit in darkness