What Does It Mean to Be “Man Enough to Care”?

Debbie says:

I was fascinated to learn about Man Enough to Care, a five-part short video series produced by Wayfarer Studios and Caring Across Generations, with a satellite Roundtable on Black Masculinity and Caregiving produced by Color of Change, also in partnership with Caring Across Generations. The videos in the main series are about 5-8 minutes each; the roundtable is a full hour. Together, they at least scratch the surface of these two under-examined subjects: men as caregivers and Black men as caregivers. Here’s an excerpt from the main project website.

We all pay the price when caregiving remains invisible and gendered in outdated ways. Studies have found caregiving men, especially those caring for adults, tend to be more isolated, reluctant to ask for help, and unprepared to take on new caregiving responsibilities. Even when caregiving support like paid leave is available, men can be less likely to take it. Women, more often expected to be caregivers with inadequate support, end up experiencing it as a burden with significant costs to their financial, physical and emotional health. Professional caregiving women are paid poverty wages and lack the benefits and protections the dignity of their labor deserves.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of care, and brought many people, including men, into the realization of the caregiving role they play in their families. The pandemic has also mainstreamed the idea that families do better when caregiving can be a collective effort with shared responsibilities, communities of care, and systematic support in the form of inclusive, transformative policy solutions (childcare supports, paid medical and family leave, and long-term support and services).

According to the producers, 40% of home caregivers are male, which is probably a much bigger percentage than most of us would guess in a vacuum. And a substantial proportion of paid caregivers are also male. The videos do a fine job of telling individual stories, establishing contexts, spanning the gamut of the satisfactions and stresses of this work, and reminding us all of the systemic issues. I recommend all of them.

Why aren’t we more aware of men in these roles? I can remember a period when every home caregiver I knew well was a man, in a heterosexual relationship with a severely disabled woman.  Most of them, like some of the men in the videos, also had full-time jobs. When a partner of any gender in a two-person relationship is disabled, the other one usually has to take the responsibility for income generation as well as caregiving.

If we are (as I was) brought up socialized as women, with the sociocultural expectations of women, finding ourselves as caregivers doesn’t come as a surprise. At a minimum, most girls are taught to expect to be caregivers for infants and small children, and the leap from that caregiving to caring for a long-term disabled adult is substantial, but not unimaginable. If we are brought up socialized as men, however, finding ourselves in the intimate relations of caregiving has to be more tectonic. And that doesn’t even take into account the subtle but endless ways men are socialized to be taken care of (when they want it and on their own terms).

Caregiving, like all tasks demanding intense emotional labor, is exhausting. Success is almost by definition not achievable: the world is full of good enough, and even excellent, caregivers, but there are no perfect ones, and there is certainly no career path, no annual bonus for corporate profits, no award ceremony, and no pension. The reason we think of professional caregiving as done mostly by Black women and immigrant women (generally of color) is that those are the people who do the bulk of the professional caregiving–and the majority of that work. Stories of exploitation and abuse in that injury are legion; much of the work Caring Across Generations does is to redress the grievances of professional caregiving women.

When I think about the men doing this work, including the men I’ve known who do it, my reactions are deeply mixed.  I applaud them. I appreciate how hard things are for them. I’m glad to see them showcased, interviewed, paid attention to (or I wouldn’t be posting this). I also know that, even if they are underappreciated, they are individually more appreciated than women doing the same work. They get more kudos from their families and friends, just as active fathers do (“Look! He changes diapers!”)

As gender boundaries are blurring in many places (and strengthening in others), many younger adults are less concerned with “masculine” and “feminine” roles and jobs than my age cohort in our 60s and 70s. Gender-fluid, nonbinary folks, by their very existence and public presentation, are defying the division at its base, whether they are plumbers or caregivers (or both).

I appreciate this project for showing us these caregiving men as human, appreciating their stories, and also keeping the systems of unequal exploitation in mind. (A particular reason to appreciate the long roundtable on Black men and care.) And trying to imagine what it might look like if caregiving was everyone’s responsibility, equally, and if the society took responsibility for the needs of caregivers and cared-for.

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