Russell posted recently on surrogate motherhood, and on the general class issues relating to outsourcing one’s parenting. I have no children so I’ve generally avoided these “Mommy wars” debates. But watching over the decline and death of my grandmother has highlighted the fact that these issues aren’t restricted to parenthood.
A few days after my grandmother died, the weekday aide visited me and my aunt to pay her respects. My aunt expressed her gratitude and admiration to the aide for all her hard work, and got to talking about the fact that where my grandmother grew up, on a farm in rural Oregon, women were expected to look after their elderly and infirm relatives. An aunt, for instance, spent ten years caring for a female relation rendered bedridden and insensible by a stroke. So my grandmother had sworn that her own children wouldn’t have to do that.
“And that’s why we hired you,” my aunt said cheerfully to the aide.
I cringed on so many levels. It’s true my aunt didn’t actually say, “Hey, isn’t it great that my mother made sure we’d never have to do your shitty job?” But boy, it sure sounded like that. Since the aide didn’t act offended I didn’t argue about that, but I did point out that my grandmother, in her last months of life, kept asking where her family was, especially her children. She was too demented to remember where they’d gone, and felt abandoned. I guess she reaped what she sowed, but it was still very sad to see.
Actually, feeling embarrassed around the aides was already a familiar experience to me. When I arrived, my entire experience of caring for another living being was having had a cat for a few years. I’ve never even baby-sat. And I couldn’t help wondering if the aides, coming from African cultures where this sort of thing was a core female competency, saw this as a defect in me, or in the culture that produced me. My grandmother’s determination to get off the farm and get a law degree (though she never practiced law, as it turned out) opened up a new world for her female descendants. But it also closed the old one off. I was brought up to be a professional, to have a job suitable to my social class. At no point do I recall my family discussing the possibility that I might become a farmer, or a nurse to my elders. The whole idea of moving in with my grandmother I came up with on my own, and my aunts were awfully surprised when I suggested it.
Although I’m describing this in gender terms here, I think Russell’s right that there’s a basic inequality issue here that affects both sexes. The world is full of crummy jobs that nonetheless need doing. I guess in the industrial age there’s been this dream that we’d invent machines to do all that stuff. Or that supply and demand would ensure that the crumminess of the job would be compensated for with better pay. Or that if everyone were free to follow his or her passion, somehow those passions would line up with society’s needs.
All of those things have happened to some extent. But the crummy jobs are still in overabundance, so they keep getting kicked downstairs. And unlike Russell, I’m not sure this problem would go away if these things were drawn out of the realm of commerce and into the personal sphere. In fact, one thing that strikes a reader of premodern literature, from the Bible on up to the present day in other lands, is that while business was once a lot more familial, family was also a lot more businesslike. Marriages were financial arrangements as much as personal, which is not surprising because “husband” and “wife” were usually job descriptions as well as relational ones. And hierarchy, which most of us accept in our workplaces however egalitarian our ideals, was pretty much a given in the household.
In my last post, I homed in on a certain Bible quote because it seemed to expose this hierarchical element in role division. The conservative position on gender nowadays is generally that men and women have different roles, they’re complementary and both necessary as part of a greater whole, so women shouldn’t take this as meaning they’re inferior. But humans being the rank-orderers that we are, we can never seem to avoid thinking that the one doing the crummier job — even if it’s a wholly necessary job — is the lower one. In my aunt’s comments to the aide I felt I could hear an echo of that old Jewish men’s prayer: “Thank God I am not a woman.”