I remember the first day the State of Vermont paid me to take care of my partner, with her sometimes-mild-sometimes-totally-scary disability.
On the surface, nothing changed. For two years I had been doing these things because I love her and I want her to have the life I believe God wants her to have. That does not mean miracles, it means human relationship and basic work, reliably delivered, and fully made use of by the recipient.
But what a feeling to get paid! No more putting aside something vital at home for a few hours of minimum wage reimbursement and cheerful conversation with people who do not have Huntington’s Disease. No more walking back into the house exhausted and seeing everything I had left behind.. and now I’m too exhausted to do it
No more feeling guilty toward Macy’s, my former employer, for having to call out when she’s too sick, for showing up late after squeezing in just one more little task, for declining to cover a sudden opening that takes experience and skill, in a specialized department.
No more struggling to shoe-horn into my over-packed schedule the leisure and family activities that reward her for doing all the work she does to live at the unprecedented front curve of disease management she has achieved.
It was a happy day. I dressed in good clothes, just to clean, cook and shop. I’m old enough to remember ridiculing the 1950s tv moms who wore heels to run the vacuum. Now I knew how they felt: like them, I was lucky lucky lucky to be able to make a good house for the person I love.
I remember that feeling every time I encounter socially conservative families getting more and more hysterical about the rights of unborn children, the sanctity of pregnancy. Here’s the latest.
From my rarefied vantage point as a professional caregiver for a loved one, my heart goes out to those folks every time one of my lefty friends brings another such outrage to my attention. We used to talk about “dream interpretation.” Nowadays, I watch the news and work on the new art of “scream interpretation.” That’s what I’m working with here.
Scream interpretation tells me that all this talk about protecting children is less about abortion and more about mothers and fathers who worry about caring for their children. Today I walked past my local Roman Catholic church. My parents live in an affluent parish, and some of the young mothers were joyously planting flowers around the huge churchyard. Inside there was a class preparing for First Communion, but not one of these women was pregnant. They were slim and fashionable. The contraceptive ship has sailed.
So what’s all the screaming about? The hysteria about sanctity of life, about motherhood as a worthy mission? Even — bless you, Rick Santorum — about a father’s desire to cancel a day of campaigning for president to be with his wife and well children while the baby of the family fights for life?
I think these folks are actually wishing that they could feel the way I feel getting paid to take care of my partner. Sure the affluent young mothers can plant flowers on a Wednesday during school vacation. But most young families don’t have that kind of affluence anymore — or if they do, they’re not sure how long it will last. And every time they send a sick child to day care, every time they leave a 10 year old minding a 3 year old, every time they turn a sick infant over to a grandparent instead of sitting by the bed until the fever breaks — every time that happens, these young families feel insulted. They are being denied their American Dream, by a nation which no longer even offers a language to describe it.
Leadership on the left has to stand up for the language of paying for the job most women want most: caring for their family in times of need. Step one, of course, is calling out Rick Santorum on his hypocritical gambit of using Pennsylvania public school funds to pay tor his wife to provide homeschooling in Virginia. If that’s not a “mothering allowance,” I’d like to know what it is? And naturally, since some folks are dramatically overpaid in this nation, I’d put a solid ceiling above which you don’t get this cash.
This is all I can come up with, because most Americans, of any political stripe, have demonstrated their belief that more children — unplanned at best, unwanted at worst — are not what they really want. They prove this by using contraceptives. But so far, the right has given the only language of family sanctity tat most Americans have ever heard. And every time liberals rebut them with our own scream of fear, that women will be driven out of paid employment, the hearts of caregivers explode with the pain of having been misunderstood.
Our positions necessarily speak the hard truth that not every potential child will come to life. “You could choose which ones to kill, and keep some other,” we smile. And their hearts scream in agony: “I am killing them already every day! It’s in their eyes when I leave them at day care. It’s on my mind when I leave them unattended. I am killing them every time I’m not there to make a healthy meal, walk them to school instead of dropping them off. I am killing them every day — and I hate it.”
Other countries give their family caregivers several years of paid support for doing what all of us agree is hard and complicated work. Some of these countries are developed already, but others use this as a fast-track to development because kids who have parental nurture make better students, employees and citizens. I learned about this not in Europe, but in Singapore: it was part of the “Little Tiger” era.
In today’s political climate, talking about pay for caregivers has a civic benefit. Money is how we demonstrate that something has value, how we honor an action or output across different subcultures, languages, races, even state boundaries. This is not an issue of race, of “language spoken at home,” or “where your parents were born.” This is all of us saying to all good parents, “Your children are the future of my country.”
Unless I’m a total freak, I believe that paying other caregivers as I am paid will release huge waves of tension throughout our national body politic.
Teachers will be able to teach, knowing they there is someone to help with homework, meals, routinized scheduling.
Employers in the larger economy will be able to pay those who serve or produce their product in accord with what that product or service can put back in the cash register.
Public safety officers will have allies to help implement corrections or protections that take care of our most vulnerable.
Why should taxpayers foot the bill? We pay everyone who takes care of our country: the soldiers, the law enforcement officers, the inspectors, the infrastructure builders, the teachers. And yet, who does more for our country, for any of its component parts, than parents who have the time and resources to take care of our families?
That’s how I felt the first day I got paid. I want that feeling for everyone who’s doing the work of child-raising and elder-caring.