Caring too much (or not enough)? The virtue and vices of caring

I am trying to shift my attention away from care ethics for now. No, really, I am. I can’t help it that articles about care ethics just seem to find me. Like this one: “What feminists get wrong about family, work and equality,” which is part of a special issue, entitled Mothers who care too much, for the July/August 2010 issue of the Boston Review.  I found a link to it on twitter and I couldn’t resist reading (and now writing about) it. In this article, Nancy J. Hirschman reflects on how caring and an ethics of care are being used uncritically to justify irresponsible and uncaring actions by full-time mothers. She writes:

Significant trends within feminism, grouped under the label of care feminism, have long emphasized the socially important work that women do rearing children. I have pursued such arguments in my own work but lately I have grown worried that feminists such as me have exaggerated the importance of care, ignored the inadequate ways in which it is often performed. We have failed to acknowledge that the louder we applaud it, the more we enable its perversion.

In the article, Hirschman focuses on stay-at-home moms and how their care work has been overvalued (or at least too uncritically valued). She argues that not enough critical attention is given to how and when that care work is not performed responsibly–like when a mother, while claiming that she cares for her college-aged student, lies for that student so that they can get an extension on their take home exam or so they can plagiarize a big chunk of their paper (these are examples she gives at the beginning of the essay). We spend a lot of time vilifying rich women who exploit their nannies or working mothers who selfishly prioritize their jobs over their children, but we can’t seem to expand our critique to include women who are full time mothers:

We hear a lot about the evils of working mothers, how they are too busy or selfish to pay attention to their children. And everyone loves to pile on rich men’s wives who are obsessed with getting their children into the right preschool yet consign them to the care of nannies. But we don’t often talk—either within the academy or outside of it—about the comparable failings of full-time mothering, about the women..who devote their lives to caring for their families, while producing outcomes that arguably undermine such basic political values as freedom, equality, and engaged citizenship.

Is it just me or does her mention of “piling on rich men’s wives” seem a little too flippant? Hirschman’s response to this problem is to suggest that a feminist ethics of care might be a big part of the problem:

If the work of care feminists can be put to use for ends opposed to those for which it was intended, maybe something is wrong with the theory itself.

She wants us to examine the unexpected consequences of a promotion of care as a valued, public good (which is a move that many feminists, including her, have supported): 1. When we value care as a public good, we subject care work (in its many forms) to public scrutiny/regulation/judgment. This scrutiny has led to an increased hostility to welfare and those caregivers (i.e. poor mothers) who were unjustly and erroneously depicted as bad mothers. 2. Valuing care by providing caregivers with adequate resources and sufficient support does not guarantee that the products of care (children) will be responsible and good citizens. Hirschman writes:

…many parents with more-than-adequate resources do an atrocious job teaching their children the sense of social responsibility and community that care feminists see as the natural outcome of caring work.

Question: Do all care feminists argue that the natural outcome of caring work is that it produces good citizens and that all caregivers just know how to engage in proper and effective care-giving work? I am bothered by the use of natural here and its concealing of the difficult labor that goes into determining how/when care is effective. This might be a place to read care and care work through virtue ethics. Care as a virtue would require that we think about how to distinguish effective/responsible care (virtue) from caring too much (vice of excess) or too little (vice of deficiency).

Okay, returning to the list of unexpected consequences of an emphasis on care: 3. Thinking about care as a public good (one that should be valued and compensated as such) gets complicated when we think of the benefits that caregivers already receive from their care work. If mothers are compensated for the burdens of watching children, should they also be taxed for the love that they receive from that same care work? and 4. “The focus on care has done little to change the sexual division of labor” (this is her big point and the title of another article that she contributes to this special issue).

After offering an insightful discussion of the sexual division of labor and care’s contribution to keeping that division unequal (note: she makes some interesting points in this section which I don’t have time to mention here), Hirschman offers this proposal for how to rethink (or think beyond) care:

Care feminism wants to make us think more in terms of connection and relationship, but if men have no incentive to give up their power and follow the care model’s recommendations, then women continue to represent “the family” and men remain “individuals.”

Care feminism has long been critical of individualism; but perhaps the best way to achieve the goals of the care model is for women to become stronger in individualist terms by gaining and retaining economic clout and social status, thereby giving them leverage to get men to change, and to care more.

This may mean that the vision of care that feminists promote—the kind of care that we produce—has to change as well, become less ideal, more pragmatic, without abandoning its commitments to progressivism or civic-mindedness: more like “tough love” than empathic giving. This may sound counterproductive to the ideals of empathy, responsibility, and connectedness that care theorists have advocated. It may seem overly sanguine. Some care theorists may claim that that is what they have been trying to do all along. But theorizing care from the perspective of the power dynamics to which we have inadvertently contributed is essential to its success. Because ultimately it is women’s power, not care itself, that will enable gender equality.

Hmm…I am trying to think about all the different ways in which her suggestions seem problematic to me. I bristle at the phrase “tough love”—is it possible that I might be taking it out of context and just remembering my recent critique of harsh criticism as tough love? Maybe. I am also surprised at her seemingly singular focus on gender at the expense of considering how the question of care and parenting is necessarily implicated in unequal power distributions based on race or class or sexuality or nation. In focusing only on the need for women (which women?) to get jobs or, more broadly, attempt to acquire power/status/money, we aren’t able to consider the important questions: Who (that is, which individuals) have access to economic clout and social status via jobs?

While much more could be said about the limits (or possibilities?) of her proposal,  that is not my goal in this entry. I chose to write on this essay because I was struck by the author’s engagement with feminist care ethics and her reinforcement of the popular and too-narrow idea of care as uncritically linked to the nurturing mother. As I hinted at before, I think linking care with troublemaking might be a way to get beyond (or beside?) this narrow framing. I also chose to write on this essay because I was struck by the title: Women who care too much. The idea of excessive caring makes me think of Aristotle and his ethical framework for cultivating virtue in relation to its vices (its excesses and deficiencies). Okay, I really need to stop thinking about care ethics right now. Time to think about one of my other blog projects.

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