Yesterday’s New York Times has a front-page story by Jane Gross about middle-aged women who leave high-powered careers to care for ailing parents. It’s a deeply moving and interesting article, but here’s what irked me. First, we get this passage:
Women, now as always, bear a disproportionate burden for elder care and often leave jobs, either temporarily or permanently, when the double duty becomes overwhelming , according to recent studies of family care-giving, women in the workplace and retirement patterns.
Then, a few paragraphs down, there’s this:
Despite a growing number of men helping aging relatives, women account for 71 percent of those devoting 40 or more hours a week to the task, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP in a 2004 study. Among those with the greatest burden of care, regardless of sex, 88 percent either take leaves of absence, quit or retire.
“It is a safe assumption,” based on an array of research, “that women are more likely to put their careers on hold or end them because of care-giving responsibilities,” said Carol Levine, director of the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund and an adviser to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
In other words, about 30% of those devoting 40 or more hours a week to caring for aging parents or relatives are men. Yes, the burden on women is disprpoportionate; but let’s not forget that a lot of women, particularly in the 45-and-over demographic the Times is talking about, were either at home or only working part-time even before their parents needed care. So, in fact, while it is most likely true that women are “more likely to put their careers on hold or end them” to care for elderly family members, we don’t really know how much more. Then why does the Times treat this as if it were exclusively a women’s issue, and give men only a passing mention?
In fairness, I should note that this is not just an issue of focusing on women as victims; the article emphasizes, and perhaps even overemphasizes, the positive aspects of caregiving:
Middle-aged women may see leaving a high-powered career as an opportunity, not a sacrifice, many experts say, which distinguishes the Daughter Track from the Mommy Track. Arlie Hochschild, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written extensively about the postfeminist conflict between work and family, said women in their 50’s who had “proved what they set out to prove” were often drawn to “new sources of satisfaction” but were reluctant to admit an ebbing of ambition. The needs of ailing parents, Ms. Hochschild said, can offer “cultural shelter” – an excuse “to pull away and look inward.”
It is, however, a matter of focusing on women; and, ironically, this focus doesn’t necessarily help women, either. (If a corporation is thinking of promoting a woman in her early fifties to a top-level position, will their decision be affected by thinking that she’s likely to walk away from the job to care for her ailing mother?)
Of course, as is all too often the case, the Times’ coverage of this issue is also hopelessly elitist. “Women” is synonymous with “urban professional women.” We don’t hear so much about the problems faced by, say, a female supermarket clerk who can’t afford to quit her job and still has to care for an ailing parent — or by a male plumber who is in exactly the same position.