An earlier version of this post was published in July, 2009.
When I mention that Don has a homecare worker, and explain what that job is, I often get this question:
“Why don’t you do all that stuff for him?”
This touches on something that I’ve referred to a few times, and that’s the idea that it’s totally okay (admirable, even!) that services for people with disabilities be offered by volunteers. It gets into a lot of complicated stuff.
For example, Don’s homecare worker does things like makes sure he is clean-shaven once a week, washes his hair carefully, and does some of the stuff he needs done for his back, which suffers from a lot of sitting/lying related issues, like heat rashes and sores. She’s there for about an hour or so.
What she does for Don is a huge deal in terms of his personal hygiene. All those little things that allow him to be “acceptable” to our neighbours take energy, such as having clean hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Before homecare, Don would often go weeks, if not months, without a proper shave, and look very scruffy and unkempt. But it would be a decision for him – does he shave today, or does he make a meal? There wasn’t enough energy or concentration to do both.
The question of why I don’t do these things has a few assumptions under it. First, it implies that, because I’m his spouse, I should be in the caretaker role. I should be making sure all his personal hygiene needs are taken care of. There’s a power imbalance there that makes me uncomfortable. It puts me in role as adult, and Don in role of child, and this is just not acceptable.
The other thing is part of why this volunteer thing bothers me. Don’s personal level of comfort should not depend on my energy levels. It shouldn’t depend on my mood. It shouldn’t depend on whether or not I’m angry at him today, or I’m too busy, or if I’m home.
Right now, it depends on whether the woman who is paid to come to our home and do these things shows up. If she calls in sick, there is someone else who will come in. I know she has a degree in nursing, focusing on homecare for people with disabilities. I know she’s a professional, who has been taught the issues around disability and privacy, around personal autonomy, and around sexuality and disability. I know the process we will go through if either she or Don does something sexually inappropriate. I know the appeals process if she threatens him or he threatens her. I know what will happen to Don’s care in those situations. More importantly, Don knows what will happen in those situations. He has personal autonomy.
Don’s health needs shouldn’t be dependent on me in any way, because that’s not safe for Don.
In my experience, Feminism tends to have discussions about caregiving focusing around the fact that caregiving roles fall predominately on women, and lead to things like “the second shift”, or caregiver fatigue, or even directly impact women’s abilities in the workplace. (“I can’t work late because I need to get home now.”) I think this is an important thing to discuss, but I don’t think it’s the only part of the caregiving equation. I think we, as feminists, need to also talk about the power inbalance that comes in when one is a caregiver for a spouse or parent that has a disability.
As well, we rarely talk about what happens when the role of caregiver falls on women with disabilities? What happens to that allotment of spoons then? What view do we have of women with disabilities if their children aren’t “properly” cared for? If some other loved one isn’t getting everything they need? What happens to the caregiver/second shift issues then?
I think feminist discussions about caregiving and responsibility need to broaden out to include these complicated issues.