Care is a Feminist Issue

Care provision is not only a disability rights issue, but a feminist one argues Victoria McNulty on #InternationalWomensDay.

I have lost count of how many meetings I had had with my son’s school. How many unresolved phone calls, how many unactioned plans. In the latest in a long line of fresh starts, an additional support needs teacher smiled from across the table. A new face. Now on-board after months of inaction.

I ponder quickly, how I wished I had washed my hair before meeting a new person. Did the bags under my eyes betray me? Tell tales of sleepless nights, built up stress? Because I am stressed. I am exhausted.  How many more of these discussions would it be before someone decided I could not cope? When would the tables turn from the inadequacy of local authority provision to speculation about my own home? 

Our home is a happy one. My son is in the process of slowly turning his room into a teen man cave. Our dog a sweet rascal. She cuddles him to sleep. There is nothing my partner won’t lift. Sometimes, on the really hard days, he dances in the kitchen to non-existent tunes, lifting us all with his jest. 

Still, in the last month, inadequate support meant that autism has now become my son’s name tag, his life a complaints procedure. And somewhere in that process too, after prolonged non attendance at school, our home became his prison. He is isolated, and the cracks are beginning to show.  Sometimes, I hope some motherly love will push him forward. Others, I crumble knowing that my love is not enough. It doesn’t not replace government funding. It does not replace staff training. It does not replace practical provision. If you are reading this and see your own loved one in this story. You are right. This is not good enough for them. And it is not, as their primary carers, good enough for us. 

When our situation began to deteriorate, I juggled work as an artist with an increasing role, not just as a mother but as an unpaid and unsupported carer, quietly plugging the gaps as best I could at home, hoping the storm would blow over.  I started off telling people I was unwell. That I couldn’t cope with my workload. That I had forgot. And as time went by I was more honest, asking for considerations to be put in place so I provide care and work. I would let organisations I was working with know my situation. I need to be at home in my son. My fee needs to cover care. I would like to attend the meeting virtually. And over time opportunities fell away. I had to be at meetings to understand the context. Another poet will gig for free when I don’t. The lack of networking I could engage in meant I felt increasingly removed from my own creative space. 

I want to talk about this on International Women’s Day because care provision is not only a disability rights issue, but a feminist one. In Scotland, around 70% of unpaid carers, those who support loved ones for over 35 hours a week, are women. Women are therefore more likely to work lower paid, less secure jobs and suffer financially as a result, further impacting the people they care for. That unequal burden of care also affects women’s visibility in economic and civic spaces, as well as their access to leisure and creativity.  So quite simply, we never here their stories. We do not, as a society, recognise the barriers they face seeking adequate support with their loved ones or finding their own fulfilment. Things are further complicated by a hostile benefits environment, forever striving to force people back into work through desperation and sanctions. Carers Allowance itself being ultimately deducted as a wage from any universal credit an individual might claim. 

Care and empathy is the glue that binds us together. We all require to both receive it and provide it in our life time. Yet, disability provision is often passed around as an issue that affects only a few. This in leads to dangerous utilitarian justifications for budget cuts and human rights abuses.  It lead to healthy people being issued DNRs during the first Covid 19 wave. Every care home scandal, every abuse of a power, every cut to essential provision happens because we choose to avert our gaze.  The extent to which we strive for equality affects us all and a system plagued by centralisation and austerity neglects everyone’s fundamental needs. Undeniably aftershocks are stronger for some, and this ripples through every layer of their existence and their household, shaping lives for years to come. 

If I am fully honest, I chose to write about care for International Women’s Day because I have nothing else to write about. My head is full of the daily process of being a carer. There are no Netflix binge or political involvements to think of. It takes forever to read a book. But what I do know is there will be other women who read this and recognise their own lives, share similar frustrations and witness the same disregard for their loved ones. And that is value enough right now.

At the end of our latest meeting at school, the new teacher smiled and got up from her seat. She was teaching in the next period and to get back to class. Before leaving the room she turned her body directly to me and extended her hand in solidarity. I was so taken by surprise I almost don’t respond. After months of missed connections, she saw me as I am, stress acned and valuable. She heard my voice as part of my son’s support, part of his journey through an eroding public service that does not meet his needs. She  recognised we are both women united in our caring roles. In a common empathy for the wellbeing of another person. I shook her hand in return, and for the first time in months there is a light in the darkness.

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  1. Bram says:

    Terrific piece

    1. babs nicgriogair says:

      Empathy and solidarity with you and yours on your journey.
      Here’s to a more sharing caring Scotland .

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