I suspect the heading for this post ranks among my least creative. The problem of devaluing carework has been explored in depth and at length by many authors. But it seems to me that it is important here, too.
The ways in which we devalue carework (by which I mean the work of providing care for others) are many. Professions like nursing, elder care, and daycare (all intensive forms of carework) are historically low-paid and low status jobs. People who stay home to raise their children are sometimes referred to as “non-working” parents. (While this was far more common in the past, it does persist.) The contribution stay-at-home parents make to the family economy and to the national GDP is not counted. We simply do not see the value of their labor. Staying home with kids is understood to be a sort of luxury rather than a critical function, such that poor parents are strongly encouraged (if not required) to get a “real” paying job rather than raising their own children.
There’s a vibrant critique of the devaluation of carework. It’s largely a feminist critique, because most of the people who perform carework are women, but it isn’t limited in its application. It’s true that you can often carework into specific tasks–washing, dressing, feeding, etc. But at it’s best carework clearly includes a social/relational component. It isn’t just about making sure the baby has clean clothes. It’s the social interaction and affection that goes along with the new diaper.
It seems to me that devaluing carework is of a piece with devaluing children. For all our rhetoric, it seems we don’t value children enough to ensure that their basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, education and care are met. This seems stunningly shortsighted to me–children are, after all, the people who’ll be running things when we get old.
But let me return to my topic before I descend into a formless rant. The short version of the above point is this–we undervalue carework and I think that is problematic. And I’ve come to realize that (at least for me) the “DNA defines legal parenthood” stance is yet another facet of the same devaluation of carework.
If you have two people who are raising a child together and one does all the care work while the other claims a genetic link but does no carework, a DNA-based approach tells us that the latter is a parent but the former is not. That’s true one year in or five years in or ten years in. That’s true even if the genetically related person has no real relationship with the child.
Given the rights, obligations and outright power that come with legal parenthood, that makes the first person a permanant player in the child’s life while the second one is simply a passer-by. That, it seems to me, fundamentally devalues carework. It denies the unique importance of the relationship between this child and this caretaker. (For what it is worth, I do not think all caretaker/child relationships are the same, by the way. The babysitter is not a parent. It isn’t all that hard to tell them apart.)
Consistent with what I said above, it also demonstrates a lack of concern for the child. Does anyone really think that the child who loses all contact with the caretaker of ten years suffers no harm?
I know there are no perfect systems. But it seems to me a view that consistently devalues carework–or more exactly, places no value on it at all–is entirely unjustifiable. Is there any real justification for reliance on DNA beyond “it’s natural” or some variation on that?
I’m sure I should have seen this connection long ago, but better late than never.