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In a chapter adapted from her new book, Allison J. Pugh traces one woman's extraordinary devotion to members of her family -- and extended family

Call to duty

The burden that women take on far more than men do

By Allison J. Pugh on July 3, 2015

Some people run towards commitment, not away from it. We all know someone like that — those who take on the care of a child with special needs, an elderly person with Alzheimer’s, or a mentally disturbed spouse.

It is difficult to estimate their numbers, but there are certainly millions of these heroes in the United States. More than 15 million Americans give unpaid care to someone with Alzheimer’s — three out of five of these reporting high or very high emotional stress in doing so — while more than half report facing significant financial strain. Most of the 5.9 million children with severe disabilities in the United States are taken care of at home by their parents and families.

Women are more than twice as likely as men to serve as unpaid, informal caregivers, and low-income caregivers spend more time giving care (42 percent more time than those who make more than $50,000). Families with income under the poverty line are more than twice as likely as others to provide more than 30 hours of unpaid assistance each week to elderly parents, according to one 2005 study. And a National Alliance Caregiving report found that “high-burden” caregivers spent an average of 46.9 hours weekly giving care. Often, caregivers spend years of their lives providing this social service at profound cost to themselves in terms of the strain on their personal lives and careers.

Consider Nicki Jones, an African-American single mother who already had three children of her own when she went to the hospital to visit her ex-husband’s grand-niece, who had just had a baby named Karma. “I heard her talking about that she was going to give the baby up for adoption, and I thought that was devastating. I thought that it would be a decision that she would regret,” she recalled. Despite some serious health issues, Nicki decided to step in. “So, I told her, ‘I’ll tell you what. I will take the baby for you, but if you decide later on you want her back, you can have her back.’” Nicki picked the baby up directly from the hospital and “took her home, took the baby home with me, and have had her ever since.”

For Nicki, having one’s baby adopted “out” to non-kin was a tragedy because it was irrevocable and, furthermore, Nicki defined herself, even as an ex-great-aunt, as kin whose responsibility it was to step forward and assume the burden.

Nicki has long suffered from fibromyalgia, a painful chronic condition that sometimes made it impossible for her to sit up in bed without her children pulling her up by the arms. Nonetheless, Nicki’s definitions of family are rooted in such powerful notions of duty that she takes on significant burdens, such as raising her “ex-husband’s sister’s granddaughter.” Nicki considers herself responsible for meeting the desperate need around her despite the considerable sacrifice that it requires; in recognition of her commitment to saving others from their hardships, we might say that she is one of these heroes, rescuing others who need it.

Many women’s lives are made deeply meaningful by the call to duty. Like Nicki, they offer themselves up as sacrifices to the necessities they recognize. Amid the pull of insecurity culture, with its emphasis upon flexibility and change, loose associations and light obligations, they use the fixity of duty to pin their identities down. And while duty has a certain rigidity, and can lead to anger when the expectations it brings are disappointed, its unyielding quality also generates the strength for great feats of devotion. We may find that devotion humbling, even awesome, in its scope, but it also serves to mask the social origins of those extreme needs, and the gendered scripts for who is to meet them.

Karma is now a teenager, with some attitude (“I try to tell her that I’m the last person that you should talk to like that”) and some troubles (“It’s constant issues. She’s more than all three of mine put together and then some. I’m counting those two years,” says Nicki, of the time left before Karma becomes an adult). But the hardest part is that Nicki was recently laid off from her job, and money has become a struggle.

“When you have exhausted all of your funds, that’s when you have a lot of stress. When you’re not able to buy the groceries that you normally buy. When you’re not able to put the gas in the vehicles that you normally put in there. When you’re in jeopardy of—this was the first month I ever paid my rent late, you know, and literally have to go around from organization to organization. And also understand that the economy is what it is and it’s hard for a lot of people, you know. And it’s—it was like a rude awakening, a smack in the face. You can’t do it, you know.”

Adding to this challenge is Nicki’s biological mother, who had given Nicki up as a child to be raised by a loving aunt and uncle. Nicki’s mother had a stroke seven years ago that left her bedridden, and now she lives with Nicki.

“In the beginning when she was like in the rehab hospitals and things like that, the way I was raised, you do what it takes for family, you know. My being an only child, I was the only one that could check on her. So I would go to the rehab hospital like three times a day, you know. And people were like, “You don’t have to go that often.” Well, that wasn’t the way I was raised, you know.

Aside from satisfying her own moral standards, Nicki’s dutiful attention to others may hold psychological benefits for her. In stepping up to care, particularly for the mother who never cared for her, Nicki is able to achieve what her mother could not: an identity as someone who can be depended upon to provide in times of crisis. While it leads to some of Nicki’s distress today, that identity has been a longstanding source of meaning and, within the context of her community, stature. The importance of that identity makes it nearly impossible to set aside when it no longer makes sense for her health or pocketbook, but rationality as defined by her material interests does not prevail here.

We can find “commitment heroes” in all corners of society, including among men, among the affluent, and among the stably employed. Nonetheless, some people are more likely than others to face the dire needs of others and to heed their call: mostly women, particularly women of color, and those who endure the travails of insecure work. Most important, those immersed in insecure work are most likely to create a moral wall to separate the insecurity they expect at work and the duty they anticipate at home.

Trapped between two demands—both the gendered expectation that they would take on the burdens of care and the fact that those burdens increase under tough economic times such as those brought on by precarious work—less advantaged women have two different options to make sense of their conundrum: some adopt a stance of independence and use it to frame their defiance of the gendered trap of caregiving. But others find meaning in duty, whose dictates they believe they can still fulfill—even if at extremes of need it can look more like rescuing.

Yet while we might recognize their everyday care as acts of heroism, we must also remain clear-eyed about the social forces that produce such dire need in the first place, taking note of our systemic reliance upon their willingness to keep giving.

Allison J. Pugh is an associate professor of sociology at The University of Virginia. The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity was released in May.