How to upend your life: Become an accidental caregiver

Close-up of two people holding their hands.
Photo by Thirdman.

This is the final article in a trilogy based on my summer holiday. Each piece marks an important milestone in my evolution as an activist for women’s rights and also as a person. The first one was about the invisibility of women in public spaces (Monumental Inequity: The Missing Women). The second one was about the visibility of harassment in the workplace.

This one comes full circle. It’s about the invisibility of a very specific kind of work: caregiving.

The invisibility of carework

On August 25th my family and I traveled from Malta, where we had spent one week of holiday, to Vigo, in the Northwest of Spain. My plan was to spend 10 additional vacation days with my parents and brother before coming back to the UK.

We had a fluid plan for the remaining days: Going to Porto one day, visiting my grandmother on her farm, going to Santiago de Compostela for shopping, celebrating my mother and sister-in-law birthday’s, and visiting some cool restaurants.

The next day, August 26th, my mother broke her hip whilst walking to Vigo downtown.

From there, it was all a roller-coaster. All comes in flashbacks

  • Going in the ambulance with my mother.
  • Waiting in the emergency ward for the doctors to confirm what my mother had sensed, she had a broken hip.
  • Learning how to help my mother whilst minimising hurting her.
  • Sleeping in a hospital care chair.
  • Trying to guess went my mother was suffering because of her tendency to put up with pain.
  • Going to the hospital cafeteria for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Unfortunately, I was not surprised by the amount of work involved.

  • My research on the effect of COVID-19 on the unpaid work of women demonstrates the massive hidden work towards caring for the elderly and other family members.
  • My current research for the book How Women Succeed in Tech has confirmed the huge penalty imposed by eldercare on women. It’s typically not recognised in the workplace leave entitlements — like parental leave — or by the state, so women are left to shoulder the brunt of the care to reduce the financial burden even to the extent, in some cases, of being pushed to make the hard decision to not have children.
  • All my life, I’ve seen the women in my family – my grandmother and aunts – assume the care of their elders and sick husbands on top of their work. Without transition and, as expected, without retribution.

What did surprise me was the mental load of my conflicting emotions. Feeling

  • Guilty when thinking that I was not doing enough in my role as caregiver.
  • Selfish the nights I shifted turns with my father and I went to sleep at my brother’s house whilst he slept at the hospital.
  • Resentful and angry because after so many months and years of waiting for this reunion, I felt we didn’t deserve to spend it in the hospital. 
  • Sad when my mother would blame herself for “ruining” the holidays for everybody.
  • Inadequate for not knowing off the bat how to move the hospital bed or make work the pay-as-you-go TV.

What helped? Remembering my training as a life coach. Through self-coaching techniques.

  • I limited useless rumination. Early in the ordeal, I was able to pause and ask myself, “What is the true purpose of this holiday?”. I answered, “To be with my family”. From that moment, I decided that the whole incident had not detracted from the purpose of the trip and that from that point of view, the holiday was a success.
  • It also helped to reduce the tendency to give advice to others about what to think or feel. Instead, I was often able to shift into curiosity and spend more time listening and asking about their thoughts and feelings.
  • I put things into context. I asked myself, “If my mother were to break her hip anyway and I could be anywhere in the world, what would have been my choice?”. The answer was straightforward. It would be exactly as it happened.
  • I gave myself permission to name and process my emotions. Not only anger, disappointment, or sadness but also relief when my mother came back from the successful surgery and joy when I saw her walking the next day.

Coming back to the UK

I was not prepared for the exhaustion and mental fatigue that I experienced once back in Manchester. I guess that I thought that as soon as I’d be home, I’d resume my normal life. 

Nothing farther from the truth. I felt depleted mentally and physically. I had plenty of deadlines but my brain and body wanted to rest.

Then, I did something unusual for me, I pushed back on agreed deadlines.

I consider myself very dependable, so it was hard to share with people what happened and ask for more time to send an article, prepare a presentation, or record a video.

The good news was that everybody was very understanding. Deadlines were extended and I delivered the work. 

I felt relieved and thankful. 

Still, I thought, “What if this was a common occurrence?”, “Would the people around me have been so understanding?“

My learnings

Reading a book teaching how to drive a car is not the same as driving it. Watching a video about unconscious bias doesn’t mean that we stop being affected by stereotypes.

My research into unpaid caregiving opened my eyes to this invisible sink of women’s work. Through the data and the stories of women, I was able to quantify the effort not recognised, the time invested, the unearned money, and the lost career opportunities.

But this experience made it personal and urgent. Because in a world that still grapples with recognizing childcare as an infrastructure, eldercare is invisible, even if our societies get older and older.

Recently, I was at the feminist Fawcett Conference 2023 with the theme Women Win Elections! Of course, support for mothers was at the top of the agenda from the early morning. And rightly so. 

What concerned me it’s that it was presented as “the” item to tackle, even if during the event it became clear that eldercare — among other challenges — needs to be addressed for women to present themselves as political candidates.

Then, why do we only focus on childcare? Because we continue to think of women as second-class citizens who have only the right to one “ask” at a time. And that is “childcare”.

However, this is not a contest. Chances are that as a woman you may become a “sandwich carer” at some point  — those who care for both sick, disabled, or older relatives and dependent children.

In 2019, the UK Office for National Statistics reported that sandwich carers (about 3% of the UK general population) were more likely to report symptoms of mental ill-health, feel less satisfied with life, and struggle financially compared with the general population. Moreover, the prevalence of mental ill-health increases with the amount of care given per week. 

In summary, asking our societies to recognise the multiple identities women can embody beyond motherhood is “too much”, so we keep invisibilizing and minimising our efforts. We think that by patiently staying in line and asking for one “favour” at a time we’ll get to the finish line of gender equality.

The problem is that by continuing what we’re doing, we’ll have to wait 300 years more to reach gender equality as per the UN Women and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

The cure

I don’t want to die feeling that I’m the child of a lesser god. Do you?

We women need to stop conforming ourselves with less and demand much more from our partners, our families, our workplaces, our society, and our governments. 

We need to stop “being mindful” of the inflation, the NHS crisis, the strikes, the wars…

We need to stop believing that we need to be the adults in the room, the ones that are ready to make sacrifices for the common good, the half of the humanity that is expected to “shut up and do the work”.

Let’s be bold and put ourselves first. Because when women win, 8 billion people win.

Thanks for your support

When I started writing these three articles, I thought of them as three distinct episodes with the common thread of my holidays and women. I was surprised how “visibility” weaved into each of them naturally.

Allowing myself the time for this exploration has been liberating and, at the same time, constraining. Liberating because of the format but constraining because of my self-imposed commitment to both exploring the uncomfortable aspects of the topics as well as reflecting on the alternatives.

Thanks again for accompanying me along this trilogy. 

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