Caregiving Skills for the Planet
Reflections on why we need to consider social and ecological caregiving together.
I was stumped when I became a single parent of a two-and-half-year old. How do you care for a young child in the absence of social childcare provisioning and without the usual kin support network? My daughter depended on me for everything, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
In the process, I came to understand and internalize empathy and commitments to the well-being of others, attributes that are typically ignored in job assessments and wage compensation evaluations. I also learned some skills relevant to caring for the planet, seeking efficiency, flexibility, and resilience.
As one of the multitudes of women juggling multiple roles – childcare provider, homemaker, income-earner, – I continually worked on managing and efficiently using that highly valuable resource called time. Some tasks are attached to the organization of daily living and simply cannot be skipped or postponed such as feeding, dressing, picking up from daycare; others can be more flexible, such as grocery shopping and laundry. Then there are tasks that unexpectedly arise and require immediate attention, such as taking a sick child to the doctor. Prioritization and effective sequencing are key.
Sometimes, like many working women, I got the work done by reducing time spent in sleeping or social activities. Most of the time, however, I reached the biological limit on the number of working hours I could squeeze into a day and still be effective. I had little choice but to perform two or more activities at a time. Chronic multi-tasking, however, can backfire. I reached for other coping strategies, including informal, cooperative childcare arrangements, etc.
Caregiving is multi-faceted work and fraught with unexpected situations: a sick child who cannot go to daycare or a care support provider who cancelled due to an emergency. These uncertainties demand flexibility and even adaptation. They compel one to assess the situation and develop alternatives: Plan A, Plan B, …
Similar challenges were often faced by women I met during my fieldwork among urban squatters in Thailand, Philippines, and Ecuador. I recall one woman waking up before her husband and going to the communal water pump. Because the wait turned out to be long, she left her bucket unattended in the queue and headed home to prepare breakfast. She then put food to cook on the stove and went back to the queue, only to find that her bucket had been kicked out and she had to go back to the end of the line. When she finally got home, the breakfast had burned.
It is no wonder that research shows that women who are both “time poor” and “income poor” are subject to considerable stress and poor health.
The care support I received from a sister and friends throughout single parenting made a huge difference. I was also lucky to have a job that enabled me to pay for childcare services. In countries with no or inadequate government support in childcare, many are not so lucky. Mothers without family and kin support are left with the options of leaving their young children at home on their own or bringing them along while street vending.
Like other working mothers, I gradually built resilience amidst the ups and downs and the heavy demands of caregiving. Resilience is about the ability to absorb and deal with disturbances and the capacity to adapt to stress and change. Perhaps the “otherness” of caregiving helped me overcome daily anxieties and heighten my awareness of interdependence with others.
These caregiving skills– attention to others, time efficiency, flexibility, adaptation, and resilience–are sorely needed as societies deal with the decisive global problem of our time, climate change. The solutions posed by climate scientists are clear: we need to scale down the material throughput of the global economy and reduce greenhouse gases by reducing fossil-fuel utilization.
The requisite actions demand much from each and every one of us. We need to develop a much more sustainable way of living. We need to address the persistent inequalities and privations being exacerbated by climate change. As The Earth Commission, a large network of scientists within the Global Commons Alliance puts it, we need an “equitable sharing of nature’s benefits, risks and related responsibilities among all peoples in the world, within safe and just Earth system boundaries to provide universal life support.”
In order to resist ecological degradation that threatens future generations we need to be super-efficient in the use of the increasingly scarce and valuable natural resources, change our mindsets, and modify our behaviors.
As Elinor Ostrom points out, no country can solve the global climate change problem by its own actions alone. But while many effects of climate change are global, many of its causes operate on a much smaller scale. Caregiving skills could help individuals, families, communities, businesses, and governments protect our future.
The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.