Care, capital, and COVID

In the spirit of letting no writing go to waste: my friends at Arizona State University asked me to lead a “design studio” on the future of work and caregiving. They asked me to write three introductions, one for each of three “movements,” during which the studio participants were invited to discuss questions about caregiving and labor. I included an image or a quote for each movement, which I’ve added to the post.

Thank you to the very professional and creative ASU staff—I don’t think I’ve ever participated in such a well-managed event. We even had a dress rehearsal!

I’m still very angry!! I will probably never stop being angry!!

1. Care and work under COVID

My son was born in the last week of February, 2020. It’s hard to believe now, but on the day he was born, COVID wasn’t on any of our minds. No one at the hospital was wearing a mask; it didn’t even occur to me to worry about it.

Woman sits in a chair, holding two children, one a child and one an infant.
March 2020, Los Angeles. Photo by Andy Wallace.

Of course, within a couple of weeks, all of that changed. My daughter, who was then seven years old, was home from school for what turned out to be a couple of years, and my partner and I were on our own with a newborn, more or less fending for ourselves while the world came crashing down around us.

My partner took this picture of me around that time, and one of the reasons I like it is that it expresses so vividly what it felt like at that moment: so much was at stake, and all of it seemed to depend on me, with no help coming from any direction.

This predicament—this absolute vacuum of support for caregiving—didn’t just happen overnight, though it may have felt like it at the time. As historians have told us, the neoliberal state steadily destroyed the social safety net over the second half of the twentieth century.

As a middle-class white woman, I was probably one of the last to feel its absence. To borrow the words of the legal scholar Lani Guinier, Black women were the canaries in this particular coal mine, as they so often are. But the destruction of the social safety net eventually came for us all. Austerity came steadily for poor people, disabled people, and people of color, as successive administrations shredded welfare, social programs, and labor protections in the name of self-reliance and the liberating forces of the free market. By 2020, it had come for me, too.

But as many of us discovered during the first weeks of COVID, we are none of us in actuality self-reliant. Hard though it may be for some of us to admit, we depend on many things that require legions of people to maintain. We need infrastructure, for example, like electricity, roads, and supply chains. We need a functioning public health system. And we all of us require, or have required, or will require care, along with a human being to supply it.

That carework—the work of attending and nurturing and loving the people who need us—is part of what scholars sometimes call “social reproduction.” Whatever else care work does, it also serves an irreplaceable economic function, in that it produces, maintains, and bolsters the functional members of society necessary to serve as workers and consumers. Giving this carework a name is itself a response to our pervasive unwillingness to acknowledge its importance or value. I felt this myself when I heard complaints about the inability of parents to be available for meetings at all hours. “Where the hell,” I wondered, “do they think the college students come from?”

Vital though this work is, our social system has persistently refused to acknowledge it and, indeed, mercilessly attacked our ability to perform it for each other, from requiring everyone to move long distances for jobs, to setting work hours via algorithm, to forcing workers to string together multiple gig jobs, to creating conditions in which child- and eldercare are both immiserating and scarce.

The political theorist Nancy Fraser calls this predicament “cannibal capitalism”: in its ruthless drive to extract natural resources and then charge us for them, capitalism has actually imperiled its own ability to persist. Who will power and maintain the economy if none of us can meet our own or others’ basic needs?

Cannibal capitalism makes its presence known via a stream of logical contradictions that become increasingly difficult to tolerate. We must be good parents, but we must commit ourselves to the grind; we must care for our elders, but we must move to wherever the jobs are; we must be loyal friends, but we’re too exhausted to see each other; we must work through the pain, but we are physically unable to do so.

The outlandishness of these fallacies became crystal-clear to me during the height of COVID, when people told me with a straight face, that I must be responsible for my daughter’s education and my son’s care while simultaneously bearing my work responsibilities. The actual, physical impossibility of this—its contradiction of the literal laws of physics—was never acknowledged. It was never so clear to me as in that moment that we have created the conditions for our own destruction.

Arguably, we missed our chance to emerge from COVID-era isolation having demanded and achieved a better way to live. But the cognitive dissonance of what we experienced bred a sheer, full-body, incandescent rage that is still with me, as perhaps it is also with you. Perhaps our task now is to transmute that rage into care—an expression of love that also carries within it the ability to expose the intolerable contradictions we labor under.

2. Love like a prison

“I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the norm that makes a prison for adults—especially women—out of their own commitment to children they love.”

Sophie Lewis, Abolish the Family

When I was a kid, because I was very fortunate, I experienced my mother’s love as a kind of white noise: ubiquitous, omnipresent, and not particularly interesting. It was the background hum against which more interesting things happened, as I figured out who I was and wanted to be.

So it was the shock of my life when, upon having kids, I discovered that from the other side, that same love feels anything but static. On the contrary, it is cataclysmic, like a tidal wave, an almost material thing. My children may experience this love, like I did, as radio static—I hope they do—but on my end, it’s a full-body experience that buckles my knees and takes my breath away.

So what does it mean to call this relationship a prison? I would guess that many of us who care for people we love can hazard a guess. The love itself is not oppressive; it’s the constant awareness that at a fundamental level, my children have only me and my partner. The weight of that responsibility is so immense that it makes it hard to breathe.

I feel the implicit threat when I hear about families who have been evicted from their homes, children with incarcerated parents, children who have been separated from their homes because of their parents’ poverty or despair. It could be me. I know that my race and class make these outcomes unlikely, but the pandemic also taught me that when everything falls apart, there is no one there to catch us. I am my children’s only bulwark against world-ending tragedy.

That’s part of what Sophie Lewis means when she talks about abolishing the family. She’s not talking about the abolition of reciprocity, but about the extension of that mutual care beyond the boundaries of the family unit. With the withdrawal and privatization of most forms of social support, the weight of more and more caregiving has been piled onto the family, which is already strained to breaking point. Many of us have only ourselves to offer care to elderly or disabled relatives. Many of us worry about who will care for us when we need it. Many of us have no break from the labor of caregiving, and many of us lie awake at night worrying about catastrophes that could destroy the lives of the people we love the most in this world.

What would life be like if that weight were lifted? What might you have the time and freedom to do? What kinds of relationships and infrastructure might be possible if the responsibility for some of that care were distributed elsewhere? Where might that care and reciprocity go?

We don’t have to abolish the family, not if you don’t want to. But I include this provocation as an encouragement to think really big as we imagine a more just landscape of caregiving. The weight of responsibility is so immense and so omnipresent that it can be hard to imagine what it would be like not to have to carry it. But for this provocation, I ask you to consider: What if you didn’t?

3. Exactly the wrong skills

Like all of you, I’ve worked hard my whole life. I was never a particularly rebellious kid, and so I diligently cultivated the talents that my teachers, and, later my employers, rewarded. I studied. I stayed late. I showed initiative. I prided myself on my self-reliance and sought to be intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken. That’s what I had learned to do, and building these skills seemed vital to my ability to succeed.

A black-and-white illustration of humans helping other humans with tools and food reads "Fuck rugged isolationism / Doomsday prep with love."
Tabitha Arnold, available here.

So it was a shock to me when I realized, during the early days of the pandemic, that I’ve spent my whole life cultivating exactly the wrong skills. Nothing—no amount of Googling, reading, working, or screaming—could compensate for the fact that I had failed to build a community. At school dropoff, I’d been too absorbed with thoughts of emails and lesson plans to get to know the other parents. Coming home late, dragging groceries up the stairs, I was too exhausted to contemplate chatting with the neighbors. I cherished my friends, but I prided myself on never asking for help, so we had no track record of reciprocity to build on. And yet now I desperately needed other people to help me cope and to share the burden we’d all been saddled with.

It struck me then that the talent the world will demand of my children is not study skills or work ethic, as I’d been taught; it’s the ability to give and receive help, and in doing so to create bonds of reciprocity. Their short lives have already been studded with disasters, from wildfires to pandemics, and in the coming years that number is only likely to grow. The world I’d grown up in taught me to respond by hoarding canned goods and squirreling away cash. But experts on disasters have been clear that the people who emerge most successfully from catastrophes are likely to do so because of the bonds they’ve formed with their neighbors and communities. The best way—the only way—to equip my children for survival is to teach them that we all depend on and must care for each other.

That’s something I’m working on in recent years: getting to know my neighbors, learning to give and ask for help, building more enduring friendships, learning about mutual aid and networks of community support. It seems so small, but it is frankly excruciatingly difficult for me, as someone who’s both shy and trained to be self-reliant. But to me, it seems like the most meaningful way I can start to build a world in which care is not an individual burden but a shared source of strength.

I know a lot of people are much better at this stuff than I am, and a lot of you have already done this work. But maybe there are other things you have in mind as steps toward the world you want to see. So many of us are stretched so thin and life can be so overwhelming. But I wonder, what feels realistic and do-able for you in this moment?