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“You have a PhD, and you’re freelancing and home with the kids? That must be … nice,” said the mother of a friend of my 6-year-old daughter.

The “nice” hung in the air awkwardly, familiarly. Behind the question was genuine bewilderment, curiosity, a bit of judgment, a smattering of pity. In my next breath I felt compelled to outline to her my articles, papers and chapters in progress, my latest academic presentation, the national outlets for which I write, my search for a flexible (gasp!) teaching or writing job.

Later, I questioned my first reaction, which had been to highlight all the other, “real” things for which I am responsible, for which I am paid or externally recognized, as opposed to noting the positive effects that my availability at home has had on my children. Those include mentoring my daughter one-on-one, participating in school (and after-school) activities and addressing myriad emotional and practical needs.

My denial of the time that I dedicate to my children felt like a betrayal of them, and of my worth in their lives. It revealed a pervasive sense of professional anxiety, mixed with the pressure to achieve ever more, to ‘do justice’ to fields in which I had long been so invested. It was the not-so-pretty manifestation of the internalized belief that time spent not “producing” is time wasted.

This exchange – uncomfortable, misunderstood – is familiar to many women who are primary caretakers of their children, particularly those who have achieved high levels of education. The conversation underscores the stigma of care-taking in a society that devalues the work of caring, demeans it, makes it less than. Yet, arguably, this work underpins and makes all other work possible, moving the gears that make society civil and functional.

I still struggle with believing that my care-taking is valid work, because it feels so sidelined and lonely (even punished) in a culture in which the answer to the question, “What do you do?” is often expected to encompass the bulk of who you are, your identity. Those who do for others are perceived as having less value than those who do for themselves, especially in a system designed for consumption, not nurturing.

Our current professional lifestyles do not give time, space or value to care-taking, even as it is ever more critical to creating the social and emotional leaders who will move society forward. A lack of critical support structures, such as family leave, makes the physical and emotional care of others, immeasurable as it is, invisible. That further brings down its value.

Motherhood, education, hospice and nursing, even primary care medicine and pediatrics – i.e. professions or endeavors that involve care of those who are most vulnerable or in need – are frequently devalued as “takers” in our political and economic discourse, rather than the “makers” of a livable, supportive and humane society.

Somewhere along the line we have gone from seeking a nebulous balance between work and home to creating ever sharper divisions between the two. The message to women of my generation is that the only endeavor that is worthwhile, that is fit to be called labor, is that which produces the greatest capital. Labor is what is paid for and remunerated, what can be quantified and systematized, not the hand that feeds or soothes.

This is made perhaps most apparent in the (admittedly political) discourse surrounding single mothers, whose mere existence is often treated as an indictment of their character. For these women, there is a double bind. The act of working makes them takers, as they “selfishly” rely on others to help raise a child. But to stay at home with the children requires social services (or child support) that delineate the recipients as a cost to society. Even women like me, who can afford to take care of our children while working a flexible schedule, are made to feel like we are at a deficit, aware of the vulnerability of not maximizing pay during our most productive work years.

In spite of this lack of recognition, the expectations on caretakers — and on mothers in particular — are crushing. More often than not, it is women who find themselves in impossible configurations of “work” both in and outside of the home, negotiating the needs of children, the elderly and community, even as men are also increasingly encouraged to engage in (yet feel little support for) care-taking.

If most care-taking remains feminized in the United States, then our valuation of this work says a lot about how we view female labor. We give worth to the work of women as long as it fits the mold of work traditionally undertaken by men. It is unsurprising, then, that fields heavily weighted toward women (teaching, nursing, etc.) pay far less than those dominated by men.

In the quest to get women the not-yet-fully-achieved recognition they deserve in their careers, we have neglected to appreciate, recognize and support all of the other work they have done and continue to do. This is pushing women toward the impossibility of having it all via the negation of very real, other forms of labor. We tell women to lean in until they snap in half.

Few know this better than those who struggle to work, care-take and make ends meet. The conversations tend to focus on educated, upwardly mobile women. The present dialogue often assumes people have resources and education, or even the desire to prioritize one type of labor over another. It doesn’t take into account the majority of women, for whom stretching farther would simply be impossible.

Care-taking may be often invisible, but society can’t function without it. Caretakers work in many different ways, in and outside of the home, and the needs and responsibilities of all types of work should be recognized and respected.

The lack of nuanced discourse surrounding caretakers and their worth perhaps most affects those who are cared for — our children, the elderly, the sick and embattled. When we deride the caregiver, we devalue those being cared for and make them invisible as well. We must move the conversation of personal and professional worth beyond the topic of what we do, and also talk about the who (performers, those affected, society), the how (actions, effects), and the why (intention, social impact) of our chosen paths.

Dotson-Renta is a scholar of romance languages and postcolonial literature. She writes, edits and Tweets. 

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