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Why Getting Clarity About Our Care Work Is Valuable
Searching for a job or finding a new client project is profoundly different from the way we make our way to caregiving roles.
Raising a child or taking care of an elder can sometimes feel either like a gift or a burden. Caretaking and care work are jobs — whether they’re full-time, part-time, or occasional, even if they’re unpaid.
Flipping the calendar on yet another year of a landscape-altering global pandemic is a good time to get perspective on how we care for ourselves and others. The way we care need not revert to the way it was before: to a time when we didn’t talk about the challenges of informal or unpaid caregiving.
When Care Is Uncompensated
I first heard the term “uncompensated care” at a hospital where I worked early in my career. This term was (and still is) used to describe the cost of health-care services for patients with no means to pay for care. The patients have neither health insurance nor the financial resources to pay out of pocket for services. The total value of those services equals the uncompensated care provided by the hospital. Those numbers need to consistently be calculated to plan for the resources and finances of the facility.
I found the term interesting and saw many human and systemic complications attached to it at the time. Over the 20+ years since I first learned of uncompensated care I've borrowed the concept and have -put it to broader use. The uncompensated care I'm most concerned with now is care work: the unpaid labor and tasks we do to care for ourselves and our loved ones, outside of healthcare settings. Caregiving is an act we do for ourselves, not in the typical sense of ‘self-care,’ but more specifically the work involved in managing chronic illness or a challenging situation. Care work encompasses the logistical, emotional, physical, and financial, all to assure that our own needs, or our loved ones’ basic needs are met.
Some care is paid for, like child care and elder care, while other care is not. There is little-to-no financial compensation exchanged for the care work we do for others or ourselves.
It's entirely OK that we don't always pay or get paid for these services. That we can buy a meal in a restaurant prepared by others and pay for that service doesn’t mean we don’t also prepare food for ourselves and our families at home, without being paid. There is still significant, intrinsic value to what is done in the name of care. However, when we don’t have a realistic picture of what that uncompensated care amounts to, energetically and financially, we undervalue it.
Valuing Our Caregiving Roles
The habit of only valuing that which has a financial impact perpetuates undervaluing of care work. This, in turn, causes us to be less deliberate about how we fit care into our lives. And it impacts how we care and how we feel about the care we provide. It impacts our relationships and our effectiveness, and most certainly, it impacts the professional plans we’ve got.
Society needs, and will always have, compensated and uncompensated care. As individuals, we can value the uncompensated care that we and others do. If we don’t, our communities will continue to treat this work as if it is invisible, and take it for granted. Our care roles are too important and integral to our relationships to go without the nurturing and deliberateness they deserve.
Gain Clarity on Your Care Work Role
If you, by default due to family dynamics, serve as a caregiver or if you have been recovering from an illness or surgery or live with a chronic health condition, it can be helpful to take a step back and get clarity about what is happening regarding your uncompensated care role. Being as deliberate as possible regarding the role you find yourself in can help ground your work and assure that you’re allocating the necessary resources, instead of being at the mercy of the impacts of unplanned care work.
To be deliberate about care roles, start by asking yourself questions about any uncompensated care you provide to others or yourself:
Did I choose my caregiving role?
How do I feel about my caregiving role?
If I could change one thing about my caregiving role, what would it be?
What does it look like when I'm successful in my caregiving role?
It may be helpful to answer these questions for yourself more than once — peeling back a layer at a time to get clarity about your care role.
Bringing a more deliberate eye to our care roles can help us manage them in more satisfying ways, especially our incredibly valuable uncompensated care. If there's a chance for us to integrate our care work and our flourishing, now's a great time to take it.