NHS staff from Dorset County Hospital are applaud (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

April 16, 2020   6 mins

Among the many casualties of lockdown, we can wave goodbye to the myth of “balancing work and family”. Beyond a certain point, parenting and work are mutually exclusive, as one harried QC bluntly recently acknowledged on social media.

Many will indeed sympathise with Bridget Dolan QC, whose home-office door declared: “That thing you think you can see inside this room is not your mother”. Rather, she is an overworked barrister, who will emerge only in a medical emergency. “For the avoidance of doubt,” the notice continued, “hunger is not a medical emergency.”

Coronavirus has collapsed a split we have been cultivating since the beginning of the industrial era, between the ‘productive’ and ‘domestic’ spheres, which reached its pinnacle in the 1950s ideal of a ‘breadwinner’ father and non-working housewife.

Shielded from the tiresome obligation to earn money, or even (thanks to modern domestic appliances) perform much physical work at all, this idealised maternal figure was supposed to spend her time smilingly caring for well-fed children in a leisured, peaceful and materially prosperous private home.

This ideal seemed to represent a delightful sanctuary from the ugliness of the wider world — at least to the men who could enter and leave it at will. But the ‘unproductive’ private housewife role both sentimentalised women’s work while also relegating it to second-class status. The work of mothering and care was magical, wonderful, irreplaceable and yet also too precious and emotional to cope with the weighty (and, somehow, also more important and serious) male worlds of business and politics.

Many of the women caught in this paradox found it intolerably restrictive. “Is this all?” asked Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963), the book credited with kick-starting second-wave feminism as a mass movement. Instead of a cramped domestic life of cooking, cleaning and caring, the “Women’s Libbers” of my mother’s generation demanded the opportunity to fulfil themselves. That meant demanding more of what men had: public life, career success, recognition and independence.

To a great extent they succeeded. Today in the UK, there are no occupations closed to women — not even serving as front-line soldiers. Great fanfare accompanied the news last year that a woman had passed army infantry training for the first time ever. But barring the occasional article in industry publications, we do not read many pieces about men smashing the glass floor and pioneering a greater balance of the sexes in traditionally female occupations such as nursery work.

Nor has there been a mass campaign by men in the developed world to demand a greater share of cooking and housework duties. On the contrary, a 2018 US study showed that even among men who say they believe the sexes should be equal at work, around a quarter still think women should do most of the housework. It will come as no surprise, then, that even before the coronavirus struck, British women were doing on average 60% more housework than their male partners.

But we can hardly look shocked that men are not falling over themselves to fill social roles that most of us — including women — still view as inferior. For despite some 70 years of feminism, the hierarchy of status between the domestic and ‘productive’ spheres is largely unchanged from the 1950s, a fact which became rapidly apparent to me in my stint as a stay-at-home mum.

In a social setting, someone would ask: “What do you do?”, and I’d reply: “I’m a mum”. Then whoever I was speaking to would shortly make their excuses and find someone more interesting to talk to. What male in his right mind would embrace a social role seen by both men and women as the preserve of dull nobodies?

When second-wave feminism first erupted, it included calls to recognise the value of domestic labour via “wages for housework”. At the time, the hope was that as women revolved out of the home, men would revolve in, creating a lovely egalitarian society in which everything was divided.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, in subsequent decades, the feminist campaign to take women seriously has been whittled down into a vague aspiration for more female CEOs and prime ministers, while the lower status of care stays stubbornly unchanged.

Alternately sentimentalised and patronised, today caring is widely perceived as a second-tier occupation for those who cannot or will not aim higher. Matt Hancock has now splashily pledged to recruit more care workers, get more PPE into care homes and send care workers a nice green badge that will enable them to access free coffees and other discounts. It is trumpeted as ‘Victory for our heroic carers’. Call me cynical, but a cutesy badge is hardly going to do much to redress the widespread perception of caring as low status.

Women’s liberation has, so far, turned out to be mostly for the middle and upper classes: we went from half the human population performing caring roles, regardless of class, to a large proportion of the middle and upper classes outsourcing care to poorer women, migrants and other groups perceived as lower status.

Lockdown is mercilessly exposing our collective delusions. As professional double-earner families are stripped of the ability to buy in domestic services or even lean on extended family, it has revealed the fragility of upper-middle-class professional ‘liberation’ from domesticity. It has also illustrated the patchiness of modern men’s willingness to “lean in” to caring duties in the family as women have leaned into the workplace.

And it has laid bare the uncomfortably mixed feelings we have about those workers who have taken on the caring obligations formerly seen as “women’s work”. Plenty have pointed out the irony of MPs clapping for NHS nurses barely two years after voting against giving them a pay rise — but it’s not just Tory MPs that treats caring roles the way the 1950s treated housewives. It’s the entire professional class, regardless of sex.

It’s worth asking, then, why this devaluation of care is so persistent. How have we gone from alternately sentimentalising and stifling housewives to alternately sentimentalising and underpaying care home workers and nurses? The answer, I suspect, is that we don’t want to hear what carers have to tell us about our own fragility.

Today, mainstream culture places the greatest value on freedom and self-reliance. As Destiny’s Child put it in their hit “Independent Women”, a song lauded as a modern feminist anthem for women casting off the shackles of dependency on men: The rock I’m rockin’, I bought it/’Cause I depend on me.”

It’s a view with some centuries of history: in The Social Contract (1762) Jean-Jaques Rousseau, grandfather of much of the modern liberal mindset, described freedom as humanity’s natural state and the ultimate goal of good government. Dependency, meanwhile, was degrading: in Emile, published the same year, he wrote that it “engenders all the vices”. Far better, as Destiny’s Child advises, to “Depend on no-one else to give you what you want”.

But if dependency is degrading, how are we to account for the helplessness we all experience at the beginning of life, and usually at its end? I suspect that this is at the root of our complicated love-hate relationship with care. After all, however proudly we assert our independence as adults, at some point in our past we were helpless in the arms of our mothers or carers. And the likelihood is that as we age or become ill, we will be helpless again, at the hands of nurses or care workers.

No one likes being told that their most cherished ideals are built on sand. So we ignore what our need for care workers implies about our own fragility, #ClapForCarers every Thursday, and underpay them every other day of the week. Or we mouth platitudes about how marvellous mothers are, while making every effort to avoid having to talk to them at parties.

The liberation of middle-class women from domestic life did not result in the disappearance of caring work but its displacement onto less wealthy women. It was a revolution for those women capable of becoming QCs, not those women who become the nannies who care for the children of QCs while they work. The husbands of those QCs were thus able to continue their professional lives along lines largely unchanged since Betty Friedan’s day, undisturbed by any notable increase in domestic obligations.

Now coronavirus has provided a brutal lesson in where the buck stops. The government  rules on eligibility for furlough cover people whose caring obligations leave them unable to carry on working under lockdown. Meanwhile, schools and childcare are kept open for those whose jobs designate them as “key workers”. These roles — including carers, nurses and nursery workers — are overwhelmingly working class.

This in turn highlights what we probably secretly knew anyway: that however we undervalue and underpay caring work, ultimately in a zero-sum conflict between higher-status work and caring for loved ones it is the latter which counts. We should reflect on this, next time we have a national debate about the pay scales of nurses relative to their managers.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.