Care: Joy and Burden, Dirt and Dignity

It is one of the strongest and most plausible political movements of the present day, and not coincindentally due to the pandemic: the movement for a care-centered society in the fragile habitat Earth. More and more, people are exhausted and beginning to understand that the world does not need evermore superfluous goods, waste and nervous competitiveness, but connectivity, deceleration and rest: care for all living beings and for the Earth. What is needed in order to move in this postpatriarchal direction is evidently a multifaceted process that is already underway. 

Strengthening traditional care-workers

One crucial step forward in this process is to strengthen people and spheres that already focus on care. The still so-called “feminine” vital activities that have been taken for granted, but not properly recognized and rewarded by patriarchal regimes – housekeeping, nursing, cleaning up, repairing, nourishing, listening etc. – must be made visible, included into economic models, redistributed and reasonably organized in favor of those who actually do the vital work in a still patriarchally structured context, underpaid or for free. The argument is that by upgrading the visibility and safety of care-workers we will move towards caring attitudes in all spheres of life.

Indignation as a catalyst for change leads to a paradox

Since change often builds on collective indignation, care-workers in their fight for recognition logically point to the fact that what they do is hard, boring, repetitive and often dirty work. What patriarchs color as “maternal love” or “female nature” is in fact cleaning loos, getting up in the middle of the night to calm vomiting toddlers or dragging home weighty grocery bags. De-romanticizing care-work is a necessary part of the political move towards a care-centered society. It has to be said publicly again and again that the traditional distinction between an “outside” world in which hard working husbands bust their backs and a lovely “private” one in which women spend well-protected leisurely lives is fiction. Analogously, a society which is modeled as a dominant hardcore business world of well paid “real” workers and a more or less invisible compensatory care-sector of nurses, teachers and social workers earning minimum wages functions within this flawed pattern and has to be thoroughly restructured. 

So, one essential step in the right direction is paradoxically to prove that what we want is what we hate: hard and boring care-work. As part of the fight for a careful society it has become difficult or even impossible to bring forward the joy of caring: Mothers who confess that they love doing housework and spending time with children, or nurses who still love their work in spite of all the challenges are suspected to be naïve or to collaborate with the old destructive order. 

Solution of the paradox: Care as both burden and joy

It should, however, be clear for thoughtful humans that care-work, as life itself, is both burden and joy, sometimes simultaneously. When I recently spent four weeks in my daughter’s and her family’s house, doing intense care-work for my two-and-a-half-year old granddaughter, I realized once again: spending hours and days with a toddler contradicts the deeply entrenched imperatives of efficiency to an extent that it can become a kind of suffering, but at the same time it is extremely enjoyable to let go all the inner commands to diligently manage as many tasks as possible. Playing in a sandbox, doing the dishes extremely slowly or reading a picture-book for the 17th time is hard – and wonderful real life. The same ambiguity can probably be felt in most care-work, be it in hospitals or old age homes, in schools or universities or kitchens, and soon in factories, banks, construction sites and gleaming offices, too. Care-work is a burden, and care-work is the joy of life. 

So, moving towards a care-centered economy we are approaching a mode of existence that has left behind the split between (supposedly) exciting “productive” and (supposedly) boring “reproductive” spheres, knowing that life is work and work is life and that happiness is wandering in-between. 

Authentic representations of careful realities

I had nearly given up hope that an authentic representation of this vital ambiguity of care-work is possible when recently, interestingly in the course of only two days, I came across three convincing examples of the pleasantly disturbing postpatriarchal in-between that I’m longing for: 

First, the political scientist Feline Tecklenburg reminded me in a short blogpost that in the Western philosophical tradition, the heroic “self made man” is not the only model we can take up and further develop. She talks about the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas who, for his part, has based his theoretical thinking of human active dependency on biblical and rabbinic texts, a possibility that is always open, at least for people like me who feel rooted in postpatriarchal religiosity. 

Then the performance “Care Affair” of the Hamburg-based queer company “Frauen und Fiktion” (women and fiction) convinced me that it is possible to combine beauty, glamour, fantasy, the reflection of real needs and necessities and queer practical solutions in one single show that is simply great.

Finally I discovered a half-hour report of the German TV-program ZDF called “Mehr als Dreck weg machen. Darum arbeiten diese Frauen als Putzkräfte” (More than Removing Dirt. The Reason These Women Work as Cleaners). It portrays three women, a housecleaner, a toilet attendant and a crime-scene cleaner who love their work, one because she has transformed her passion for cleanliness into a job and has built intense friendships with her customers, one because she is a singer and often cheers up her clients in the public toilet singing songs in different languages, and one because she likes having her own business and the satisfaction of doing something that is undoubtedly useful. The three of them seem to be happy with their work – except that they don’t agree with low salaries and bad reputation. 

Towards a postdualistic creative organization of real life

So, I do not only think but have experienced that it is possible to express that care is more than romanticism on the one hand and more than hard dirty work on the other, but both: joy and dirt, burden and friendship and love and depression, creativity, surprise and glamour and more. Most of the care-activists know it already, but it’s sometimes good to remind oneself and one another: What we have to do in the movement for a care-centered society is organize real colorful life in a post-dualistic way so that every body on this Earth can live their life in dirt and dignity.


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