Looking out for each other

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Caring is so essential it is almost invisible. Looking at our past reveals how wide-reaching and significant caring is, historian Barbara Brookes says. It also poses questions about how careless we are becoming, writes Bruce Munro.

The importance of caring, and our attitude towards it, is nailed in one statement: "We have to pay for caring to value it, but we most value the caring that is not paid for.''

We are a funny species, we humans.

Not in a hilarious way, particularly. More in a looking sideways, are you for real, sort of way.

Prof Barbara Brookes. Photo: supplied
Prof Barbara Brookes. Photo: supplied
That's the feeling that lingers after a conversation with Prof Barbara Brookes on the subject of caring.

The University of Otago historian has co-edited a book, Past Caring? Women, work and emotion, that is about to get its official launch. It covers the history, philosophy and future of caring.

An academic exploration of caring could appear to be a niche subject, within a niche discipline, within a who-gives-a-damn.

But give it a little thought - we certainly haven't given it enough, the professor says - and its importance mushrooms to fill all corners of our lives.

The trick is seeing it.

Caring is all around us, so much so that we barely recognise the role it plays. And that, in large part, is because, generally, we do not value it.

A good way to begin spotting caring and its contribution is to look over our shoulders, Prof Brookes suggests.

But first, what is caring?

"To care for someone is to treat them as a person, not as a thing,'' she replies. "It's based on a respect for the other person. Kind attention. Attention to the person as a person.''

Prof Brookes' own reflections on caring, and the genesis of Past Caring?, grew from a keynote address she gave at a conference after her sister died.

"Caring was very much on my mind ... It was really driven by a personal interest in how we think about the kind of care I saw her receive in hospital, which was fantastic.

"It made me start thinking about the whole topic of who we value. Because it was really the nurses who were there all the time.''

These two photographs, taken by Anne Noble in the early 1990s, of Audrey Thetford and her...
These two photographs, taken by Anne Noble in the early 1990s, of Audrey Thetford and her disabled daughter Gladys Thetford, capture the loving attention and reciprocal nature of care. PHOTOS: MUSEUM OF NEW ZEALAND, TE PAPA TONGAREWA

That caring, that kind attention, was something we used to value. Men worked outside the home; women cared in and beyond the home. That was how it was.

In a sense, that caring was not paid much attention. Importance is accorded to battles won and fortunes lost, not the care given that enables great feats and consoles the defeated.

At the same time, however, in what used to be a more heavily church-going society, women's selfless caring was lauded as vital to family and community life.

"Women's work might be validated in public, weekly, in a sacred space, and this empowered them to continue.''\

That sort of care - care of the young, the sick, the disabled and the old; care provided by families rather than by the state - was distinctive of colonial New Zealand, Prof Brookes says.

"Most of the settlers came from the United Kingdom where they had a history of the Poor Law. When someone was in poverty, they fell on the parish, which provided something for them.''

But settlers were keen to not have a Poor Law in New Zealand.

"That was seen to be part of the Old World. The idea was that this was the New World, where there would be no poverty because everyone had opportunity.''

A photograph of Melissa Matutina Williams, author of a chapter in Past Caring?, with her arm...
A photograph of Melissa Matutina Williams, author of a chapter in Past Caring?, with her arm around her Nan, Tina Murphy, with other members of her family, on Christmas Day, 1992. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

From the 1960s, church attendance dropped off. The stories society told itself changed. Feminine fulfilment through home and family gave way to the view that marriage and family was a trap.

"The Church's validation of women's caring role became discounted just as the feminist movement arose to assert women's independence and rights,'' Prof Brookes says.

Caring in itself was no longer a valued form of work. To gain a modicum of respect, the role had to be divorced from caring. It had to be professionalised.

For example, in order to gain respect, child care had to become early childhood education, "because of the taken-for-granted nature of care''.

The exception was among Maori, where the expectation of reciprocal support within a wider family network was more tenacious. A large-scale study, conducted in the early 1970s, showed Maori families were much less likely than their Pakeha counterparts to choose institutionalisation for their intellectually disabled children.

Prof Brookes adds that she is "not nostalgic for a past where women did the bulk of the unpaid caring''.

What she does want, is to honour the importance of caring and to examine what made women's empathy possible.

It is not simply an academic exercise. Caring is of fundamental importance to the continuation of our species, she says.

"Because we can't operate as a society without it, can we.''

The ultimate example comes from orphanages where children were fed, dressed, given a bed and a roof over their heads, but still failed to thrive for lack of personalised, loving care.

Lorna McCabe (nee Peters) and her son Bill at home in Pine Hill, Dunedin, c1940. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Lorna McCabe (nee Peters) and her son Bill at home in Pine Hill, Dunedin, c1940. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
At its core, we need to value caring "because we need to value human life'', she says, and then adds an interesting rider.

"Which sounds odd from me, who's written and argued for the right to abortion.''

She is right. This notion of care is wrapped in significant layers of complexity.

Technology advances steadily. Often faster than our capacity to properly consider its implications.

Testing amniotic fluid during pregnancy, for example, can help determine not only the gender of the foetus, but also whether he or she has any of a range of health defects, including Down syndrome and spina bifida.

"Such tests make it possible to circumvent the burden of caring for the disabled.''

This practice is strongly opposed by the group Saving Downs, which compares it to eugenics, the historic practice of selective breeding to achieve genetic goals.

The group says we should be a society in which people with disabilities are not discriminated against.

It is an argument Prof Brookes has some sympathy with.

"If we find it intolerable to deal with one category of human beings, where does that stop?''

Certainly not at old age. Western society has already largely contracted out the care of the elderly to professional carers, Prof Brookes points out.

There is an irony here, she says.

"Caring can be bought in the marketplace if you have sufficient income, but ... for those who work in caring roles, their [low] income denies them that resource.''

In this 2005 photograph, Mona Hendersen, a resident of Alpine View 
In this 2005 photograph, Mona Hendersen, a resident of Alpine View Resthome, is pictured with Paro the robotic harp seal and Paro’s inventor Dr Takanori Shibata. PHOTO: ODT FILE

We have also begun to introduce non-human care. At present, it is limited to the likes of robotic seals comforting dementia patients and lonely seniors.

But it is set to spread. If your robot companion speaks words of comfort and asks about your day, given there is no real emotion involved, are you still actually receiving care?

That gets at the heart of what care is, what it isn't, why it's so important and how completely contradictory our view of care has become.

"We most value care when someone brings around a casserole because they hear we have been sick'', compared with if they were paid to bring us the same meal.

"That's the strange tension in caring,'' Prof Brookes says.

"We have to pay for caring to value it, but we most value the caring that is not paid for.''

And then there is the euthanasia debate. Where does the notion of caring fit in that discussion?

"That's the very worrisome thing ... There will be pressures on people. They will say, 'Oh well, they don't have much of a life anyway, they have dementia and are in an institution, so, why are we making them keep going?'

"It's very difficult.

"Once again, it's seeing a person as a thing rather than a person.''

What sort of society are we becoming?

Are our choices taking us ever closer to going past caring?

A 1917 advertisement for Milk Oaties, stating that providing ‘‘nourishing, health-giving food for...
A 1917 advertisement for Milk Oaties, stating that providing ‘‘nourishing, health-giving food for her family is the first care of every mother’’. IMAGE: SUN, CHRISTCHURCH, NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND

What sort of society do we want to become?

"If the good treatment of the most vulnerable is the hallmark of a decent society, New Zealand is failing,'' Prof Brookes says.

She freely admits she does not have the answers.

"All I have are lots of questions. But they are questions that are crucial to contemporary New Zealand society.

"That really is the aim of the book, to start opening up people, encouraging people to ask more questions, to think about the way things operated in the past and how they might be different today.''

That, however, is not quite true. Looking back has given the historian a couple of suggestions for the way ahead.

"I think it can get better if there is a recognition that people need to give time to caring. I think that is really important; that people shouldn't feel guilty about taking time to care. It should be something respected and valued. And maybe if more men are doing it, maybe it will be more highly respected.''

Which brings Prof Brookes to her other suggestion.

Pre-European Maori society seemed to share caring roles more evenly between genders.

The opening words of her chapter in Past Caring? relays the observations of Richard Cruise, who spent 10 months in New Zealand, in 1820.

"In the manner of rearing children, and in the remarkable tenderness and solicitous care bestowed upon them by the parents, no partiality on account of sex was in any instance observed,'' Cruise wrote.

We need more of that today, Prof Brookes says.

"I think [valuing caring] will only come as we uncouple gender from caring.

"Marilyn Waring has done heaps of work on how GDP never paid any attention to the work that women did, it's all invisible, and yet we couldn't run the country without it.''

Prof Brookes points to the work of political philosopher Nancy Fraser, who argues for a future where men take equal responsibility for caring and society is organised to allow men and women to integrate wage-earning and caregiving.

"We have a hopeful sign, don't we, in the Prime Minister's husband taking on the care of Neve,'' Prof Brookes says.

"When I was young, you never made your children an excuse for anything. You just sort of ignored them, so that nobody at work would think you weren't taking your work seriously.

"Now, I notice young men saying they have to go and collect children from child care, and everyone says, `Oh, how wonderful'.

"I think it is a good shift, but it is a shame it all has to be tied up with gender.''

The book

Past Caring? Women, Work and Emotion, edited by Barbara Brookes, Jane McCabe and Angela Wanhalla, published by Otago University Press, RRP $39.95


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