On the Complex Realities of Care-giving and Care-receiving

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 37 seconds

One of the beauties of being a non-linear reader is that sometimes I read different things at the same time and make serendipitous connections between them. These days, it’s things between adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, Joan C. Tronto’s ethics of care work (a new book chapter I hadn’t seen before, though I’d read some of her more recent work), and Priya Parker’s work on gathering.

Both adrienne maree brown and Tronto talk about the importance of “interdependence” versus what we’ve been socialized to believe is the way to look at humans, as autonomous, independent. In nature, we know that ants do not hoard food individually, but gather together because they know that working together they will gather more food for themselves as a community (brown, citing Karissa Lewis). brown reminds that unlike some elements of nature, humans don’t always need to computer – “we compete for fun, for ego”, as opposed to interdependence, the notion that “we can meet each other’s needs in a variety of ways, that we can truly lean on others and they can lean on us.” This reminds me that Tronto critiques Noddings for considering caring relations as dyads (mother-child, teacher-student, patient-nurse) rather than a more collective/communal caring. Tronto here says “caring is by its very nature a challenge to the notion that individuals are entirely autonomous and self-supporting” (p. 255).

This quote in brown’s book, “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual” really struck me deep down. Of course, communal spiritual practice is probably the epitome of all of this (brown, adapting a quote from Grace Lee Boggs).

One key element of interdependence is vulnerability and generosity, and this ties really well with something I’ll mention from Tronto in a minute. brown asks us, “Are you actively practicing generosity and vulnerability in order to make the connections between you and others clear, open, available, durable? Generosity here means giving of what you have without strings or expectations attached. Vulnerability means showing your needs”. I think open education is about a lot of this – and also this quote from brown, “interdependence is not about the equality of offers in real time” but rather than we offer what we can now because we see someone in need, and we believe that karma, the universe, a divine being, will make sure someone is there for us when we need it. Not necessarily the same person we helped yesterday, but someone. She talks about this and “how incredible it feels” when we give someone something they need, as well as when we take when someone meets our needs.

Now the work of Tronto I’m reading today is called An Ethic of Care, originally published in 1993 (which I very funnily came across on Wikipedia, believe it or not! I’ve read two books by her and a couple articles and I had not seen this older work) and republished in the book Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology.

So first of all, Tronto claims that “To be a morally good person requires, among other things, that a person strives to meet the demands of caring that present themselves in his or her life.” This is not the sum total of morality, but an element of it. She writes of avoiding doing harm in ways that brown does also (and interestingly, brown cites examples from Islam and the Quran on this element especially).

Now the main thing I found useful in this article by Tronto (which I think is the precursor to her later work that compares caring-about, caring-for, and caring-with) is that she refers to four elements of an ethic of care that she developed with Fisher: Attentiveness, Responsibility, Competence and Responsiveness. I’m going to unpack all of these and reflect on how they apply to my professional and personal/social life.

Attentiveness made me immediately think of brown’s statement “what we pay attention to grows”. Tronto calls out “willful ignorance” and I’ve always felt this was important. Sometimes, not noticing is in itself a devaluing of a thing or a person. Not seeing racism is exactly that. You need to pay attention to notice things, and not paying attention is a moral decision. In another vein, I was thinking that maybe faculty who care about their students and want to pay attention, maybe some of them were having difficulty paying attention to students’ reactions in online synchronous classes when their cameras were off. I’ve been against forcing students to turn their cameras on, because I had alternative mechanisms for knowing what students are thinking than looking at their faces, but I guess some people wanted something more straightforward?

Responsibility I like that Tronto differentiates obligation from responsibility (Noddings also does this, to an extent, in virtuous versus relational care). The key here is that Tronto differentiates two levels of responsibility (and there is a spectrum of course) between feeling responsible for someone sort of by default, I’d call them “proximal” and “distal”? So a proximal one would be like a parent feels responsible for their own child, and the opposite end I would call “distal” that represents responsibility towards humanity, such as climate advocacy. Two levels more towards the middle of the spectrum relate to my own work, but one is towards proximal and one towards distal. For example, working in the field of education stems from a distal responsibility to improve education of other humans. It is a “helping” profession. Now, my responsibility as a faculty developer in my own institution and supporting faculty to move to teaching online is my main professional responsibility, my proximal responsibility. However, the urge inside me to do lots of my work openly and support anyone in the world who needs help going online is a distal responsibility (and it results in open resources such as the Equity Unbound/OneHE resources: https://onehe.org/equity-unbound). The openness in education as a mindset is this – this sense of responsibility to a broader community and not just your immediate community.

Competence. This one is interesting because Tronto’s writing made me wonder: whose fault is it if someone who is incompetent at caring is asked to do the care work, whether because it is their proximal responsibility, or professional or whatever. Two examples come to mind: letting a young untrained medical resident do a task above their level of proficiency unsupervised is a huge problem and the fault of his/her superiors. My second example relates to education and all the teachers who suddenly had to teach online but were not competent at it. I feel like institutions had a responsibility to train them well and keep supporting them, not throw it at them and let them sink or swim – because the care-receivers, students, were harmed by that when it happened; at the same time, the teachers needed care, and if they did not get care and support and could not manage on their own, I am sure so many became frustrated and less attentive to students’ needs than they normally would have been. Many people burnt themselves out trying superhard to care for students, and that is not fair to them, either, but was good for the students at the time. I had a thought here, that when someone is given a care responsibility that are not competent at, there are two ways to go: either learn it, so you can do it well (e.g. spouse of a stroke victim needs to learn how to help them and adapt lifestyle to help them improve) or you can delegate it or pay a professional to do it (sometimes this is like sending a traumatized child to a therapist, or hiring a nurse to care for the victim of a car accident who is immobile).

Responsiveness and this is the response of the care-receiver to the care being given, and of course “adequate responsiveness requires attentiveness” (p. 255) – these elements are all intertwined – and that inequality and vulnerability are central to many relationships of care. Tronto talks about how “care is concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality”, which makes me realize why the work I do with Mia Zamora on equity and care and their intersections is so key – if we do one without the other, consequences are dire. We have a paper coming out on this in more detail soon, but the early work we did on Equity/Care is here. Both Tronto and brown talk about the (obvious) point that when we need care we are in a position of vulnerability, that there is a “possibility of abuse” but also that “to assume equality among humans leaves out and ignores important dimensions of human existence” (Tronto, p. 255). I feel like Tronto makes a binary between autonomy and vulnerability, and I am not sure why? I need to think on this one a bit more. But I do think I’ve realized that, actually, sometimes the thing we need is freedom or autonomy (rather than care, per se) and that if we don’t find this in our proximal environment and relationships, we seek it elsewhere? This also gives rise to open education, I think, a motivation to be open, to give openly in order to receive openly?

So I found myself thinking about something, and “mismatches” of care (I was thinking especially of mentoring but also of parenting). Someone has a care need, and someone is offering their care (whether out of obligation or personal responsibility) and there can be a mismatch due to misunderstanding (the carer does not pay enough attention to understand how the receiver wants care, or the recipient does not respond clearly enough or express themselves clearly enough, or their language or ways of expression are not comprehensible to the carer?) or there can be a situation where the care-giver does not feel this need falls within their responsibility to address or meet. In which case we need to redistribute the care so others offer it. Or it is possible the care-giver understands what is needed but is not competent to give it (whether or not they are aware of that) – in which case, if they are aware they are not competent, they can either make an effort to learn (e.g. mom of an autistic child learns how to parent them differently) or they seek help from others (e.g. a nurse for chronically ill patient helps family members care for them). However, if the care giver does not realize something is not working, it falls on the care-receiver to express themselves as clearly as possible. Ideally, care-givers would ask or observe and be “attentive” but the care-receiver needs to be comfortable giving signals, too, right? It must be so frustrating if someone gives care and the receivers do not appreciate it or don’t like that particular way of caring – and this is maybe a realization that either the care giver did not truly ask the care receiver what they wanted, or are misreading their response or need… and this gets frustrating and perhaps the care giver gives up?

I was thinking also of affective labor – when only a few people feel it is their responsibility to care – few people notice the needs of the many and feel responsible to address it – so they burn out doing it because no one else is doing that care work, which is devalued and gendered so often. The competence element here is important, because some people are more experienced/competent at giving certain kinds of care in certain contexts (e.g. being good at emotional support online). Openness in creating something like those community-building resources was a recognition that many people don’t know how to care for students or build community online and offering resources to help increase everyone’s competence at this somehow. If this results in more people having a better capacity to care, to enhance student engagement so they can respond better to let teachers know something works – this helps the cycle of integrative care work better.

This brings me to one last thing that’s on my mind but then I gotta go… And it is “student evaluations” of teaching. When a teacher puts a lot of effort into designing their course and running it and then only a small number of students fill out the student evaluations and only the angry ones leave comments, it leaves the instructor feeling awful – and it can be so demotivating, the “response” that it makes people think they are either incompetent or inattentive, and some may disconnect and say “it’s not my responsibility to engage students”.

What do you think?

Featured image of heart with fireworks? Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

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