I recently decided that it is time to come out of the cared-for closet – to borrow a problematic euphemism – for a number of reasons: to make life easier but also because I recognise the importance of using any privilege one has to dispel misconceptions and to normalise stigmatised illnesses. Cue the ripping of the bandaid: I live with Major Depression and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
The former has much stigma attached and the latter, being a condition, like many syndromes, with disputed causation, diagnosis and treatment, has even more. I’m one of the luckier ones, living with relatively mild levels of fatigue, sleep difficulties, muscular and joint pain, headaches and cognitive difficulties (concentration and memory, in particular). I can work if I place serious limits on my social and personal life. Until now, few people were aware of my condition and, to avoid looking like an uncaring friend, disinterested/unsupportive colleague etc, I often sacrificed personal projects entirely to engage in some social activities.
Sacrificing my personal life doesn’t make things easy for my partner. In order to meet the demands of a full time job, I sometimes have to work from home (read: bed) and limit “unnecessary” activities (read: washing, dressing, cooking, grocery shopping). Bouts of infections and busy times at work can result in an exacerbation of symptoms and there have been times when fatigue and pain were sufficiently disabling that my partner has had to bring food and water to me. I am fortunate to have a partner who has no problem doing an unfair share of housework while supporting and caring for me, physically and emotionally.
I am familiar with the academic literature on care; I believe that revaluing care is vital to the feminist project of (gender) equality (Baker et al 2004). I have found the critical conceptual work on ‘care’ and ‘dependence’ (Fine & Glendinning 2005) convincing on an intellectual level. Still, I struggle to accept care and the impact it has on my personal relationship. As you can probably imagine, doing the ‘dirty work’ (Twigg 2000) of caring, and being cared for on an intimate yet functionally-dependent level, makes for super sexy times!
Our partnership is materially affected by the caring role my partner takes on too – he often keeps his worries and problems to himself, protecting me from what he sees as “extra” anxiety and worry. This could be viewed as paternalism or legitimate self-interest in my well-being. However, the space to care about is particularly important when the ability to care for is limited.
The literature challenges the presumption that relationships of care are unequal but there is, personally speaking, an experiential distinction between a relationship of care and relationships of love, sex and friendship. Perhaps it is a matter of renegotiation, but I have a persistent sense of discomfort about the division of labour, the limitations my care needs place on my partner, and the capacity to be considered the locus of desire as well as the object of care work.
Sorcha Uí Chonnachtaigh, School of Law, Keele University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Baker, J, Lynch, K, Cantillon, S & J Walsh (2004) Equality: From Theory to Action. Palgrave Macmillan, 220-228.
Fine, M & Glendinning, C (2005) Dependence, independence or inter-dependence? Revisiting the concepts of ‘care’ and ‘dependency’. Ageing and Society 25:601-621.
Nussbaum, M (1995) Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings. In MC Nussbaum & J Glover (eds.) Women, Culture, and Development: A Study of Human Capabilities. WIDER Studies in Development Economics. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 61-104.
Twigg, Julia (2000) Carework as a form of bodywork. Ageing and Society 20(4): 389-411.