The Plight of Stay-At-Home Carers: Invisibility, Donkeys and Many Hats

This topic is applicable to you if you are currently at home providing an important function for your family unit but are not earning an income, such as raising your kids and/or caring for an elderly parent. Like many of you, I have spent longer in my career as a Stay-at-Home Carer than in my years in corporate and entrepreneurial roles.  I have been invisible longer than visible.

Not earning an income may connote that we are “invisible”, but that does not reduce our importance nor our impact.  It’s not news to proclaim that Stay-at-Home Care is a vital and under-appreciated occupation that should be more respected. What is current news is that the pandemic has brought new urgency and rekindling to this subject.

With Lockdown came an increase in the need and responsibilities of Stay-at-Home Carers whose core functions were enhanced to fill the gap that opened when usual support infrastructure ceased. Lockdown meant we no longer had the help of school routine, accessible medical advice and health services, nor our social support network. Even food collection became complicated. Suddenly, we Stay-at-Home Carers became the primary educators, medical advisers, therapists, companions, and resource procurers relied upon to fulfil the needs of those being cared for.  We did a great job. We met the targets of increased responsibilities and shouldered the associated stress too.  Whoop Whoop!

It’s shocking and unacceptable that despite our endurance and success through the lockdown, Stay-at-Home Carers’ still face sub-par recognition of their role’s significance. This further intensifies feelings of being unsupported and undervalued. This lack of recognition and feelings of low esteem must change. One blog may not reduce the general pejorative perceptions of the value of this occupation. What it could achieve, however, is a reaffirmation of the value that Stay-at-Home Carers provide. Let’s keep in-check any feelings of inadequacy propagated by external ignorance or our own internal insecurities. Now more than ever, it is vital that we remember our significant contribution to society. We must spread this word and raise consciousness. Perhaps we need our own lobbying group.

Last month, LinkedIn announced they were adding 'stay-at-home mum or parent' as an official job title after the social media site was accused of using 'sexist and old-fashioned terminology'. My response was “about blooming time!”. Yet, after thinking about it, I realised that title is only halfway there. I would argue Stay-at-Home Carer would be a better title is as it applies to the function needed of caring for any relative, such as the elderly, not just children.  Many of us in the sandwich generation find that as our children have grown and flown, we need to shift our focus to our ageing parents. We are Stay-at-Home Carers for both generations.

Let’s start this discussion as I relay a true story and introduce my concept of a Donkey.  Please note the term “Donkey” is used in this blog in a light-hearted way. This is not to offend donkey fans or people who identify as or with donkeys.  Now, the story…

Donkey

Recently, I arrived at a friend’s garden for a long-awaited gathering. Following UK government guidelines, six of us are are meeting in an outside space - five friends and one friend-of-a-friend. In an attempt to stay warm, we are all donning ski parkas, woolly hats and gloves and are dancing around the fire-pit trying to evade its smoky plumes. A general sense of happiness prevails because we are socialising again. People are chatting, laughing, and cocktails are being sucked down. All is well. But soon Donkey is introduced to me and the night takes a nasty turn.

Donkey mumbles an introduction whilst filling up his own wine glass, to the neglect of my replenishment needs. This hint of selfishness warns me of what’s ahead. Donkey then kicks off conversation by asking a question.

Prepare yourself. This is actually true…. Drum roll please:

“So, what do you do? Are you just a housewife?”

“AGHHHHHH! “Just” a housewife!?! Seriously, are we in 2021? Who are you? What rock have you been hiding under?” I think, but don’t say. I don’t want to embarrass our host. I do want to punch Donkey in the face. I can move away quickly, verbally cut him down, or smile. Which would you do?

This is an accurate portrayal of a surprisingly frequent occurrence which always solicits the same result. No, I do not commit assault. Instead, I reflect as the evening mood crashes down like the sudden lowering of a heavy, musty curtain:  Donkey has ruined the moment. But why? Why has this Donkey been given the power?

Donkey behaviour always elicits intense feelings: sometimes reflection, perhaps anger, and maybe even inadequacy. This may just be a fleeting feeling which is blanketed by an over-arching disgust. Or it may be a negative seed of self-doubt which has taken root.  Let’s figure out why Donkey has the power to conjure unsolicited self-belittling.

Donkey’s Power

We’ve all been exposed to the dreaded Donkey, the name I have given to the …excuse me… jackass who sputters ill-thought out, old-fashioned and biting judgements. Let’s remember that Donkeys can be any gender and are ubiquitous. We never know where or when our paths will cross with Donkey, which is unsettling.  Unfortunately, we often must deal with them, encounters which sap our endurance and self-esteem.

Donkey exposure could have happened years ago, pre-pandemic, but the sting is sharp enough to still linger today.  Or maybe the meeting occurred recently when unexpectedly bumping into Donkey whilst out walking, or popping into a shop or pub, happily ignorant of who is lurking and will dampen our spirit.

Our response to Donkey

After an encounter with Donkey, we are often left wounded, nursing deflated feelings of defensiveness, anger, and even inadequacy.  Those feelings are acidic and lingering…and must stop. We may not be able to modernise Donkeys’ opinions, but we can control our own attitude and how we deal with them.  Let’s embrace the title Stay-at-Home Carer, believe in its value, and hold our heads high. It’s the Donkey who is inadequate.

Some of us may become aggressive and counter Donkey’s ignorant statement with evidence to the contrary and hostile debate. That’s doesn’t work in some cultures and societies, and I felt inappropriate on that recent evening in my friend’s garden.

Some may choose to engage in the persuasive conversation and try to make evident that we are valuable contributors. We may combine this with a need for external validation and respond to Donkey’s dreaded question with response like “well, I used to be or do… (fill in the blank)”.  We find comfort in referring to our previous paid employment, even if it was 20 years ago. We desperately hope that relaying our past accomplishments may prove our current intelligence or worth. We describe ourselves in the past with labels such as Former Teacher, Retired Banker, Ex-Hairdresser, Resigned Medic.  This then gives credence to our decision to serve as Stay-at-Holme Carers because we proved we could also work outside the home.

This is the route I took that night. But then I wondered, annoyed with myself, why do we still need to explain our past to justify our current value, especially after a marathon of accomplishments during the interminable lockdown?

Hold our Heads High

Stay-at-Home Carers wear many hats and perform numerous functions simultaneously. We do this usually very well. Carer, Educator, Chef, and Medic, to name a few. Our diverse job responsibilities only increased during lockdown. We know these are un-paid functions that we provide for our family. But saving the costs normally spent for these specialists is not the same as bringing in an income. This could be viewed by Donkeys as not having adequate value. We must remember that does not mean the role is unimportant.

Some of us don’t have to worry about paying the mortgage or for the food we serve on the table. Some of us do, and that burden is added to our duties as a Stay-at-Home Carer. The responsibilities, time, and hard work of the Stay-at-Home Carer are Herculean.  Let’s all wake up to this in the post-pandemic world.

Control Our Own Attitude

May I propose the answer to that ignorant question “Are you just a housewife?” or “Do you work?” is a loud and proud: “Yes! I do work, actually quite hard. I just don’t draw a salary.” Let’s draw our breath in and sit proud.  Let’s block any assault to our self-esteem with pride in our accomplishments. We are not alone and our work is vital. One of my favourite quotes is “You may not be able to control every situation and its outcome, but you can control your attitude and how you deal with it”.

We can’t change the societal norm with one blog, but we can underscore the importance of having confidence in the choices we make. Let’s remind ourselves of our value and the reasons we are Stay-at-Home Carers. Let’s start conversations to further raise consciousness and general recognition of our responsibilities. Let’s communicate and teach our family so the next generation will better recognise the value of this role and share its responsibilities. Let’s teach the Donkeys and start the difficult conversation in our social circles.

If you have chosen to work at home to care for your family, please recognise your contribution is invaluable. Contrary to being invisible, YOU are incredible. Donkey should learn from you.