Celebrate Caretakers Day

It may not be a popular thing to say today, but I’m going to go ahead and say it: Mother’s Day is a super-commercialized, overly sentimental celebration of a narrowly defined myth of women and mothers. On top of that, it skews our sense of how caretaking gets done.

Don’t get me wrong: As a mother of two who also works outside the home, I love nothing more than breakfast in bed served up with a little peace and quiet, at least one day a year. But in reality there are many others who deserve that as well.

Mother’s Day has drifted away from its roots in mothers’ social activism for peace and become synonymous with selfless giving, recognized with a sappy card, a bouquet of flowers, or chocolates (if you’re lucky). A mother’s love and sacrifice for her child, it is believed, are the pinnacle of selflessness.

It’s true enough that motherhood entails giving without compensation. After all, no one pays us to take care of our children. Quite the contrary–my kids have been a drain on my monthly household budget. But we do it anyway. We do it out of love.

Selfless giving, however, occurs not only in the mother-child relationship. Although caretaking has been closely associated with motherhood, it is in fact a much broader social relationship in which many people—even those who are not mothers—engage. And it is one that is enormously undervalued in our culture. In this day and age, as the public sector shrinks before our very eyes and as corporations cut back on social benefits, things we’ve taken for granted in the past like social security, health care, child care, are no longer givens, and individual caretakers are stepping in to fill in the gaps.

Selfless caretaking should encompass not only care of dependent children but to the care that is provided to the elderly, the disabled, the sick, and the unemployed. Many people, like the secretary in my office, can’t afford a nursing home or a visiting nurse service. So she and her sister traded off for years to care for their elderly mother. I know people who shop and cook for unemployed friends. I know of adults caring for their adult siblings who are disabled. I know of spouses caring for chronically ill spouses. I know of family members who care for war veterans with physical or psychological injury. The fact is that caretaking occurs all the time in our society, by mothers and non-mothers, men and women.

It includes the woman on the block who cares for the children of working mothers who can’t afford a full time nanny. It includes the friends and relatives who pitch in to help with babysitting. It includes the older sibling who watches the younger sibling after school. It includes the grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, who help out when they can.

Mother’s Day celebrations are premised on an outmoded vision of a nuclear family in which mother, and mother alone, does the caretaking. In the modern-day version, mothers are generally celebrated for holding down two shifts: working outside the home and caring for the kids. Although many fathers help out, women, of course, are still the primary caretakers. But most families—cannot and do not—do it themselves. Families with means hire nannies and housekeepers to carry out their domestic responsibilities. Poorer families rely on an extensive social network to assist with caretaking.

The withering public sector has left families and communities to fend for themselves. There is very little state-funded day care; few options for the elderly without means; minimal resources for the sick and disabled. This void has forced families and communities to pick up the slack. Often at the expense of their emotional or social health, they have stepped in and taken care of those in need.

It may indeed be important to pause and recognize the selfless giving that is central to parenting. But we shouldn’t stop there. Until we establish a wider and more secure welfare safety net for those in need, caretaking will be a necessary feature of life in modern America, one in which many people from all walks of life participate on a daily basis. To honor all those who sacrifice out of love or generosity, we should transform Mother’s Day into Caretakers Day.


Premilla Nadasen is an Associate Professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York. Her first book, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (Routledge 2005), won the John Hope Franklin Prize awarded by the American Studies Association. In 2006-2007 she served as first Visiting Endowed Chair of Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College. A longtime community activist and scholar, she has worked with numerous social justice organizations, including Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She has written for Feminist Studies, the Women's Review of Books, Race and Reason, Ms. Magazine, and the Progressive Media Project. In addition, she has given numerous public talks about African-American women's history, welfare policy, and labor organizing. She is currently writing a book on the history of domestic worker organizing in the United States.