Dependence, independence, interdependence

A fascinating article in the New York Times describes how some single mothers identify as Republican. Here are people who have not created traditional families, or for whom the traditional family structure has failed, and who are disproportionately in need of government supports like food stamps. And yet, about 25% align themselves with the party of “traditional family values” and small government. singlemom

Why? As a single mother friend of mine says “I am not looking for more independence” as she raises her young son; and sometimes it seems like that’s what progressives/Democrats have to offer. The emphasis on equality in work and educational opportunities leaves some of us feeling as if we should achieve economic success while at the same time providing a fulfilling family life for our kids, too—all by our liberated selves. The bar is just higher and higher, and that does not feel liberating.

My friend knows she needs interdependence—neighbors she can count on to watch her child so she can run to the store or work late (and vice versa); people to bring her food and help care for her little one when she is sick; involved grandparents who will help nurture a strong sense of family. The fact that she has someone dependent on her makes interdependence necessary, and more that that, attractive.

I think mainstream feminism has missed the boat on this point. The emphasis on equality in public life: politics, workplace, finances, on women having access to the social goods and opportunities men have has put the movement at risk of devaluing the work traditionally done by women: nurturing children, caring for the frail and elderly, building community networks. Too often, progressives and feminists have let conservatives “own” these issues in public debates, or make it sound as if prioritizing caregiving and prioritizing women’s liberation are at odds with each other.

A lot of social policy is based on the idea that everyone is an independent, rational adult who can choose whether or when to connect with other people. What a fascinating fantasy. This assumes no pregnancy, no children, no frail elders, no dependents, no dependency. Just as medical research that assumes everyone is a male aged 18-40 isn’t particularly useful to women, social policy constructed on the assumption that we are all independent atomistic individuals doesn’t tend to work too well for infants, single mothers, parents, adult children taking care of elderly parents, and those who need assistance from others to live their lives.

The fact is everyone starts out a very fragile, vulnerable baby. And as parents know, carrying a pregnancy and giving birth is exhausting, challenging and even dangerous, and just about everyone needs help with the process in order to live and have the baby live. And most of us are going to spend the end of our lives in need of profound assistance from the people around us. In between, we may have periods of illness or injury where our survival depends on others.

In reality, dependence and taking care of those who are vulnerable are deeply integral to the human experience and should be finely woven into everything about how we think of organizing every part of our society. For example, this hospital emergency room.

Conservatives claim ownership of “family values” yet their vision involves enforcing traditional gender roles. But liberalism and feminism leave some feeling like they have to do it all on their own, and they are not measuring up if they can’t. So here is the challenge for all of us as we shape public policy:

  • To always keep in mind dependents and the people who care for them. Whatever choices we make or aspirations we hold must take into account and work for them.
  • To find ways to support caregiving that do not rely on oppressive gender roles and do not require caretakers to sacrifice their economic well being, social connections, or status.
  • To realize the deeply human task of caretaking requires qualities and skills our public lives sorely need: patience, thoughtful observation, empathy, and respect for the dignity and value of those whose abilities differ from our own.
  • To keep in mind that liberation actually means that everyone, men included, gets to participate in the important task of caregiving—because it is only then that the full range of humanity is available to them.
  • Not all equality has economic measures—some of it happens in places where the rewards and challenges are immeasurable, yet profound, like parenting or helping an elder die with dignity.

The most recent wave of feminism had many tasks. Two big ones were to secure equality in the public sphere and to redefine the very nature of what it means to be human. To do the latter, we must embrace and affirm the fact that we are all dependent at different points in our lives, and the profound and loving work of taking care of dependents (traditionally women’s work) should be valued and shared among men and women.

To create beloved community, our vision must include non-oppressive, liberatory ways of maintaining connection, dependence, and interdependence.