The term caring conjures up many warm, fuzzy feelings and images. Hopefully, most of us have experienced what it’s like to be lovingly cared for by a dear friend or family member.
Caregiving is rewarding, builds deep emotional connections, and helps others live more meaningful lives, especially when caring for someone with a chronic illness, disability, addiction, or mental health condition.
Yet, when we talk about caring, there are some glaring gaps in the conversation; things we don’t want to discuss. We often gloss over the fact that caregiving is unglamorous, challenging, lonely, and often thankless.
Women in Australia spend 64.4 per cent of their week doing unpaid care work, compared to 36.1 per cent of men. There are 2.65 million people in Australia who care for a person with a long-term physical or mental condition – that’s about 11 per cent of the population.
Even if you don’t realise it, you probably know someone fulfilling a caring role on top of all their other responsibilities.
Unsurprisingly, 70 per cent of these unpaid carers are women. For generations, the false idea that women were inherently more suited to caring roles because they’re ‘naturally’ nurturing, caring, and selfless has held women back from pursuing what they truly want.
Of course, some people are natural caregivers who genuinely enjoy spending most of their time caring, regardless of gender.
But for women who find themselves in a caring role through challenging circumstances, these false gender norms disguise a much more serious problem.
For every hour of gruelling, unpaid, and often unrecognised caring they do, they have less time and energy to pursue meaningful paid employment and nurture friendships, hobbies, and their own wellbeing.
According to Carers Australia, the replacement value of unpaid care in Australia is currently $77.9 billion annually. This is the amount of money it would cost to pay qualified nurses or carers to do all the work done by friends, family members, and partners without any financial reimbursement.
If women perform 70 per cent of this unpaid care, we can estimate that women carers contribute $54.53 billion of unpaid work to our economy.
This seldom-discussed issue is inextricably linked to broader issues like the gender pay gap, sexism, and the societally entrenched values that pressure women to pick up the slack for their families and communities without complaint.
If they speak openly about their challenges, they are seen as uncaring, selfish, or somehow less ‘feminine’.
Men who pursue highly paid work over caring for their families or working in caring professions like nursing or teaching are seen as ambitious, go-getters and strong leaders.
The unspoken expectation to sacrifice one’s own dreams and ambition to care for those around them applies only to women.
Why do women still perform the majority of unpaid labour?
Caring responsibilities can fall upon people of any gender, age, cultural background, level of education, or professional and economic status. However, women have historically taken on the majority of unpaid care while simultaneously having more barriers to equal participation in the workforce.
While women are now engaged in the workforce at a similar rate to men, they still perform the majority of unpaid caring, parenting, and household labour. There is a dire need for further progress toward gender equality and a significant challenge for the future: balancing paid work with unpaid caring.
Women who are carers face significant barriers to participating meaningfully in paid work and are less likely to have full-time employment.
Caring, including parenting, creates more disruptions to paid work, creating barriers to wealth accumulation, promotion, and achieving sufficient superannuation for a secure retirement.
There is an assumption that most women carers are older and thus would have started to withdraw from work anyway. In reality, about 1 in 10 carers are 25 years old or younger, the critical career-building time for many young adults.
Those who enter caring roles early in life face even more cumulative challenges in managing their own financial, physical, and emotional wellbeing.
About a third of unpaid carers spend up to 40 hours or more per week caring for another person, making it extremely difficult to lead an everyday life and pursue their passions and interests.
Caring work is often undervalued in society, leading to unpaid carers being ignored, and isolated, and suffering poorer physical and mental health outcomes.
What’s the alternative to relying on unpaid care?
Many people already need care who can’t afford it and don’t have a robust social network to fill in the gaps.
To remedy this concerning trend, we need to encourage men to enter traditionally women-dominated industries and pursue ‘caring professions’ to break down gender stereotypes.
We also need to work towards changing laws, policies, and language that hold women back from equal participation in the workforce, such as using the term parental leave rather than maternity leave.
The media also has a role in normalising men doing household chores, taking children to school, or taking time off when a child is unwell so that society can update its assumptions that these tasks should naturally fall to women.
Governments must invest in improved care services to alleviate pressure on unpaid carers. About half of all informal carers take on the role themselves because they can’t access or afford formal care or don’t have faith that services will do a good enough job.
Expecting women to pursue their careers while they either can’t access, afford, or trust professional caring services puts them between a rock and a hard place.
Do they forfeit their careers and economic stability or leave their loved ones in the hands of subpar service providers?
There is an urgent need for change and a national commitment to the importance of caring roles by reimbursing and supporting unpaid carers and finding realistic and high-quality alternatives.
Some progress has been made, such as the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which funds support services to increase independence for people with disability.
Eligible carers can apply for funding, such as the Carer Payment to supplement their income. While promising, these solutions still leave much to be desired and leave many women trapped in an impossible balancing act of caregiving while being chronically time-poor and financially disadvantaged.
Are you a carer in need of support?
If you provide unpaid care to someone dear to you, know you are not alone. Allow yourself to experience the full spectrum of emotions associated with caring, from love, happiness, fear, anger, resentment, and loneliness. Know that struggling with your caregiving duties is normal and does not make you any less loving, selfless, or supportive.
If you struggle to prioritise your wellbeing while caring for a loved one, remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. You deserve to have your needs met and to lead as fulfilling, rewarding, and happy a life as possible.
Taking time out for yourself will recharge your batteries, so you can keep caring with as much energy and dedication as possible.
You play a crucial role in the life of your loved one, your community, and the national economy.
Remember to value yourself for all that you do, and know that needing a break is entirely normal and does make you any less of a caregiving superhero.