Growing up, I was taught that all kinds of care work, especially housework and childcare, came naturally to women and was, therefore, expected of them. This made it increasingly difficult for members of my society to view that particular kind of labor as an actual job, one that may inflict exhaustion and stress on the worker. This gendering and undervaluing of care work, which was also prevalent within my household throughout my childhood, made it clear to me that I may only achieve success by striving to work in masculinized industries. Although I am now aware of the strong association between care work and labor, I have spent most of my life oblivious to that fact, and that was in part due to my mother’s attitude towards her job.
My mother, a woman who did not receive higher education, was forced to undertake the responsibilities of a housewife at a very early age. By the age of 30, she had 3 daughters for whom she was completely responsible, as well as a husband who spent most of his time at his office job. By the time my sisters and I were old enough to be in school, my mom made sure to establish certain rules regarding our academic performance. Education became the only thing that mattered in our household. In my mom’s opinion, the only natural alternative to education was housework, which she believed was one of the worst things that could happen to a woman. She would always condescendingly say that housework is what uneducated girls have to do for the rest of their lives. Her words disclosed to me how she viewed her own job, and over time, I started adopting her opinions on housework. That was why, by the time I was old enough to answer the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up,” I knew that I wanted to be the complete opposite of my mom.
Although I had internalized my mother’s hatred of housework, this contempt within me grew to include all kinds of work expected of women, and therefore, all kinds of care work. Care work has long been associated with certain female stereotypes, such as feminine weakness and women’s lack of intelligence in the sciences. It is not seen as formal labor but rather as a complement to women’s intrinsic characteristics, and so wages remain low and positions demand very little respect. I was introduced to these ideas early on as my mom continuously discouraged me from pursuing her own job as a housewife. Although I had always assumed that my aversion to feminized labor was an attempt to rebel against my society’s gender stereotypes, I was actually supporting the lack of respect that women in feminized industries were and still are subjected to.
After I graduated from high school, I was certain that I wanted to pursue medicine, even though there were several occasions when I felt like wavering from that path. There were times when I felt that I would be much happier as an author or a teacher, but I was always scared of my career choices being judged as predictable due to my gender. That fear was later justified during my sophomore year at university. One of my male classmates, upon knowing that I was aspiring to become a doctor, asked me, “wouldn’t it be better if you stick to a shorter program, like English Literature? Don’t you want to get married and have kids?” Although I was offended by his question, I found myself incredibly thankful that I was in the process of proving people like him wrong. My way of thinking at the time seemed completely rational, and that was mainly because I believed that my ideas were in sync with the feminist ideology, which I was first introduced to through social media.
Social media played a huge role in defining and redefining my beliefs, from reinforcing my distaste for care work to later helping me accept it as a job like any other. Scrolling through countless Instagram accounts and reading several articles on feminism throughout my teenage years made me more certain than ever that my mom was right, that care work is an evil which women must try to eliminate from their lives. However, in an attempt to uphold the feminization of industries and the increase in female employment, feminist ideology was undermining all of the invisible, care labor that many women perform. It took a lot of research for me to understand that the real problem is not care work itself, but the gendering of any kind of labor. Just like media changed my views on care work, it also helped my mom come to better terms with her domestic job.
My mom’s typical day as a housewife was quite hectic, but she always managed to find time to participate on Facebook. In fact, she was a devoted member of the platform, and she would constantly post pictures of her kids and their achievements for her Facebook friends to see. My mom’s engagement on Facebook made her housework, which was often overlooked, more visible to her immediate community. By publicizing her pride in her happy family, which she perceived as her own creation, she slowly started accepting her job in the household. However, by investing her time in a precarious media platform like Facebook, she was always under the impression that she was being watched by her digital community. In fact, she believed that if she took too long to post about her kids or their academic achievements, people would start making assumptions about her behind-the-screen life. So, even though my mom’s engagement on social media helped increase the visibility of her work, it wasn’t without its consequences.
Similar to my mom’s experience, my social media engagement has helped me develop my opinions regarding care work and labor, in general. For so long, I had reserved my media platforms to publicize my competence regardless of my gender. However, it was my exposure to social media that ultimately helped me understand the importance of care work and the harm that can result from the gendering of labor. In fact, mothering, teaching, and nursing are just a few examples of care work that societies cannot persist without. However, just like most kinds of care work, they are gendered and feminized and thus highly undervalued and underappreciated.
While spending most of my life trying to be the opposite version of my mom, I forgot about the most important aspect that we share, and that is our gender. Our femininity. My mom, just like any other formal employee, has to adhere to the rules of emotional labor in the workplace, simply because of her gender. Emotional labor demands that employees adhere to the acceptable emotional requirements of a job, and for women, these emotions mainly constitute compassion and empathy. Whether the workplace is a household or an office, female workers continuously find themselves forced to abide by emotional labor.
My mom put her heart into her domestic job, which was anything but invaluable. As I learn more about what it means to become a doctor, I realize that a big part of being a physician falls under care work, and that doesn’t scare me anymore. That aspect of my future job does not devalue it but rather makes it more meaningful. Although care work remains mostly invisible, undermined, and gendered, it has proven to be crucial for the sustainability of whole societies.
By Reem Dergham
Reem is a student at the American University of Beirut, and is starting Medical School in the fall. She is a tutor at the Writing Center of AUB, and a member of the editorial team at the MEPI-TLS online publication platform.