Care and the Great Work Rethink

Eva Dienel


Every time I have ever left a job, a colleague has caught me on my way out, flush with excitement to tell me about their own secret escape plans. When I left a magazine job in New York, a fellow editor stopped me in the lobby to say she was orchestrating a move to Portland. When I left a nonprofit job in San Francisco, a colleague joined me in the elevator to share his dream of starting a sustainable spirits brand.

It’s like they were projecting their fantasies onto my experience: I was leaving, and they were imagining the better life they could have if they quit, too.

When I left my last full-time job to go freelance in 2015, I was the one who was giddy. I loved my work and my boss and my colleagues, but I yearned for something more: time for care. As a mother of twin 5-year-olds, I wanted more time to care for my kids. As a harried working mom nearing 40, I also wanted more time to care for myself.

Since the pandemic began, I have been reflecting on why I quit, and what it might mean vis-à-vis the massive departure of so many Americans from the workforce.

First the moms left. Or, more accurately, they were forced out. Between March and April 2020, 3.5 million moms of school-age children left the workforce. By January 2021, 10 million moms of school-age children were not working, and women’s labor force participation hit 57%—the lowest since 1988. The Great Mom Walk-Out happened because of a care crisis exacerbated during the pandemic: The overwhelming majority of caregivers are women, and the demands of unpaid care work and paid employment became untenable when schools and offices went remote.

Next came the Great Resignation. A record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August, and that record was broken the very next month, when another 4.4 million quit. Since January, nearly 35 million Americans have quit their jobs.

While the Great Mom Walk-Out was dismissively dubbed the “She-cession,” the Great Resignation has rattled the whole economy. Economists, academics, and columnists have tied themselves in knots trying to explain why so many people quit. Most have landed on the obvious explanation that after two years of loss and hardship, people want to reorient their lives around life, not work.

The pundits are right, but they’re missing a bigger point: The Great Mom Walk-Out and the Great Resignation both signaled a widespread desire for more time for care. For mothers who left work during the pandemic, care was a demand they couldn’t ignore: They had to put their kids’ needs first. For the millions who left work during the Great Resignation, quitting was an act of radical self-care: They put their own needs first.

Watching these workforce disruptions, labor economist Betsey Stevenson mused that “it’s like the whole country is in some kind of union renegotiation.” “I don’t know who’s going to win in this bargaining that’s going on right now, but right now it seems like workers have the upper hand,” she told the New York Times.

Indeed, the Great Mom Walk-Out and the Great Resignation are giving people a chance to rethink their relationship with work—to define and demand what they need and want from work to support their lives. For generations, we have accepted a culture of work that prioritizes sacrifice, productivity, and self-gain. What would happen if instead we prioritized care—for ourselves, our loved ones, and the world?

The essential fact of care

When I gave birth to my twins in 2010, I joined the 53 million American adults—1 in 5 of us—who provide unpaid care.

Care is a fact of life: At some point, we all need care, and most of us will eventually become caregivers. Care takes many forms: It’s waking up every hour of the night to nurse infant twins, or rushing to get them a bottle so your wife can sleep. It’s driving your best friend to her cancer doctor appointments. It’s linking arms with people in your community at a Black Lives Matter gathering. It’s tutoring a neighbor’s child who is struggling with remote learning. It’s starting a meal train for a family who lost their home in a wildfire.

The psychologist Alison Gopnik has written about care as a relationship of love and attachment that expands who we are. “When we care deeply for another person, we are no longer just one individual agent with one set of values and interests,” she writes. “Instead, a parent or a partner, or even a good friend, is a person whose self has been expanded to prioritize the values and interests of another, even when those values and interests are different from their own.”

Importantly, Gopnik writes, care is not transactional: We help without expecting something in return. In that and many other ways, care is a contradiction: It can be physically tasking, emotionally exhausting, stressful, and depleting. It can also be meaningful, validating, joyful, and uplifting. Care is urgent and impatient, but it’s also slow and time-consuming. Many of us do it every day, and yet it’s completely invisible in many of the ways that matter. As individuals, we know it’s essential; as a society, we take care for granted. And yet, as Gopnik writes, caring relationships “clearly contribute to the common good.”

At no time has this been more clear than during the pandemic, when the need for care multiplied. First there were new demands for physical care as schools, daycare centers, and eldercare facilities closed or restricted access. Then there was the need for emotional care as people endured the isolation of lockdowns, the anxiety of job loss, and the toll of other crises that overlapped with the pandemic—the ongoing police violence against Black people, the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and yet another season of global warming-fueled weather disasters.

Despite the need, American systems are not set up for care: Culturally, we don’t prioritize it, and we certainly don’t value it: An Oxfam study found that if American women were paid minimum wage for their domestic and caregiving work, they would have earned $1.5 trillion the previous year. Nor does our infrastructure support care.

While there’s a possibility that could change—at the time of this writing, the U.S. was weighing a social spending package with significant investments in care—people will be looking for care from large institutions outside of government, and that includes at work.

Why care matters at work

Whenever I think about what my life and work would look like if we moved back to the U.S., which doesn’t have affordable public healthcare, from Australia, which does: I worry about three things: access to quality healthcare, time to care for my family and community, and time to care for myself.

As a freelancer in America, I worry I wouldn’t earn enough to afford quality healthcare for my family of four. Working for someone else, I’d likely get employer-paid healthcare, but then I’d have to work at least 40 hours per week, meaning I’d sacrifice the time I have as a freelancer for care.

Care, in other words, is a top priority for me as a worker.

It is for most working caregivers, and that’s because caregivers’ experience with work is terrible.

More than half of all caregivers also work full time, spending almost 25 unpaid hours per week on care. Today, 4 in 10 caregivers find themselves in “high-burden sandwich situations,” caring for young ones and elders at the same time.

Even before the pandemic, families missed $8.3 billion in annual wages due to childcare issues. One study found that 80% of employees said their caregiving responsibilities affected their productivity at work, and 32% of employees had voluntarily left a job due to those responsibilities. These burdens hit women the hardest: Women comprise 75% of all caregivers, and mothers are much more likely than fathers to reduce their work hours and take significant time off to care for their kids. These issues are even more challenging for women with lower-paying jobs—disproportionately women of color—who have less access to paid leave, affordable childcare, and remote work.

At work, mothers are penalized, losing about 6% of their pay for each child since their caregiving responsibilities require that they cut their hours. Meanwhile, fathers are stigmatized—even demoted or fired—for taking time off for caregiving. As a result, they are less likely to take that time when it’s available to them.

Caregivers also have it tough in their personal lives: The stress of care—the fact that caregivers don’t have enough time, money, and energy for care—affects the physical and mental health of caregivers and their families. During the pandemic, more than a quarter of caregivers said they felt more stress and experienced worse physical health than before the pandemic. For caregivers who work in toxic jobs—jobs that are boring, dangerous, or require interacting with angry or aggressive people—the health and well-being of their children may also be at stake.

The care crisis also hurts business: Unpaid caregiving costs the economy $67 billion annually, and U.S. businesses lose approximately $4.4 billion every year due to employee absenteeism from childcare issues alone. Employee turnover, loss of productivity, loss of institutional knowledge, temporary hiring, and absenteeism all cost business.

Despite this, only 48% of employers track employees’ caregiving responsibilities, something Amy Henderson learned when she was getting ready to launch her book, Tending: Parenthood and the Future of Work. Henderson, cofounder of the Fam Tech Founders Collaborative, a network of organizations developing solutions and advocating for caregivers, had a plan to ask 40 companies to share the caregiving status of their employees. She intended to aggregate and anonymize the data to report on how employee caregiving affected hiring, retention, promotion, and compensation. She figured companies would be eager to participate in the study. “Thanks to COVID, they realize that care impacts their employees’ ability to perform at work,” she explained. “So they were going to want to solve for it.”

Most companies have limited information about the caregivers who work for them: Only 48% of employers track employees’ caregiving responsibilities

That’s not what happened. Most companies politely declined, explaining that legal challenges prevented them from asking certain questions of employees. But Henderson thinks it was something bigger: “Even if information about their individual company wouldn’t be made public, everyone within that company would know they had the information, and the company would then be held accountable for knowing that information,” she said.

Fixing work for caregivers—and everyone else

While Henderson noticed a reluctance among companies to publicize the caregiving status of their employees, there are signs that business is willing to make changes to support caregivers. A recent report by The Holding Co. and Melinda French Gates’ investment firm Pivotal Ventures found that 42% of employers plan to expand or add care as an employee benefit.

During the pandemic, many companies realized the care crisis cut into their bottom line, and they have the power, resources, and obligation to do something about it. “Businesses recognize that they’re paying indirectly for absenteeism, presenteeism, and loss of productivity when the people they employ go through these human life experiences that include care,” said Leslie Forde, whose company, Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs, is part of the Fam Tech Founders Collaborative.

Companies also realize that caregivers comprise a large portion of the working population, and to win the war for talent, they must support caregivers’ needs. Among parents surveyed during the pandemic, Millennials—who now comprise the largest generation in the U.S. workforce—experienced the highest rates of hypertension, anxiety, and depression. To attract Millennials, Forde said, employers need to create a work environment that allows them to fulfill their family aspirations. If not, they’re likely to change jobs. In her book, Henderson cites a study that 83% of Millennials would leave their job for one with better family and lifestyle benefits.

Although Gen Z is still a few years away from parenting age, there are signs that they, too, will demand employers step up for caregivers. In July, after taking a year off of college to create Project Matriarchs, a platform that matches college students with families to provide virtual academic support and childcare, Pilar McDonald and Lola McAllister created the Pledge to Care: a set of 14 commitments to caregivers that Gen Z expects of future employers. The pledge covers topics like paid leave and equitable work culture, but it also represents something bigger: a Gen Z demand for a better future of work. “In this future,” the pledge states, “everyone can care for their loved ones without jeopardizing their financial security or sacrificing their career. In this future, work and care are compatible.”

Within companies, a growing number of workers also are organizing to connect and support caregivers and create a stronger voice for change. Abby Davisson, president of the Gap Foundation, co-founded Gap Inc’s employee resource group, PARENTS@Gap. (Disclosure: I’ve done some freelance writing for Gap Inc.) The group facilitated a partnership for Gap with fam-tech start-up, Circle In, which offers companies an online hub to connect parents and other caregivers with each other and information about care benefits and resources. Circle In also provides employers with feedback and data on what their caregiving employees need to thrive at work and in life. (I have also done freelance writing for Circle In.)

Like the companies that Henderson contacted, Gap had limited data about the caregiving status of its employees. This surprised Davisson, who was hired when she was 38 weeks pregnant. “We have so much data on our customer base—and see parenthood as a huge way to unlock more value from customers—but we don’t have the same data for our own employees,” said Davisson, who is co-authoring a book on work, family, love, and money with Stanford labor economist Myra Strober.

Gap Inc. has also joined a coalition of companies and entrepreneurs, Time’s Up Care Economy Business Council, which launched earlier this year to encourage private sector investments in care infrastructure and to advocate for policy change.

Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs’ Forde believes that fixing work for caregivers will fix work for everyone. She reasons that if employers can create tailored supports to meet the needs of caregivers, a marginalized group in workplace, they’ll understand how to meet every employee’s needs. “If the audience with the least amount of discretionary time can thrive and succeed in work, then it makes work more flexible, more joyful, more inclusive of life for everybody,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, Forde has surveyed more than 2,500 caregivers, mostly moms, to understand what they need and how their employers can help. Based on this, she developed a framework that she implements through her employer-focused program, Allies@Work, to help companies fix work for caregivers. The framework focuses on psychological safety; what Forde calls “Flexibility with a capital F”—the kind of flexibility that goes beyond when and how people work to include how much work is reasonable given personal and organizational constraints; and the use of structures, policies, and cultural norms that promote care for employees’ physical and mental health. Her framework also includes curating, destigmatizing, and even subsidizing childcare and eldercare.

It’s easy to imagine that a mother working for an employer using Forde’s framework might have been able to keep her job rather than becoming a casualty of the Great Mom Walk-Out. It’s also easy to imagine that someone who quit during the Great Resignation would be more likely to take their next job with an employer who embraces Forde’s framework.

But Forde points out that even these changes won’t resolve the care crisis for everyone. That requires holistic policy changes, and to pass those policies, we need to understand and value the benefits that care delivers to us all.

Why care is essential for our shared humanity

Everyone I spoke with for this essay said there’s still much we don’t know about care (even care research is undervalued), but all agreed on one thing: Care is essential for our shared humanity.

Katherine Goldstein, founder of The Double Shift podcast told me “care can expand our consciousness and our brains and our capacity to be human and our empathy.” She’s right. Care helps us grow. In a country with deepening divides, care opens pathways for connection. Brain research even suggests that the practice of care makes us better caregivers. Viewed in this light, care has the potential to equip us with the very tools we need to solve big crises like the pandemic, climate change, and systemic racism.

The central argument Henderson makes in her book is that care has a transformative power: It can make us better, as humans, as workers, and as a society. “Parenthood forces us to become intimate first with our infant, then with ourselves, and ultimately with the world around us,” she writes. “If we continue to show up for parenthood—really show up—we access new ways of being in the world.”

For me, this passage conjured a ridiculous image of Bella Swan, the heroine of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series about lovestruck vampires. In one scene, Bella uses all of her might to extend the powerful mental shield she had been using to protect herself and her daughter to cover her entire community of vampires.

Henderson chuckled when I told her this. Her favorite genre of books is young adult fiction (she even worked with Meyer on her book tour), and now she’s writing YA fiction as her own form of self-care. Henderson mused that Bella learning to expand her shield to save her community is, in essence, what Tending is all about. “If you learn how to do it with your kids,” she said, “you learn how to extend that to your broader community. And that’s what we all need to learn how to do: How do we expand the love and the work that we’re willing to do on ourselves to be in relationship with our kids into all areas of our lives? And develop a framework by which we can name it and recognize it and value it?”

In her writing, Henderson has cited scientific evidence that could help quantify that value, including research by USC psychology professor Darby Saxbe on how caregiving changes the structure and function of the brain. Saxbe told me the value of care is enormous: Care is what ensures the survival of our society. “We need to shift our framework from the idea that having children or engaging in care is an individual choice that we’re individually responsible for, to this idea that care is a public good,” she said.

Elissa Strauss, who is writing a book about the radical power of care, has a similar notion—that care is both a public good and a basic right: For the caregiver, it’s the right to care well, to have the money, time, energy, and supports to be able to provide care; for the care recipient, it’s about the right to receive meaningful care. Like Henderson, Strauss views care as a profound experience that has the potential to change individuals and the world for the better. “It’s fundamental to human existence, to who we are, how we became who we are, and how we will continue to survive on this planet,” she said.

Considering care as essential for our shared humanity makes it easier to reframe our relationship with work. I’m not quitting my job, I’m saving the world! I’m not just staying at home with my kids, I’m ensuring the survival of our species!

It’s not, of course, an either/or. As Esther Perel has pointed out, work, too, can provide deep meaning in our lives. Some people’s paid work is even about saving the world.

When I quit my full-time job to work for myself, I did so because I wanted both/and: I wanted more time to care for my kids and the people I love, time to care for myself, and time to cultivate a fulfilling career, albeit at 20 instead of 40 hours a week. Unfortunately, not many workplaces provide the kind of Flexibility with a capital F that allows workers, especially caregivers, to achieve both/and.

But if workforce trends are any sign, employers may be forced to change, and this might catalyze societal change. In a recent paper, the labor economist Betsey Stevenson wrote that parents are reshaping expectations around work: “Parents made many different types of employment and career adjustments over the past 18 months that may shape their labor market outcomes for years to come. And many parents—both fathers and mothers—do not plan on returning to pre-pandemic employment patterns.”

Stevenson didn’t talk about those who quit during the Great Resignation, but I’m betting that when they come back to the job market, they’ll also demand more from work.  

If we learn anything from the Great Mom Walk-Out and the Great Resignation, it should be this: Work should never come at the cost of care—care for our loved ones, our community, the planet, and especially ourselves. But if during this Great Work Rethink, we put care first—if we cultivate a culture of care in work and beyond—we just might save ourselves, and the world.