There’s an old saying: “A son is a son till he takes a wife. A daughter’s a daughter all her life.” My mother had a variant on that, noting that the thing that made her bitter about taking care of her own mother was that she had worked so hard to free herself from the sexist scenario her parents had laid out for her, but she was forced back into it.

This is one of those studies where the results are so intuitive it’s a little surprising anyone actually sat down and ran the numbers: daughters do actually provide much more caregiving for elderly parents than sons do.

The study was done by Angelina Grigoryeva, a graduate student in Sociology at Princeton University, and presented at a meeting of the American Sociological Association. This was back in 2014. For some reason, the Washington Post article about her research rose from the dead this week and made the rounds — I suspect someone dug it up because of Hillary Clinton’s proposal for a $6,000 yearly tax credit for people providing care for elderly parents.

On average, a daughter will do 12.3 hours of care per month while a son will do 5.6 hours. What was even more striking when I looked up the full study was that the hours daughters spend doing care is heavily affected by the time she has available (for instance, daughters with full-time jobs do less) while the hours sons spend generally is not, prompting the researcher to conclude that “women do as much parent care as they can, given the constraints they face, while men appear to perform as little as they can, regardless of other factors.” She found the most significant disparities within mixed-sex sibling groups.

The other major factor is proximity — but that’s not a factor that exists in isolation from the gender issues here, because people sometimes relocate to care for an elderly parent, and elderly parents sometimes relocate as well. My grandmother had no one living close by. Her son lived in one city, her daughter in another, a thousand miles apart. She moved close to her daughter. Admittedly, the Twin Cities also offered two granddaughters and two great-granddaughters, making it a more attractive destination in various ways, but the most fundamental draw was her unstated expectation that it was my mother’s job to care for her.

My mother, for the record, was employed full-time when my grandmother moved out here. She’s a professor and she had a full-time teaching load, plays to direct, regularly led student groups on trips abroad, etc. My uncle is also an academic; they are in different fields, but their professional obligations are strikingly similar.

Anecdotally, we all know exceptions. But anecdotally, I can also tell you that the expectation that caregiving for the elderly is the job of the women is so strong that when my husband and I toured an assisted living facility when trying to figure out our options for caring for my husband’s father, the salesperson giving us the tour directed his sales pitch entirely toward me. Moreover, the belief that care is done by daughters is so ingrained that I’ve repeatedly been mistaken for my mother’s younger sister in any context where I’m providing any sort of care or care management for my grandmother. (My mother is her primary caregiver; I am the backup contact.) I correct people when they refer to my Grammie as my mother, and this just goes in one ear and out there other; if I’m with her at a medical appointment, I’m obviously a daughter.

My Grammie has had some level of assisted living since moving to the Twin Cities; we’ve shifted her from senior housing with services, to more intensive assisted living, then to memory care, as her ability to care for herself has declined. Five years ago, my mother was spending about 7 hours a week managing Grammie’s care — taking her to doctor visits, doing her shopping and laundry, picking up her prescriptions.

The researcher clearly viewed the situation as a problem created by sexist and essentialist expectations of women, so in news coverage and online discussions of the article, I found it both fascinating and appalling how many people (both male and female) were willing to treat the daughter-as-caregiver situation as the natural order of things — citing the Bible quotes, the movie Steel Magnolias (really), or just stating as a given that women were more nurturing. I also found it sort of hilarious how many articles spun this as “you definitely want to have a daughter, if you’re having kids.” (“Well, of course,” my husband said, when I reported this to him. “You can both be opposed to sexism and harness it for your benefit.”)

The researcher didn’t really explore the reasons why sons provide so much less care than daughters, but speculated that it was the result of feeling less of a stigma — there’s less of a stigma on men who fail to provide care to their elderly parents, and where stigma exists, men just give less of a collective fuck about it.

One of the questions I had was whether the absentee sons contributed more financially, at least. The researcher checked and found a big old NOPE.

I would really love to see more research into this: one of the questions I’ve seen multiple times already is whether gay men act more like women than straight men do.1 I’m also very curious about only children and elder care. If you’re an only child, you have no siblings to share care with. Do the guys step up?

There’s also the issue of emotional labor. The study presented caregiving as a fairly straightforward transaction: the elderly person needed help, and their caregiver children showed up to help them (or not), but it can be a lot more complicated than that. Does your elderly father need rides because his vision is failing? Is he willing to admit that he needs rides because his vision is failing? Does your mother need meals brought in and does she get furiously angry when you point out that she frequently falls asleep and it would be dangerous if she did that with the stove on? Does your mother need to move out of her house full of fire hazards and steep staircases, even though it’s where she raised all her children and swears she’ll stay until she dies? Does your father forget his medications, but yell at anyone who asks him if he remembered his medications?

It’s hard to measure to what extent these daughters are doing the emotional labor to persuade stubborn, resentful parents into accepting the help that they obviously need and that society solidly expects (“just take away his keys!” says the advice given by people who have absolutely no goddamn clue) and to what extent the sons doing the minimum are shrugging and saying “fine. You’re convinced you can still shovel your own snow? I guess I’ll hear from the EMTs if it turns out you’re wrong.”

Additionally, is it possible to quantify the benefits to the aged parents? The costs to caregiver daughters certainly are2 but do elderly people with caregiver daughters have longer lives and a higher quality of life than those with caregiver sons?

There should also be greater attention devoted to the value of caregiving and in what ways caregiving can be compensated by society. One estimate I found was that the economic value of family caregiving — restricting this to adults caring for adults — is $450 billion per year nationally. By way of perspective, the entire Medicare program spends $509 billion annually. This is a lot of money for work that society demands and mostly doesn’t compensate at all.3 I appreciate Hillary Clinton’s suggestion of a $6000/year tax credit, but for someone who’s spending significant hours on caregiving, that’s a drop in the bucket.

And of course if it’s a physically difficult and emotionally complicated job that we want people to do for no money? It’s a job we’ll give to women, every time.

[Post image via Shutterstock]

  1. Caregivers were not asked about their sexual orientation, although a MetLife study found that LGBT men are much more likely to do caregiving tasks than straight men, so this particular stereotype holds true in at least one research study.

  2. and have been measured in the past in other studies

  3. There is a sketchy patchwork of support programs and a handful of caregivers are able to get some sort of payment but for the most part people do this for free, even if it’s costing them paid hours, advancement at work, etc.

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