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"Happy Caregiver Exploitation Day": An Essay by Elvira Basevich (Keywords: Motherhood; Upward Mobility; Reproductive Rights; Injustice; Identity; Rousseau)

White house on hill

Family Portrait 1 (1915) by Florine Stettheimer

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Mother’s Day makes me uncomfortable. I avoid social media platforms, flooding with childlike expressions of gratitude for mothers who appear to be paragons of virtue. As the oldest daughter in a large, first-generation immigrant family, I can’t relate. My mother struggled with financial and mental instability and was unable to hold down a job for long. Her longest employment stints were as a substitute teacher in NYC public schools, a realtor, and a yellow taxicab driver. Sometimes, for months-long stretches, she would lock herself in her bedroom and refuse to come out, fluctuating between a comatose-like state, gleefulness, and sobbing out loud.


From an early age, I was forced into a caregiving role for my three younger siblings. Caregiving became a core part of my identity. I learned to want to help – that love meant sacrifice. I was proud to pick up groceries, carefully studying sale items for the optimal haul allowable on the welfare checks the federal government provided to needy families like ours. I was proud to abandon friends to take a younger sibling to the doctor, feed them, and help with homework. Even if my mother was absent, and my siblings too young to appreciate my efforts, I imagined a giant, unblinking eye following my movements, keeping a record, as if in the history of the world, one would read, “Elvira Basevich, of Brooklyn, New York, 12 years old, a real hero,” with a complete list of all the kindnesses I showed my younger siblings. Instead, I was accosted by pensioners in the neighborhood, eating sunflower seeds in folding chairs; the cracked shells fanned half-moons at their swollen ankles. They hissed that I was too young to have so many children. I hissed back that I was a dutiful daughter and big sister.


It was later that I realized that my compulsory caregiving was exploitative. It began with me being good at school. Years before I read Descartes, I was elated to discover that I was a thinking thing. What good fortune! No matter how little I had eaten, how tired or hopeless I felt, there it was, a feeble little thought stumbling to find its footing in my mind. How grateful I was that it would never leave me; it couldn’t. My unlikely success in school became a liability: it signified I was “abandoning” my family to focus on my education. I stopped my mother from cashing the federal grants I had received as a low-income college student. I decided I really should use the money to buy the books I needed for class. My mother’s response to my determination to graduate college was that I had become selfish – Americanized! My mind was polluted by the study of ethics and political philosophy.


I was impressed that despite knowing little about my newfound interest in Marx, she still knew how to hit me where it hurts. “I am no American, but a citizen of the world! And philosophy is a search for objective truth,” I tried to explain. “I am not abandoning you or the kids; I love you all so much!” Ironically, the exploitative circumstances from which she had failed to protect me as a child had made me, as an adult, steel-willed to do what must be done. I was resolved to crush my obstacles. Though my father was an inconstant presence in my life, one of his stories had stuck: he was an amateur boxer during his student days in Russia. His training included running in Moscow winters, the snow crunching under his threadbare sneakers. Somehow the image of him running into a snowdrift, throwing punches into the air, became a palimpsest for my sense of self: I too was a boxer in training. And the study of philosophy felt like stepping into the ring. I never related to the critique that philosophical argumentation was too aggressive. That’s what I liked about it. It gave me a much-needed outlet for my rage. I wanted to knock teeth loose with the power of my argument. I wanted to rally all my friends after class in a McDonald’s parking lot to mess up my opponent with the power of our arguments. But it was a dark moment of my life when I realized that my mother would stand among my opponents. The condition of my success was leaving her behind.


In her essential book, Moving Up Without Losing Your Way, the philosopher Jennifer Morton scrutinizes pernicious narratives about upward mobility. One such narrative is that an upwardly mobile person will be compensated for the loss of those they left behind with new friends. Like so many strivers, I live in the afterlife of the familial bonds I gave up becoming this version of myself. I still wonder if I made the right decision. Couldn’t I have somehow hedged my bets? Was my strength just another instance of the cruelty and indifference that I detest in others? Did I really need to become this me? It would have been all the same from the point of view of a thinking thing. I wonder, reader, who would you eliminate from your life for your success? And how much success would justify the loss of irreplaceable loved ones?

I wonder, reader, who would you eliminate from your life for your success? And how much success would justify the loss of irreplaceable loved ones?


I chose myself, knowing that by walking away, my mother would spiral into ever-worsening poverty and mental instability. The realization came on slowly and then all at once; and it took my breath away. I became untethered from the world, a figure in a Chagall painting, floating over a cityscape, like a helium balloon. I felt unreal and disembodied. During this period of my life, I had the recurring nightmare that I was drifting into outer space; and the tree branches and lampposts that I tried to clutch floated away with me after I touched them. It was then that I learned that worse than not having money or power in the world is being utterly alone in it, condemned to be free.


Unsurprisingly, my relationships with my siblings are complicated, being both intimate and strained. As an employed college student, I continued to try to help my siblings as much as I could. Even so, some haven’t forgiven me for walking away and stopped speaking to me. I experience their absence in my life like a phantom limb, a sore, empty space that clings to me. With those siblings with whom I am still close, it took us a long time to figure out who we are and should be to each other. Our intimacy is tinged with a multifaceted sadness that we had been neglected as children, experienced the strain and splintering of our sibling bonds, and saw up close the dissolution of a human being, our biological mom.


When my youngest sister sent me a Happy Mother’s Day card, I was dumbstruck:

My youngest sister wished me a Happy Mother’s Day. It felt electrifying that she acknowledged my imperfect efforts throughout my life to care for her. My efforts were not mere features of our unfortunate circumstance. They were also the experiential conditions of our love, our distinct senses of self, and our values.

I want to be able to condemn the structural conditions of my exploitation without condemning the person I ended up becoming as a result.


I am indebted to philosophers like Morton who provide a sophisticated conceptual language to capture the first-personal experiences of people in circumstances of injustice. It makes vivid what I felt intuitively. I was not merely a sad and powerless kid. While I was coerced into the caregiving role that I assumed, my identity has been shaped by these formative experiences. Even in the face of my ambivalence about the choices I ultimately made, all things considered, I like who I am. That’s why I made the choices that I did. As it turns out, I had to become this version of myself. To this day, the exploitative caregiving role that I played brings me both pain and pride and is the experiential source of my values, forging my sense of self as a thinking and feeling person. Admittedly, I still have the bad habit of giving unsolicited advice and inspirational speeches to my now adult siblings, my friends, and my students. Even my cat isn’t spared inspiration, as when on rainy days that deny him a sunbath, I console him, “We’ll get through this together, buddy.” Still, I want to be able to condemn the structural conditions of my exploitation without condemning the person I ended up becoming as a result. I had adopted an evaluative standpoint that I still affirm today. I had recognized the unconditional value of humanity and became resolved to fight for it, contributing to the collective survival of my dependents. And I am proud that in the face of those constraints I avowed the value of my own life projects. But allow me to state the obvious: society-at-large – and not children – must assume responsibility for care.


The systematic failure of the state to provide basic resources, especially publicly funded daycare, for needy families, continues to coerce the next generation of girls into assuming an exploitative caregiving role in their families. Even in the context where caregiving is compulsory, it’s not a symptom of internalized sexist ideology to want to help. I don’t think it is wrong that I love my sister like a mother, taking her with me as far along as I could, while still fighting for my own independent life. I think it is wrong that no one else cared for us and did nothing to help. We often condemn the exploited worker who makes themselves a willing instrument of another’s profit as an instance of false consciousness. But in the case of exploitative care work, the reality is complicated by the fact that our work is socially necessary: its withdrawal leads to the inexorable demise of the helpless. The maternal instinct is a myth; there is only a responsiveness or the lack thereof to the suffering of small helpless animals. In my memory, my motivation to change a formula bottle was the recognition that if I don’t do this, no one else will and this kid won’t make it. The rudimentary moral sensibility that one must help the helpless should have no gender.

The maternal instinct is a myth; there is only a responsiveness or the lack thereof to the suffering of small helpless animals.


Rousseau describes modern civilization as blunting humans’ moral sensitivity. Stray dogs can never show their fellow strays the cruel indifference we show each other. “Why is man alone subject to becoming an imbecile?” It is a repulsive ideology – a peculiar piece of moral imbecility – to pretend that moral sensitivity is gendered, as if women and girls alone possess special metaphysical antennae to be responsive to the needs and suffering of others. It encourages the world to turn its back on us and all those unable to care for themselves because they’re only just born, disabled, chronically sick. In other words, women and girls do not perform care work out of feminine virtue. Rousseau’s philosophical anthropology reminds us that responsiveness to the needs and suffering of others is part of the natural human condition.


With the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, the unprecedented suppression of reproductive rights will only exacerbate the exploitative structural conditions of caregiving in the family. So many people are forced into a caregiving role that they would not have chosen had they the effective capacity to terminate unwanted pregnancies and access reproductive rights and resources. Gestating persons cannot obtain abortions across the country and are forced to carry pregnancies to term, often at great risk to their physical and mental wellbeing. Once children are born, few public resources exist to help families. The lack of public provisions for care work, especially publicly funded daycares, in effect means that women and girls will continue to be conscripted into caregiving, a de facto army of hyper-exploited laborers whose interests need urgent political representation.

Society’s unwillingness to mitigate the structural conditions of compulsory caregiving destroy women and girls’ effective capacity to enjoy their status as free and equal civic fellows.


In their excellent book, Equal Citizenship and Public Reason (2018), feminist philosophers Lori Watson and Christie Hartley persuasively argue that the public provision of “socially obligatory work” should be regarded as a basic requirement of justice. Society’s unwillingness to mitigate the structural conditions of compulsory caregiving destroy women and girls’ effective capacity to enjoy their status as free and equal civic fellows. However, a just public provision for care must respect the unmet demands for fair wage contracts by domestic workers. The labor rights organization, Domestic Workers United, notes that immigrant women and women of color are overrepresented in care professions, receiving poverty wages and lacking basic labor protections, including paid overtime, sick leave, healthcare, paid time off, and union rights. An intersectional critique of compulsory care work is essential to re-imagine the public provision for care work in the circumstances of injustice to avoid, in effect, freeing largely white, upwardly mobile women from the burden of care by exploiting immigrant women and women of color as wage workers in care work professions.




In your celebrations of Mother’s Day remember all the exploitative labor extracted from the hands of those who do not choose their caregiving roles and who are forced to perform it with meager resources and labor protections.


To galvanize labor reforms around care work, we must learn to see 12-year-old girls studying sale items in the supermarket for who they are: hyper-exploited child laborers. Stand in solidarity with them, as well as domestic workers fighting for fair wage contracts and the protection of their basic labor rights. I am in awe that you manage to perform a burdensome task with such skill and grace. I would also like us to recognize those who struggled to provide adequate care for their dependents because they languished in deprived circumstances that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You too deserve to be cared for, even if not by me. And it pains me to know that the care that you need is not forthcoming for you and thousands of others like you. To quote the late Sinéad O’Connor, “Sweet bird although you did not see me, I saw you”:


This is to mother you

To comfort you and get you through

Through when your nights are lonely

Through when your dreams are only blue

This is to mother you.


Elvira Basevich is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis. Her research areas are social and political philosophy, Africana philosophy, and late modern German philosophy. Her current research focuses on W.E.B. Du Bois’ democratic theory. Her second book, A Duboisian Democracy: On Method and Practice, is under contract with Oxford University Press. ​Her first monograph, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Lost and the Found, was published with Polity Press in 2020.



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