I planned to write two blog posts since before I created this site. As the intent of this blog was to address the dearth of resources directed at male caregivers, the first piece I wanted to write, this one, was about how male caregivers are different from female caregivers, if at all. The second article was to be about dealing with bowel incontinence — the poop post. I found it very difficult to start either article, so now nearly two years later, I’m starting the first one which deals with a highly complex topic. My hope is to provide some context for the rest of my writings and some food for thought. The lesser complicated though no less messy poop post will have to wait.
My Philosophy About Sexuality
Before we dive into main topic, it’s important to understand my philosophy about human sexuality. I don’t mean sexual behavior per se, more so gender differences relating to traits important to caregivers. First, remember that I’m not a doctor nor a psychologist, nor do I have any degrees in human behavior. I am simply a male with a wide range of life experiences that I won’t attempt to recount, and while my views may not fit whatever the current in vogue perspective is, I am arrogant enough to think my perception transcends all.
My view is simple; first, the genders are different and we should learn to discuss and embrace the differences, and not try to stifle them (except, of course, if behaviors are harmful). The more we try to become like Star Trek’s Vulcans by suppressing our emotions and basic nature, the more people will act out in undesirable ways. Second, stereotypes may be based in truth but are not set in stone, and people can overcome their natural tendencies and learn new tricks. The point of this will (hopefully) become clearer in a bit.
Are Women are Better Caregivers?
Honestly, I’m not sure. Certainly, many women are more experienced at care-giving given their traditional roles, but I want to know if they are better at it by nature or if it is learned. An unscientific survey of existing literature reveals little insight into this question, primarily because the more comprehensive sources of information are old. Two primary sources of information, The Family Care Alliance, Statistics Canada (2014) and Men As Caregivers by Betty J. Kramer and Edward Thompson, Jr. (2002) likely don’t adequately reflect recent changes as men have increasingly taken on informal family caregiver roles. Certainly, the current Coronavirus pandemic will increase the ranks of male caregivers, and hopefully new insightful research will follow. As Erin K. Anderson then of Purdue University noted in her review of the Kramer / Thompson book;
“A common theme present throughout the chapters is that of gender socialization and its influence on caregiving. Assumptions about gender and care not only color men’s feelings about taking on and performing a caregiving role, but they color the way researchers and others think about men in caregiving roles.”https://www.jstor.org/stable/3089831?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1
Stereotypes Dominate But Role Models are Missing
The Family Care Alliance study notes: “Other studies*indicate that 36% of female caregivers handle the most difficult caregiving tasks (i.e., bathing, toileting, and dressing) when compared with 24% for their male counterparts, who are more likely to help with finances, arrangement of care, and other less burdensome tasks.”*National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2009). Caregiving in the U.S.
My experience is that this conclusion from a 2009 survey is still a common perception. When I tell people about the level of care I provide to my wife, a common response is, “oh, you do all that? Don’t you have help?” or something to that extent. I’m certain I’m not alone providing hands-on care, but it’s difficult to find other men doing the same, either in real life or depicted in movies, books or television. One interesting exception is on the current NBC show, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. where the main character’s dad who has a rare neurological condition, has a male home health aide. The aide is depicted providing total care for the dad including preparing meals, bathing, prepping for bed, and more. It’s a refreshing change.
Clearly, there are no physical limitations that prevent men from providing a level of care comparable to a female caregiver. The disparities arise from lack of confidence and experience especially when it comes to key activities such as meal preparation, toileting, general hygiene and personal care, and emotional support. My mom dealt with several chronic conditions such as Crohn’s disease throughout her life, and my dad played an important caregiver role in helping her manage her care. He unintentionally taught me how to be patient and calm, how to be protective and act as an advocate, and most importantly, to be resilient. These traits are the toughest to develop, and may be the ones many women are more skilled at. The minutiae of care can be learned.
Male RNs are on an Upswing but Still a Minority
One place you might expect to use as an indicator of men’s willingness to take on care-giving roles is in the ranks of registered nursing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 12% of registered nurses in 2019 are now men, up from 2.7% male RNs in 1970. Kevin Callaway, a CMSRN (Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse) and Southern New Hampshire University adjunct faculty member said, “Men do tend to gravitate toward critical care nursing, which may seem to an outsider as more technology-focused and less personal,” … “but I can assure you there are many hands held, backs rubbed, feet washed, bed linens changed and words of encouragement shared in these environments, too.” He goes on to say, “the most effective nurses tend to share compassion, empathy, humility and self-confidence as common characteristics.” I believe the same holds true for informal caregivers.
So, What’s the Answer?
The answer is it depends. I know that’s not a satisfying answer but it accurately reflects the lack of current research, the evolving state of male and informal care-giving, and rapidly changing social values and perceptions. I don’t see any reasons, either physically, emotionally or intellectually, why men can’t equal women in care-giving prowess, so it comes down to desire, education and experience. That translates into meaning that parents will play an important role in determining their son’s ability to fulfill a caregiver role by developing skills, empathy, and confidence. Just as there is heavy focus on building girl’s confidence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills, maybe now is the time for parents to have an equal focus on building the skills in boys that will make them better partners and caregivers.
These two initiatives might serve to bring better balance and tolerance to the sexes. What do you think?