We Need To Stop Expecting Daughters To Be Caretakers

by Odessa Denby
A little girl holding a bottle and feeding her baby doll
Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

I was the youngest of five children, the only girl. My siblings were a good deal older than me, the next youngest being almost a decade older. My parents divorced when I was eight years old and there were all sorts of splits in family loyalty, grudges, and in-fighting that followed.

But I was just a child and I loved all of them, so I was neutral territory. As such, I became the go-between. Everyone depended on me to keep the family emotionally balanced whenever they had to meet. My mom made me the main caretaker of the home: cooking, cleaning, laundry — she even took the allowance my father gave me as her gas money.

I was never allowed to get angry or misbehave. And I could never bring home a bad grade. I was not a child but a tiny adult. I was praised for being so “mature for my age,” but just because I didn’t cause trouble, that didn’t mean that I was healthy. I was severely depressed and was a self-injurer in my teens.

Through those years, I was still the person holding things together for the family. Making funeral arrangements for grandparents, hearing everyone air their grievances toward each other, and having my mother use me as a punching bag, sometimes literally. It was my fault that she had no friends. I was so difficult to live with. No one would ever love me or put up with me as she did.

Finally, I decided I had to move away from her. I was a student with very little money since she always took what I tried to save, so I asked my father if I could live with him. He gladly welcomed me. My older brother (at the time in his late 20s) was already living there rent-free and soon after, moved his girlfriend into the house as well.


Getty Images/iStockphoto

It was better with my dad. But it became clear that I needed to make myself useful. My other brothers hoped I would help dad “clean up the house” since he didn’t keep it in the best condition. They never asked my brother who already lived there to do that. But I was supposed to lend a “woman’s touch” though I was barely old enough to be called a woman. I soon took over cooking duties there too.

I moved out of the country for several years when I graduated and lived on my own. People would ask me if it was tough to have to take care of myself for the first time. I would laugh because it was the first time I only had to take care of myself, rather than all the incapable adults in my life.

When I moved back to the States, I had recently gotten married and my husband and I were looking for long-term jobs and housing, so I asked my dad if we could stay there just until we found our footing. My older brother had since moved out and the house was feeling empty so he readily agreed. My father was also retired at that point and stayed home all the time.

It soon became clear though, that while I clearly presented this as a temporary solution, he thought I would become his permanent caregiver. He expected me to come home from a 12-hour shift at work and make him dinner even though he had done nothing all day. He wanted me to clean the nicotine stains off the walls of his (non-smoking) rental house but made it clear he had no intention of stopping his indoor smoking. So it would be my daily chore.

He once told me that he expected that my husband and I would live with him for about “the next seven years.” I told him again, that that wasn’t our intention. As a newlywed couple, we were determined to have our own space within a year. So then, he started charging us rent. My brother had lived there for over a decade rent-free with his girlfriend, but we had to pay.

Before we moved out, he handed me a bill for all that I “owed” him from recent years. He even noted the charge to send me a box of things I needed when living abroad. It wasn’t a care package, it was a debt to be collected later. It was like being punched in the gut. Hard. He was supposed to be the parent who was more supportive. He always freely lent my brothers money, but now he was coming after me for petty change.

My mother makes no attempt to veil her resentment toward me. She once told me that she kept having more children so that she could have a daughter to keep her company. She meant for life. She would make plans for how we would live together and I would take care of her until she died. No doubt, still emotionally and physically abusing me the entire time.


Getty Images/iStockphoto

Only one of my brothers still speaks to her and I only have minimal contact. However, when having a family meeting (of the dwindling number of family members who haven’t completely cut her off) about long-term care options for her as she gets older and her health deteriorates, she made it clear how much she hates me for failing in my duty to her.

She also kept going on and on about how she would be willing to move into assisted living just so my dear, dear brother wouldn’t have to move back home or be inconvenienced in any way to care for her. Because he “always does what’s right.” His inconvenience was mortifying, mine was expected.

I’d like to believe that my fractured family is the exception, but caretaking is a fraught subject for many. And when it comes to caring for elderly parents, women are disproportionately held responsible. While men can also be unfairly burdened by caring for their parents, the statistics show that men who have sisters tend to do less care for their aging parents, women who have brothers do more. So my experiences are probably not that unique.

The obvious solution is to share care evenly. When adult siblings all have jobs, significant others, and maybe even children to care for, each one doing a small part will help prevent the burnout of any one person. Especially when women typically take a larger part in the caregiving of their children as well, even if they are working. Becoming full-time caregivers to parents on top of that is a recipe for exhaustion, poor health, and strained relationships.

Even though I was eight and my eldest brother was 30 when my parents divorced, I was still stuck holding the bag. The excuse given was that “girls are better at that emotional stuff,” or “mom loves her best.” So while they all had to deal with our mother’s abusive tendencies growing up, because of the age-gap and the divorce, I was the only one who had no siblings to lean on while suffering through it. I was the only one who never got to be a child.

“Who will take care of you when you get old?” This is something that well-meaning acquaintances ask me when I tell them my husband and I aren’t planning on having children. It makes me cringe every time. You shouldn’t be having children purely for what they can do for you. That kind of thinking generates the kind of situation I grew up in.

You should take care of your child, not the other way around. I spent most of my life caring for others, so can I be blamed for not wanting to dedicate the rest of my life to caring for children?

I’m still learning to accept the fact that I can be valued without having to be constantly “useful.” I’m still learning that I don’t have to apologize for expressing my needs. My needs are as valid as anyone else’s and sometimes, I can let others take care of me.