When I was in preschool, I begged my mom to let me bring her brand new scissors to school. They were sleek and red, with a cozy grip. I’m told I bragged about how sharp the scissors were during snack time, prompting another classmate to dare me to “prove it” by cutting her finger. I warned her that this would hurt and likely cause her finger to bleed, but she insisted. Of course, as a lifelong supporter of individual rights and agency over one’s body, I acquiesced. She bled; I got in trouble.
In the first grade, my brother brought home the class pet for the weekend. This was quite a privilege and to make sure it all went smoothly, he told me I wasn’t allowed to touch it. I immediately complained to mom — she sided with me! I dropped it and it died the next day.
In the sixth grade, I acquired a black hamster named Rocky. I was terrified to go near him, and almost never fed him or cleaned his cage. Or was it a she? I never knew — I was too afraid to pick him/her up to check. Soon thereafter, he/she died of starvation.
As you can tell, I was a menace. My victims were diverse — little girls, small animals, my mother’s plants — and those are just the ones I remember.
But something happened to the little girl that couldn’t care for a rock if her life depended on it. It looks like there might be something about being a girl that makes her more likely than her male friends to stop being such a menace.
Years later, I’ve asked a bunch of girl and guy friends some questions: Have you ever sent a care package to a friend? Have you ever helped a friend through an emotional breakdown? Have you ever skipped an academic or extracurricular commitment to be there for a friend who needed you?
If you had to guess how the results broke down, which gender do you think overwhelmingly answered yes?
Maybe you think my questions are crap. Maybe my sample is screwed up. So try it yourself. Write questions you think indicate what it is to be a caregiver. I’m not saying my guy friends will be bad fathers because they’ve never sent a care package. But I do think it is important to notice that patterns and habits that many women practice, even at this young age, reinforce the role of caregiver. Surrounded by people at all hours of the day, they practice these skills over and over — not in a secret Women’s Club, but in real life — in clubs, musical ensembles and the like. Practice makes perfect.
When I’m 30 and married to my super hot husband, we may at some point have to talk about whether one of us will take on more household responsibilities, or sacrifice a position at work to give us more hours at home. (Let’s say for the sake of argument that by that time, we’ve taken care of all the serious systemic challenges to achieving work-life balance — quality affordable child care, paid maternity and paternity leave, equal pay for men and women, the whole shebang.) Who do you think it’s going to be? Probably the one of us who has been practicing that kind of caregiving for years.
Not that 20-year-old girls are ready for parenthood, but talking a friend through a breakdown can translate into managing your kid’s meltdown over what is (or isn’t) for dinner. This isn’t to say that young women always learn to do this and young men don’t — I know plenty of wonderfully caring young men and plenty of young female menaces. But if we’re looking for a world in which each couple can really freely decide what works best them, we’ll want to unstack the deck a little bit.
The way forward demands that we place a much higher value on kind and caring individuals, in addition to insisting on specific institutional reforms. We’ve got to start talking about and openly appreciating those who think of and care for others, so it becomes a normal and expected thing for everyone to do.
Because who doesn’t want to live in a world where everyone is a better caregiver? Those skills of empathy and support can only improve our social interactions, political processes, civil society and more. And in an ever-complicated world where children are at risk for everything under the sun, these skills are going to be vital for raising a generation of smart, kind, tolerant individuals to care for the world that we’ll leave them. We’d better get started! Practice makes perfect.
Emefa Agawu is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.