Kinship and Care in Polluted Cities: The Multiple Burdens of Caring for Ourselves and Our Urban Environment

Multi-layered collage: Women working in a state-run greenhouse in an agricultural cooperative in ‘socialist’ Romania in the 1970s; apartment block in contemporary Ferentari, a Roma-inhabited slum in Bucharest, Romania; nurse in the garbage-filled yard in front of the apartment block and a hospital bed arranged as a diving ramp; adventure climber suspended from a building. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Living in particularly polluted urban spaces multiplies the burden of caring for human and nonhuman life. This burden particularly affects marginalized, racialized, and impoverished communities who struggle to keep their loved ones alive from one day to the next while caring for their environment and other species. In the face of growing socio-environmental inequalities, it is high time to politicize the idea and practice of the caring city, Ioana Florea and Roxana Oprea argue in their contribution to the “Kin City” series.

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We would like to initiate a discussion about the role of care and care work in the profound spatial transformations of cities and the socio-ecological and economic changes of late capitalism. From our personal experiences, as well as from our experiences as Roma feminist activists and housing rights activists in Romania, we think that care is an essential resource, an infrastructure of life that capitalism is absorbing and that we need to reclaim. What will this reclaiming look like in a time of polluted living environments and polluted livelihoods, how will it extend to non-human species? We don’t know, so we’re not making any judgments or definitive statements. We just hope that this conversation will continue and grow – among us, our readers, and gradually many more, for the benefit of all our kin.

Given that this society should be ‘our extended family’ – the kinship network that includes all of us –, what is our society’s relationship to care and care work? Who does care work? Is it different in urban and rural contexts? Perhaps we should first ask if there is an awareness of care work and if it is even recognized as work. Rather, it is often seen as a ‘natural’ attribute of gender roles and comes automatically with gendered responsibilities: care often falls on women’s shoulders. In certain rural contexts, it is also automatically associated with age roles, such as older siblings caring for younger ones, or the youngest sibling caring for aging parents. In addition, care work is not usually perceived as work, but as duty, responsibility, loyalty or love.

Care work, mostly done by women and girls, is an expression of patriarchy and deep gender inequalities. In our experience, women in many low-income households provide domestic care to their kinship network, even when they are sick, menstruating, pregnant or postpartum. They do this out of a sense of responsibility and loyalty, to meet social and family expectations, but also because they have no other choice, as their households have no other sources of care. It is often difficult for caregivers to combine paid work with domestic care. We know of cases where people have lost their paid jobs because of too much domestic care work. Or after becoming ill themselves and needing care and treatment. Employers didn’t care. However, we believe that employers are more understanding of child care than of care for the elderly or other adult relatives with health problems (physical disabilities, mental health problems, chronic or terminal illnesses).

Echoes of ‘socialist societies

So what happens when the people who do this kind of work get to the point where they need care? Care is often not available to them because no one else is providing it. We should talk more about those who do care work, we should recognize their work as work, we should give them care in return. In a way, this was the socialist ideal in our region: the institutionalization of domestic care, transformed into public services and public infrastructures, such as nurseries for children, homes for the elderly, canteens for all. Certainly, this ideal was not fully realized in ‘socialist’ societies.

On the other hand, in some cultures, institutionalized care – especially for the elderly – is strongly rejected. Perhaps this is not a cultural disposition, but a pragmatic concern about the quality of institutional services, such as palliative care or care for the dying elderly, in certain economic contexts. In addition, many care institutions exclude people with mental health problems, who are often labeled as a burden and ‘undesirable.’ Moreover, in the current privatized system, it costs a lot of money: in the case of Romania, it costs about twice the minimum income for one month in a nursing home. Taking care of children and the elderly are such basic aspects of our society. If this labor cannot be provided freely within the family – usually by mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters – the companies that provide these services make a huge profit.

Speaking of children, we tend to value those who are caregivers, but what are the healthy limits? Those who practice caregiving often don’t take pride and value in it because they don’t even have it as a choice. They don’t even have the time to stop and appreciate themselves in this position. The person who carries the burden and the responsibility, who feeds others, who cleans others, who helps constantly, is actually being taken advantage of. Unequal relationships are born out of this dynamic – these are very basic power dynamics. Without a labor contract in the domestic context, without fringe benefits. There should be payment for care work.

The triple burden

We know cases of teenagers who didn’t have adult support when they were growing up, and asking for help and care was not normalized. They had to take care of themselves from an early age. This context can lead to trauma in adult life. Even worse, we know of girls who have had to drop out of school to take care of younger siblings or precarious households. Care work is valued by those who don’t do it, who somehow verbally praise those who do: “you do it so well,” “you are so good at it,” “you show so much love,” “you are the only one who could do it.” And this can actually be a trap.

It’s been said that caregivers don’t see themselves as caregivers. Is this really true? It may be that some people care a lot for others but not for themselves, while others focus only on self-care and refuse (or don’t have to) support others. This division is reinforced and exploited by the capitalist system, which promotes self-care products, food, cosmetics, etc. A division of labor, like a double trap: too much self-care or too much care for others; and it’s very much linked to class divisions. The richer can afford to focus on self-care, can send their children and elderly to be cared for by others, can outsource care to institutions and infrastructures that are inaccessible to the less affluent. The latter have to take care of their own families while at the same time working for (poorly paid) jobs that take care of others.

So it’s not only a double trap, but also a double burden: nurses in nursing homes, centers, hospitals are working class women who perform both domestic and institutionalized care work. The same with babysitters, the same with migrant domestic workers. In fact, it’s a triple burden, because those who carry this double burden don’t have the time and resources to take care of themselves. While the rich can pamper and ‘spa’ themselves in addition to doing neither wage labor nor domestic care. How many people who work at the spa can actually afford the spa? And who pays for the environmental externalities of the rich pampering themselves?

Towards caring cities

Speaking of ‘externalities,’ how does care work relate to environmental and living conditions in the city? It is practically impossible to provide care or to receive care if there is no proper housing, overcrowding with elderly people and children in a small apartment, no conditions for disabled members of the household. In such a situation, the life expectancy and quality of life of all relatives is greatly reduced. In this context, environmental conditions play an important role in worsening or improving the quality of life and health, and strongly influence the need for care. Living in polluted areas, with limited access to clean water, heat and energy, doubles or even triples the burden of care. In precarious contexts, where people struggle to keep their close relatives alive from one day to the next, it is sometimes difficult to care for other species. On the other hand, precarized and racialized neighborhoods are where the effects of capitalist exploitation of other species are mostly ‘externalized.’

What would a more caring city look like? First of all, it would provide more space for those who do care work to talk about it. Because now people are sometimes even afraid to talk about it – lest they be judged as weak, or afraid of responsibility, or less loving of their loved ones, less loyal. We know people who are caring for elderly relatives who have both cancer and dementia. This requires 24/7 care – and this would require wage payments. We know people who work two jobs, double shifts, to pay for professional help for their loved ones. Any way you look at it, it takes a lot of work! So, ideally, it would be done by professionals, in a free public system, accessible to everyone, even to people who are completely alone. We would need health and social work systems with enough personnel who are not overburdened, well equipped and trained, with enough free time and psychotherapy. In addition, everyone would do some of this work during their lifetime, not necessarily for their families.

During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, there were platforms for volunteers to get involved in caring for the elderly, shopping for them for necessities and medicine, or walking their pets. This is a wonderful community care response that goes beyond our species. People have wonderful resources for caring; care, like wealth, can be a widely and equitably shared resource, but this is not encouraged at the macro-societal level. Why did it take something as serious as a global pandemic to motivate and mobilize community responses? Now that we have seen its potential and hope, how can we enhance it and even extend it to non-human nature? We should start by ensuring that the most invisible, vulnerable, and marginalized of our relatives benefit from this ‘community care response.’

Note from the editors: The writing up of this article was made possible by Östersjöstiftelsen, under grant number DNR 22-GP-0001.

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