Caring is not just a family responsibility

By Virginia Moffatt
March 1, 2019

I have always admired Giles Fraser, even when I have disagreed with him. But I read his recent article  for Unherd with a growing sense of disbelief. Responding to the Evening Standard’s concern that social care services will not have enough workers post Brexit, he argues that Remainers have put the role of the state above the role of the family. He suggests that it is the responsibility of the family to care for relatives and that social mobility and freedom of movement have prevented this from happening. He proposes that rather than relying on the state we should rely on our families instead and that Brexit, particularly, No Deal Brexit, would bring this on. 

Like Fraser, I am a Christian who believes in family. I agree family should do their part in caring for a relative who needs support through disability, mental health or age. Yet, I found his arguments pernicious, for several reasons.

First, he completely ignores the fact that caring is hard work. I have been both a paid carer (looking after people with learning disabilities and elderly people) and an informal carer (for my dying mother) I can categorically state that while it is rewarding to care, both the paid and unpaid roles left me physically drained and exhausted. However, it was far easier to care for people I was not related to than for the mother I adored and couldn’t bear see deteriorate. Furthermore, I know that I was lucky because I shared the caring role with seven siblings, one of whom lived with our mother, and we only had to do it for three months.

It is far more common for people to care for their relatives for many years and for the burden to fall on one member of the family. Most caring experiences are more gruelling then mine. Moreover,  the cost to personal wellbeing can be immense. A 2012 survey for Carers UK found that 83 per cent of UK carers reported caring impacted on their physical health, 87 per cent had reported impacts on mental health, 61 per cent had put off their own treatment while caring, with many citing cuts and lack of support as being part of the problem.   

A second problem with Giles Fraser’s argument is that it assumes that all families are benevolent. Yet we know that this is not the case. Research by NICE in 2007 showed that the 35 per cent of people needing care had been abused by their partner, 33 per cent by other family members, with 64 per cent of abuse happening in the family home. Furthermore, many families are abusive to children growing up or reject their offspring because they are LGBT+. Why on earth should children harmed in this way have any obligation to care for their parents in old age?

Finally, Fraser argues that social mobility is to blame for this, that young people are encouraged to get better jobs away from home and ‘Undo the ties that bind you.’ This is an extermely simplistic view. People have always had to move away from family for reasons other than a selfish desire to better themselves. My grandmother lived in Liverpool till she was widowed during the Depression. With three school age children, it was the need to find work that forced her to move 200 miles away from her family. These days, the housing  crisis means the reverse happens, with London councils commonly placing people outside the city and away from their family networks.

My own family has scattered over the years, due to work and marriage. Yet it was my parents’ choice to retire to a market county four hours drive from London that separated us in the first place. And while that decision made caring for my mother hard, it also meant we had 26 years of wonderful family gatherings in the countryside that would have been impossible to achieve in London. Families can stay close and strong even when separated by distance.

While there is nothing wrong in pointing out that families can and should have a role in caring, I am astonished that a priest of Giles Fraser’s experience should be so dismissive of carers’ experiences. Implying that that someone ringing the GP for help is selfish, and failing to acknowledge how difficult caring is, is deeply unhelpful. I find it hard to believe that he has never ministered to carers who are struggling to cope, or to parishioners who have struggled with abusive parents. His article would have been more balanced if he had referenced this.

So I am not surprised that many people on social media have responded negatively to the piece over the past ten days. While Fraser is right to point out that some have misread his argument as being anti-women (he does say that caring should be the responsibility of the whole family), he still fails to understand why people are so concerned. Instead of recognising that in putting forward an argument about the importance of family he has failed to reflect why carers need state services, he has referred to those of us who disagree as a ‘gleeful mob’ and retweeted an article  from Spiked suggesting that the response is from ‘thin skinned’ Remainers.

Giles Fraser is usually a thoughtful commentator, and some will feel his position on Brexit has merit. But by being so fixated on creating a counter-argument to Remain, he has inadvertently shown a deep disregard for the lived experience of the people he purports to admire – family members in caring roles. I trust when the furore has died down, he will look beyond the need to win a tiresome Brexit debate and recognise that the complex nature of caring means that it should not necessarily be the responsibility of the family alone.

* The Carers UK survey can be downloaded here

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© Virginia Moffat is a writer, commentator, campaigner for justice and peace causes, and former Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.