Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women's Lives

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This work examines the experience of women providing care to children, disabled persons, the chronically ill, and the frail elderly. It differs from most writing about caregiving because it focuses on the providers rather than the care recipients. It looks at the experience of women caregivers in specific settings, exploring what caregiving actually entails and what it means in their lives
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About the author

Emily K. Abel is Acting Associate Professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Margaret K. Nelson is in the Department of Sociology at Middlebury College.

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Additional Information

Publisher
SUNY Press
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Pages
326
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ISBN
9780791494110
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Language
English
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Genres
Social Science / Women's Studies
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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They go by many names: helicopter parents, hovercrafts, PFHs (Parents from Hell). The news media is filled with stories of well-intentioned parents going to ridiculous extremes to remove all obstacles from their child’s path to greatness . . . or at least to an ivy league school. From cradle to college, they remain intimately enmeshed in their children’s lives, stifling their development and creating infantilized, spoiled, immature adults unprepared to make the decisions necessary for the real world. Or so the story goes.

Drawing on a wealth of eye-opening interviews with parents across the country, Margaret K. Nelson cuts through the stereotypes and hyperbole to examine the realities of what she terms “parenting out of control.” Situating this phenomenon within a broad sociological context, she finds several striking explanations for why today’s prosperous and well-educated parents are unable to set realistic boundaries when it comes to raising their children. Analyzing the goals and aspirations parents have for their children as well as the strategies they use to reach them, Nelson discovers fundamental differences among American parenting styles that expose class fault lines, both within the elite and between the elite and the middle and working classes.

Nelson goes on to explore the new ways technology shapes modern parenting. From baby monitors to cell phones (often referred to as the world’s longest umbilical cord), to social networking sites, and even GPS devices, parents have more tools at their disposal than ever before to communicate with, supervise, and even spy on their children. These play important and often surprising roles in the phenomenon of parenting out of control. Yet the technologies parents choose, and those they refuse to use, often seem counterintuitive. Nelson shows that these choices make sense when viewed in the light of class expectations.

Today’s parents are faced with unprecedented opportunities and dangers for their children, and are evolving novel strategies to adapt to these changes. Nelson’s lucid and insightful work provides an authoritative examination of what happens when these new strategies go too far.

At the turn of the twentieth century, medicine’s imperative to cure disease increasingly took priority over the demand to relieve pain and suffering at the end of life. Filled with heartbreaking stories, The Inevitable Hour demonstrates that professional attention and resources gradually were diverted from dying patients.

Emily K. Abel challenges three myths about health care and dying in America. First, that medicine has always sought authority over death and dying; second, that medicine superseded the role of families and spirituality at the end of life; and finally, that only with the advent of the high-tech hospital did an institutional death become dehumanized. Abel shows that hospitals resisted accepting dying patients and often worked hard to move them elsewhere. Poor, terminally ill patients, for example, were shipped from Bellevue Hospital in open boats across the East River to Blackwell’s Island, where they died in hovels, mostly without medical care. Some terminal patients were not forced to leave, yet long before the advent of feeding tubes and respirators, dying in a hospital was a profoundly dehumanizing experience.

With technological advances, passage of the Social Security Act, and enactment of Medicare and Medicaid, almshouses slowly disappeared and conditions for dying patients improved—though, as Abel argues, the prejudices and approaches of the past are still with us. The problems that plagued nineteenth-century almshouses can be found in many nursing homes today, where residents often receive substandard treatment. A frank portrayal of the medical care of dying people past and present, The Inevitable Hour helps to explain why a movement to restore dignity to the dying arose in the early 1970s and why its goals have been so difficult to achieve.

-- Andrea Sankar, author of Dying at Home and editor of Medical Anthropology Quarterly
The image of the female caregiver holding a midnight vigil at the bedside of a sick relative is so firmly rooted in our collective imagination we might assume that such caregiving would have attracted the scrutiny of numerous historians. As Emily Abel demonstrates in this groundbreaking study of caregiving in America across class and ethnic divides and over the course of ninety years, this has hardly been the case.

While caring for sick and disabled family members was commonplace for women in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, that caregiving, the caregivers' experience of it, and the medical profession's reaction to it took diverse and sometimes unexpected forms. A complex series of historical changes, Abel shows, has profoundly altered the content and cultural meaning of care. Hearts of Wisdom is an immersion into that "world of care." Drawing on antebellum slave narratives, white farm women's diaries, and public health records, Abel puts together a multifaceted picture of what caregiving meant to American women--and what it cost them--from the pre-Civil War years to the brink of America's entry into the Second World War. She shows that caregiving offered women an arena in which experience could be parlayed into expertise, while at the same time the revolution in bacteriology and the transformation of the formal health care system were weakening women's claim to that expertise.

Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments
Introduction

Part One: 1850-1890
1. "Hot Flannels, Hot Teas, and a Great Deal of Care": Emily Hawley Gillespie and Sarah Gillespie, 1858-1888
2. An Overview of Nineteenth-Century Caregiving
3. "Tried at the Quilting Bees": Con'icts between "Old Ladies" and Aspiring Professionals

Part Two: 1890-1940
4. A "Terrible and Exhausting" Struggle: Martha Shaw Farnsworth, 1890-1924
5. "Just as You Direct": Caregiver Translations of Medical Authority
6. Negotiating Public Health Directives: Poor New Yorkers at the Turn of the Century



Reviews of this book:
This excellent historical review of female caregiving within families as a transformative experience identifies conditions that make this form of human connectedness rewarding and meaningful.
--J.E. Thompson, Choice

This is a breathtaking work in terms of its depth and its breadth. Emily Abel's research is impressive in its time frame, wide range of topics, and wonderful source material. What she has given us, for the first time, is a full-length study of the female support network, not only for childbirth but for a whole range of health issues. With her pleasing writing style and clear, readable prose, she gives us much more than mere glimpses of anonymous people--she provides the reader with a sense of the texture of human lives.
--Susan L. Smith, University of Alberta

The reader of Hearts of Wisdom is surprised by the topic and content, but is left with the sense that the most central story of human possibility has been left out of all other history books. The work offers a substantive contribution to history, feminist scholarship, caregiving professions, and informal caregivers.
--Patricia Benner, R.N., Ph.D, University of California, San Francisco

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