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By Bonnie Friedman

I set the phone on the table and walked away across the living room, putting distance between myself and my cherished older brother on the other end. I physically could not speak to him. This was the first major disagreement of our lives—although we were midway through them. Eventually my husband lifted the receiver, spoke briefly, and hung up. I worried I might never talk to my brother again. We had reached a breaking point.

It’s one that I suspect lurks somewhere within other adult brother-sister relationships, and of course not only in Jewish families, concerning whose labor has value, and who should carry the bulk of caregiving responsibilities for the generation above us.

You might have been witness to (or participated in) wrangling over how child-related caretaking is divided between the parents. Often, in hetero unions, the jobs sort along gender lines, and advice gurus, family therapists and your closest friends weigh in on the dynamics. But another source of resentments and recalibration is less discussed: the gender inequity between brothers and sisters when an elderly parent needs care.

More than one in five Americans are family caregivers, for a total of 53 million people, disproportionately female. “Family caregivers are mostly women,” says Bobbie Sackman, of the Fair Pay for Home Care campaign, NY Caring Majority, and Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ). Even when women have demanding careers, the daily care for aging parents often—invisibly—falls to them. And when this happens, the consequences are far-reaching.

In my own case, the crisis was precipitated when my brother decided to be paid for being the executor of our uncle’s will, and retained eight thousand dollars to that effect. He explained, when I questioned him, that the law provided for executors to be compensated for their work. He obviously felt, right down to his bones, that his time was valuable.

I replied that mine was too, and that it was anti-feminist to assume that my labor should be unpaid and his be recompensed. For decades I’d cared for our sister who had MS, our uncle with mesothelioma, and our elderly parents (most alarmingly, when they had bedbugs) while he, living at a buffering distance in a suburb 250 miles from our parents in the Bronx, did not.

He’d missed very few if any days of work to care for these relatives, whereas in recent years I’d risked losing my Texas professorship (I lived thousands of miles from the Bronx and was trying to earn tenure) to do so. The money therefore carried a keen symbolism.

When I explained this to my brother, I could sense my words billowing around him like zephyrs, not sticking. He gave a self-conscious laugh, signifying that there was something almost charmingly comical (and not) in my response. We had reached a standoff in logic. It kept coming down to this conviction: His. Time. Was. Valuable. Our other brother agreed with him.

Yet, to his credit, the brother I’d been arguing with ultimately put our relationship first. He sent a check; I was gratefully able to start speaking with him again. And, to his further credit, my brother began a touching metamorphosis. I did, too.

IN NEW YORK STATE alone 2.5 million caregivers provide $31 billion worth of care. “I actually think that the issues play out the same way in the Jewish community and in the American community in general,” Sackman says. “It’s cross-cultural. Women are expected to do it. And they expect themselves to do it… It’s very deeply embedded.” Sackman wryly notes the adage: The best long-term care insurance is having a daughter or a daughter-in-law.

Dr. Maggie Ornstein, who teaches about family caregiving at Sarah Lawrence, notes that 40% percent of [unpaid family] caregivers are indeed men, but the work is not equally demanding. Women do “more intimate tasks, bathing, toileting, feeding, the kinds of things that historically women have done in families.” Men’s work is “not at the level of the body.” This of course impacts women’s employment: “You can’t give mom a shower while you’re in another job. But you can call an insurance company or pay a bill when you’re in another job.” In my family, one of my brothers ultimately took on financial oversight and bill-paying and the other, a doctor, oversaw medical decisions. I handled the day-to-day. “I’ve known many men over my decades of doing this work who are showering their mothers,” Ornstein adds. “But when there’s a sister available…”

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