Who cares for the caregivers?

There are stories that keep me up at night, that I get obsessed with and scheme away until I find a way to go out there and report on them.

One theme that has been very much on my mind is what happens when those caring for the youngest children have no support network. The proverbial village is not around for many families anymore, and parents’ mental health and wellbeing is hugely affected by the burden of care.

So, who takes care of the caregivers?

I know there are different initiatives worldwide that address this issue, and there are also small-scale solutions. For example, a friend in London babysits on a regular basis for other friends with children, so the parents can take turns at having a night out without paying for unaffordable babysitters.

Almost two years ago, I came across this innovative public policy: the city of Bogotá, in Colombia, developed “manzanas del cuidado,” or Care Blocks, which give caregivers, who are mainly mothers, the possibility to exercise, study, or do therapy while their children are taken care of and someone else does the laundry. The project launched during the pandemic and it has served over 400,000 women and their families in 20 locations so far.

Last year I got a chance to travel to Colombia to attend a journalism conference, and I set everything up in order to be able to report on the story. But I had not counted on what it would mean to be travelling there solo, for work, with León, who was five months old. Imagine the 14-hour flight and the stress of having to hand him over to someone I did not know while moderating a panel. So the idea of going off for hours to spend time with families and observe the work with León on me was so tiring that I ended up cancelling my site visit. My instinct was right: I needed to look after myself. But the story haunted me.

Shortly after, I got an email from the editors at Early Childhood Matters, a leading magazine on early childhood, financed by the Van Leer Foundation: they wanted me to interview Diana Rodríguez Franco, then Secretary for Women’s Affairs in the City Government of Bogotá, the person that made the project a reality.

It did not make up for my failed attempt at seeing the programme on the ground, but it was a great way to keep my eyes on the story.

This week I want to share that interview, shortened and edited, with you.

Irene Caselli (IC): How does caregiving affect the wellbeing and opportunities of women in Bogotá?

Diana Rodríguez Franco (DRC): In Bogotá, 1.2 million women are dedicated exclusively to unpaid care work — they spend, on average, around seven to eight hours a day caring for someone else. Of those women, 90% are low-income earners and 70% have not studied beyond primary school — if they have studied at all. Girls commonly drop out of school because of caregiving expectations. We know that this overload of care generates mental and physical health problems. Two out of ten women caregivers have chronic mental and physical health conditions that arise from their unpaid work and having no free time for themselves.

IC: How do the Care Blocks address this problem?

DRC: The Care Blocks address the issue of time poverty for caregivers — for the mother, the grandmother, the aunt, the cousin. We offer these women training, respite and income generating services, which are the three main things that they have sacrificed because of the care overload.

At the Care Blocks they can finish high school in a flexible way regardless of age. Or they can learn to use computers and digital skills, they can learn another language, they can learn to ride a bicycle or to swim. They can learn about entrepreneurship and develop business skills or attend workshops to improve their resumés. They can get psychosocial or legal support when needed. There are free public laundromats, washing machines and dryers, so the women do not have to spend several hours a day handwashing their children’s or their relatives’ clothes.

But the essence of the Care Blocks is to ensure that women can attend by taking care of those they usually care for — that is, children under 13 years of age, elderly people, and those with disabilities.

IC: Why is the work of the Care Blocks so important?

DRC: When we raise the educational level of women and give them more free time, allowing them for example to have more medical check-ups, we know they will have better physical and mental health, and greater social capital. This has a direct impact on children. We know that children who grow up in homes where caregivers have more education and more free time are less likely to be victims of violence. In these safer environments, there is a greater probability that they will break the cycles of violence and poverty. In order to have healthy children, children in the educational system, children who are less likely to be victims of intra-family and sexual violence, we need healthier caregivers with more free time and more training.

IC: Over 400,000 families have attended the Care Blocks. Quantitative studies on their impact are underway, but anecdotally the response you receive on a regular basis is enthusiastic. Could you share some stories that have touched you most?

DRC: When I visit the Blocks, I ask the women what impact the project is having on them. I have many vivid memories of their answers. Once a woman told me: “Secretary, I used to walk with a cane and after coming to yoga and dance classes I no longer need a cane.” For me, this is a very simple thing: it is an issue of dignity that we addressed.

Another woman I met cares for two adolescent children with disabilities. She told me that nobody had ever helped her take care of her children. She said that she had thought of suicide. “I did not see any alternative anymore,” she said. She told me: “Since I discovered the Care Blocks, now I come twice a week to exercise, do yoga or dance, and sometimes to use other services. It is the first time that someone helps me to take care of my children.”

You can read the full interview here. And check out the 2023 edition of the journal, which focuses on parental mental health, and was guest edited by the phenomenal Tanmoy Goswami.

Rodríguez Franco had been collaborating closely with Claudia López Hernández, the first woman to be elected mayor of Bogotá. They left their position in December 2023 after Carlos Fernando Galán was elected mayor. But the programme was designed to continue regardless of the administration, as it was included in the Land Use Plan (Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial) in March 2023.

I am still scheming away to see when I can get to Bogotá again. But in the meantime, other journalists have been covering the story, including NPR’s Rhitu Chatterjee and Peter Yeung for CNN.

What I’ve been reading

I fell in love with the writing of Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami soon after her novel Breasts and Eggs was published in English. She inspired me to think about how biased we are when we think about who should (and shouldn’t) have children. She also inspired me to write a longer piece exploring how difficult it is for women to be pregnant and free in Japan. The good news is that Kawakami wrote a short and sharp essay for The Economist about the role men (and fathers specifically) play in changing society: “We need to show wives and mothers enjoying themselves and pursuing their own pleasures. (…) And we need to teach our sons that men, too, can make porridge for someone who needs help. We need to make it normal for men, too, to take care of themselves and help one another,” she writes.

What I’ve been listening to

This episode of This American Life podcast is wonderful. It is called The Question Trap, and it goes into unpacking how certain innocuous question have a life of their own. One of those questions is “How old are your kids?” But what happens if one of your children is no longer alive, and someone asks that question? One part of the podcast looks at this with tenderness and wit, and presents an incredible story that will stay with you for a while. But do listen to the full show, because there is a lot in there about mother-daughter relationships, gay couples, and children in school.

What I’ve been watching

I am the mother of two very energetic children. Children who rarely sit down to eat or do quiet activities. I often hear this is because they are boys. And that may be so. I do know boys who sit down and play calm games. So I guess it is my luck. And it is a topic I would love to write more about in future. Nevertheless, this short sketch by U.S. stand-up comedian Tom Segura made me laugh. “And where are my boys? Are they in the house? Are they on the house?” Thanks Marius, one of the members of The First 1,000 Days community, for sharing.

What’s been inspiring me

The French Olympic Committee has announced it will provide hotel rooms for its breastfeeding athletes during the Paris Olympics this summer. Traditionally children are not allowed to enter the athletes’ village where participants and coaches stay during the Games, but French athletes will be offered rooms at a nearby hotel where they can sleep with their infants or have their partners look after them. This comes after years of campaigning by several athletes, including French judo star Clarisse Agbegneno, who have been demanding that sporting governing bodies take new mothers more seriously. This is a small improvement, as it will only affect French athletes, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

With love and care, 

📸 Julian Paolo Dayag on Unsplash, kid-toy watching the sun.

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