Commentary: Utah men can do exceptional unpaid care work, too

About six weeks ago, my father passed away peacefully at his home in American Fork, having survived nearly a decade with cancer. He was an amazing man who taught me to love learning, growth and service.

Fortunately, he and my mother were able to care for themselves until the last three months of his life, and then, suddenly, from one day to the next, my dad needed elder care beyond what my mother could offer. Although my parents were well prepared for this decline, I’ve recently learned that no one is ever fully prepared for what needs to happen with end-of-life care.

I was raised with six brothers (one older and five younger) and no sisters. All my brothers have full-time careers, as do I, and each of us stays extremely busy with careers, family, religious and community leadership and other types of service. My brothers all have stay-at-home wives, many of whom also work part-time. Yet numerous individuals through the years told me that I would have to do the heavy lifting with elder care for my parents, as “Men just don’t do that, particularly here in Utah.”

So, is that true?

In 2017, Robbyn Scribner and I published a research snapshot titled “Unpaid Care Work Among Utah Women” that lays out the data. To clarify, unpaid care work includes child care, elder care, housework, yardwork and other tasks that are vitally important. As expected, the gap between women’s and men’s unpaid work in Utah is wider than in the United States as a whole. So the answer is “yes.” Utah women do substantially more unpaid care work, including elder care, than do men. But I’ve learned that men can do it masterfully, too!

I was impressed with my brothers during this difficult time. Each of them stepped forward and did as much as or more than I. They willingly took on responsibilities to work with health care professionals, organize finances, take my parents to doctor appointments, build wheelchair ramps, purchase special equipment, move and clean my father, do repairs and yard work, clean the house, visit and more.

My sisters-in-law (and many grandchildren) pitched in, too, but my brothers and I took the lead. One of the biggest takeaways from this experience is that men can be wonderful caregivers. And, just like women, they can make time in their busy schedules, which helps keep families strong by ensuring that women do not find themselves overburdened.

Now, I know if I had six sisters, this would not be a story; unpaid care work for us is just expected. So I would like to thank all Utah women who have done this for years with little to no recognition. Yet I saw a glimpse of a caring force of men move in powerful ways. This gives me hope, and I encourage all families in Utah to rethink unpaid care work so the positive impact of women in communities and the state can be strengthened.

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury professor of leadership and ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University. She is also the founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.