The big favor was to care for Catherine’s son (Amy’s brother) – who has deepening, unidentified memory loss. Catherine desperately needed a respite and asked for three days off to visit an out of town friend.
“It’s true, Amy will be inconvenienced,” Catherine said, “and I’m really grateful to be able to take a little break. But calling it a ‘favor’ doesn’t seem right. I’m not sure why.”
Catherine confessed that her initial thought was: A favor? He’s your brother, for Heaven’s sake! Do I have to bear all the responsibility? Don’t you care about him – or me? She’s glad she held her tongue. But here’s why it rankled:
A favor is something we do voluntarily that goes beyond expectation:
- I buy a dozen donuts at the bakery and the owner gives me two extra.
- I surprise someone with a gift.
- A stranger gives me a seat on a crowded bus.
- Or I give away some of my sick leave to a colleague who needs it; these are favors.
Sometimes people give a favor, but expect a favor in return. This may be in the form of networking or “paying it forward.” Subtle scorekeeping may be involved. We might call that “a semi-favor.”
But within a healthy family it’s different. Why?
Unspoken expectations are built into a family tradition or one’s particular culture. Robert Frost said something like, “Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Why do we respond to each other’s needs? Is it a sense of responsibility, or duty, or compassion, or love? Or all of the above? And what does it mean to say “no”? Believing that a brother or sister or child or parent will say “yes” is the glue that holds a family together.
It’s complicated. But to call family care “a favor” minimizes its importance.
It’s often said that families are the foundation of the social order. The expectation that family members will care for each other serves the deepest needs of society. We are offended when we hear or read of child abuse or neglect, and it’s universally illegal. Parents aren’t doing their kids a favor to take care of them. While it’s not the case in most of the United States, many societies also require adult children to support their parents. Though it may not be illegal, neglect or abandonment of one’s parents is strongly frowned upon.
As nuclear families are shrinking, and geographical dispersion is increasing, institutional solutions may be required to supplement a family’s efforts to care for an elderly or sick member. But to whatever extent a family can continue to care for its own, sharing the burden among the members, something precious is retained. If the burden falls on one person’s shoulders (the spouse, the oldest child, the single daughter), it can become unbearable. And unjust.
Catherine knows that Amy didn’t mean to hurt her, that she loves her and is happy to spend some time with her brother. But Amy didn’t realize how valuable, how irreplaceable her “favor” is. Her personal caregiving is meaningful, not only to her mom and brother, but also in the example she’s setting for her own children.
And it’s absolute necessary for the health of the social order, the human family writ large.
Beyond Dispute Associates
© Carolyn Parr and Beyond Dispute Associates, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carolyn Parr and Beyond Dispute Associates with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.