It’s time to require a course in caregiving


Before embarking on her entrepreneurial ventures, Claire Hurley '82 received her M.B.A. from Wharton in '86 and worked as a merchant banker in London.  She is the daughter of military historian Alfred Hurley *61 and the sister of Al ’76 and John ’86.

Alexander Hall has a medieval air. Perhaps that’s why, in late February when I attended President Shirley Tilghman’s public conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, a professor and former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, I was reminded of a speech I heard by history professor William Jordan a few years ago. He talked about how peasants during the Middle Ages used approximation to plant their fields – employing trial and error and close observation, without a scientific body of knowledge.

The event seemingly had nothing to do with the Middle Ages. The two women discussed how, despite the tremendous efforts of more than a generation of women, women still are underrepresented in top government and private-sector career positions. Until our society addresses its parenting and caregiving issues, Tilghman and Slaughter agreed, women are unlikely to gain full parity.   Tilghman recommended to the 500-plus members of the audience — mainly alumnae and female undergraduates, with a smattering of men — “train yourself to be guilt-free,” while pursuing your career and raising children at the same time.  

Meanwhile, senior Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is promoting her book Lean In, which recommends that women change their behavior by “leaning in” and pushing harder at work and finding supportive partners, while Princeton alumna Susan Patton ’77 is suggesting that Princeton women “find a husband on campus before you graduate” to hedge their future prospects.

I have been following this issue for the last few years, especially as it pertains to me and my Princeton cohort. I believe that requiring all Princeton students to be familiar with the essentials of caregiving would help provide them with a better set of tools to make their decisions if parenting becomes a reality and in their other future roles. Caregiving is too complex and important to relegate to approximation and, with training, can even be a creative-optimization problem. My idea is based on what I have learned from surveying Princetonians on how they have used their time and energy over the years and finding great resources to help my husband and me raise our three children. I first surveyed my 1982 classmates anonymously six years ago; more than a third responded to the survey.

The survey asked various open-answer questions, including why highly educated women and men do not occupy in equal proportion the top positions in corporate America despite 35 years of equal access to elite educational institutions. Most classmates acknowledged that the parity issue, largely driven by the fact that we have children and women bear them, turned out to be challenging in our roles as parents, spouses, friends, employers, employees, and even citizens.

A full 85 percent of the respondents reported having children. Most agreed that the workplace could use talent more optimally and be more supportive of parents, who are, after all, developing society’s next batch of human capital. They also indicated an awareness that community-building contributions of parents, often volunteered or secured for low pay, have great importance and impact, even though they do not garner the same kinds of tangible rewards and recognition.

This was highlighted when classmates were asked to rank the activities that brought them the most meaning and satisfaction. The results were astounding: Both the males and females who were parents ranked raising their children as either their first or second most significant use of time and energy, and overwhelmingly ranked the time spent with their children as the activity for which they had “immense” passion and in which they had achieved the most.

Yet the twin issues of parenting and caregiving have not gained any traction at Princeton since we were there in the early 1980s. Searching the University’s 2012-13 course catalog for the words “parent” or “caregiving” receives no hits.

Two facts strike me. First, Princetonians spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on an education to prepare themselves for a fulfilling adult life. However, we don’t spend a dime on formal training for the one thing that involves so much of our time and energy — and produces such meaning in our lives.

Second, why aren’t men and women examining the issue of caregiving at the undergraduate level, before starting their life journeys? Starting the conversation then would give credence to those alums who became primary caregivers, encourage them to contribute their experience and ideas to the conversation, and even – given Princeton’s focus otherwise – the opportunity to reconnect to the university to which 94 percent of my classmates credit their success at least “some” of the time.

I write this as someone who spent 15 years in a business career, starting out as a computer programmer at Princeton and culminating in writing and presenting a Harvard Business School case study on the Polish television company that I helped my Princeton roommate’s husband start. I have spent the subsequent 16 years having and parenting three children and doing ancillary things such as volunteering and running a tutoring business. While the promise of an empty nest dangles before me, I do not see my caregiving activities ending when my kids leave home.  

For our 30th reunion this year, the 1982 class survey asked if we were helping our parents; 58 percent of the respondents reported that that they are taking hands-on and/or financial care of at least one parent, while 28 percent of classmates without a living parent reported taking care of at least one of their in-law parents.

My classmate Rajiv Mehta, a consultant and entrepreneur focused on technologies for personal and family health, estimates in a blog post that “every day over 44 million adults serve as unpaid caregivers to ailing or disabled relatives or friends, and annually 65 million do so.” Yet, Mehta continues, this form of work often goes uncompensated and is largely invisible. Unsurprisingly, inadequate awareness of the issues leads to inadequate policies and solutions.” One reason caregiving remains invisible: Both c aregivers and care recipients span all demographic groups, Mehta points out, but they are primarily women (66 percent) and ages 35-64 (64 percent). Neither Tilghman nor Slaughter focused on such realities. 

Tilghman remarked at the event that parents should not be treated “as second-class citizens.” Confirming that parenting, or more importantly caregiving, is a serious subject, as deserving as others – and worth learning about as students enter adulthood – would be a great step in this direction. A full 40 percent of my classmates believed in 2007 that requiring a course on work life/balance issues would have helped them prepare for the future. Panels at Reunions on caregiving also could be offered.

Every student should be required to take a theoretical caregiving course, one that emphasizes how to cultivate long-term health and productivity as well as a happy family. Acknowledging caregiving’s importance and having a base of good information about it surely would help men to share the job wholeheartedly.

Parenthood connects us to all of humanity in a unique way; it gives us special opportunities to cultivate another human’s potential and participate in the next generation’s community development. It takes great courage. Ambitious, intelligent people of both sexes should be educated to figure out its more certain answers. Let’s take caregiving out of the realm of intuition-only and make it something so valued that it is studied at Princeton, a prominent leader in undergraduate education.