Care Has Limits: Women's Moral Lives and Revised Meanings of Care Work

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Klostermann, Janna Lyn




What exactly keeps women 'in' inequitable care relationships, and how do we get 'out'? This dissertation offers a timely response to a pressing societal problem - that of how to understand and organize care. Feminist scholarship and debates focus on the redistribution of care, considering how to shift care responsibilities from women to men or from individuals to the state. My research expands this work by critically reflecting on (shifting) relationships between women and the care economy with a focus on the moral dimensions of care work and on the narrative, intrasubjective work that women do. The research mobilizes sociological theories of care work, gender and moral worth, and uses feminist life history and arts-based, auto-ethnographic methods to contribute to a conceptual reimagining of "care." Taking an interpretive, narrative, feminist approach, I draw on 20 in-depth life history interviews with 12 participants, as well as on my own autoethnographic experiences as a live-in care worker at L'Arche. I analyze how women narrate renegotiating care responsibilities or expectations across our lives and in different paid and unpaid care contexts in Ontario, Canada. Making links to class, gender and conditions in the caring economy, the project contextualizes women's narratives of orienting to projects of care, negotiating moral dilemmas at the limits of care, and stepping back from or renegotiating care responsibilities. The study enriches feminist theories of care by developing a theorized account of the "relational care economy" that makes intrasubjective conditions, and the contradictions that people negotiate, central. I also contribute to a conceptual reimagining of "care" both by raising questions about whether "care as an ethic" should apply at the level of individual women's lives, as well as by calling for a conception of care that makes limits central. Aiming to foster solidarity amongst carers in different roles, I ask tough questions about what we expect of ourselves and others, how we can stop setting women up for such intimate losses, and how our lives can be otherwise.  


Sociology - Theory and Methods
Women's Studies
Individual and Family Studies




Carleton University

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