Elissa Strauss (Photo/Laura Turbow Photography)
Elissa Strauss (Photo/Laura Turbow Photography)

Oakland author celebrates the ‘Unexpected Magic of Caring for Others’

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When writer Elissa Strauss was pregnant with her son Augie in 2012, she remembers thinking: I have to protect myself from motherhood.

“I had this sense that there was a zero-sum game between being a relevant, smart writer and also someone who is enthusiastic about motherhood,” Strauss, who lives in Oakland, told J. earlier this month. “What I discovered was that it was more philosophically and psychologically and spiritually profound than everything else I had ever done.”

In “When You Care: The Unexpected Magic of Caring for Others,” published in April, Strauss reveals the individual and collective benefits of caregiving, which she argues has been unfairly maligned in Western culture — partly because it has long been considered women’s work.

“When the primary word we associate with care is ‘burden,’ we demean the experience,” she writes. “Care is not a fairy tale, as it used to be presented when idealized and sentimentalized by a world that didn’t allow women their own desires or emotional complexity. But neither is care a horror story, one in which caregivers will inevitably lose themselves to a dark oppressive force, which is how many books and movies often present it today.”

Strauss, 44, has been publishing essays about motherhood for over a decade in Slate, CNN and other news outlets. In her book, she argues that caring for others makes the world better in numerous ways.

For example, she said, caring for children means shaping good future citizens. And caring for people who are elderly, have disabilities or are sick affords them the dignity they deserve. 

“We all have the sense that we value dignity, that it’s a fundamental human right,” she said. “Care is the brick through which the cathedral of dignity is built.”

Care is the brick through which the cathedral of dignity is built.

Meanwhile, caregivers also derive certain rewards (if not remuneration) for their labor. Strauss cites research showing a connection between caregiving and living a longer, healthier life.

Throughout the book, Strauss shares the experiences of caregivers she interviewed, as well as her own experiences as the mother of two sons.

The chapter titled “A New Man” is all about fathers and male caregivers, who represent 40% of all caregivers, according to a 2015 study from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. 

“It’s an outlet to explore parts of yourself that traditional masculinity just doesn’t permit,” she said.

In addition to writing, Strauss is the artistic director of the Jewish culture organization LABA Bay. (She also guest curated the California Jewish Open exhibit, now on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.) In “When You Care,” she explores the attitudes toward care in different religious traditions, including Judaism.

She writes that there are many “care-related mandates” in the Torah, including to honor one’s father and mother and to teach the commandments to one’s children. She also highlights the Biblical story of Ruth, who after the death of her husband remains with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to look after her.

Strauss told J. she thinks her synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, offers a contemporary model of care for an entire community.

“There’s a real sense that not only children and other people who need care are welcome there, but also the parents and caregivers,” she said. “There’s child care and free lunch every Saturday. There’s joy. It’s all part of what the care reformation could look like.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.