It seems oddly fitting that the words “caregiving” and “caretaking” mean precisely the same thing. Perhaps that linguistic oddity reflects the salient characteristic of care itself: a tension between our desire to receive it and our countervailing feeling of obligation to provide it. Human relations, generally, can be summarized as an on-going battle between those who provide care and those on the receiving end.
As a human child, you started out your life as the ultimate care-collection machine. Children are designed to make you want to provide them with care – and you’re designed, as an adult, to feel a profound impulse to provide children with care, especially your own children. It’s no coincidence that anything you identify as “cute” – i.e., feel an impulse to care for – will have child-like features, such as large eyes in proportion to its face and a large head in proportion to its body. These are all evolutionary triggers designed to make us feel like providing care.
The human instinct to care for youngsters transfers over to other young animals as well, and explains, at least in part, your relationship with “man’s best friend.” Everyone loves puppies – baby dogs. But with canines, the phenomenon extends further than that. Adult dogs retain many juvenile features – a phenomenon called “neoteny” – because by continuing to appear puppy-like up to and through adulthood, they can convince humans to keep wanting to offer them care. Dogs literally evolved to look young and cute just so you would care for them – and it’s worked! Unlike most species, the dog’s trick to evolutionary success wasn’t to display aggression, like a wolf. As evidenced by the wolf’s current struggle to survive in a human-dominated habitat, ferocity only gets you so far. For the dog, docility, rather than aggression, was the answer. By appearing cute – a bit like our own young – they mastered a strategy of symbiosis with another species, humans, with a strong instinct to provide care to their own young. The result is humans calling their dog “baby” and bragging to their friends that he’s “just like a member of the family.” In many respects, Fido actually is just like another child. Dogs are a bit like cuckoos in that respect – enlisting another species to do the work of raising their young – but in this case, by remaining young-looking throughout their adulthood, they lead another species to treat them like its own children for the duration of their lives.
Human children are also master care-harvesters – they have to be, because they remain dependent on adult care for survival for much longer than other species. Adult humans possess large brains, which could never fit through the human birth canal. Our children are thus, of necessity, born with a relatively tiny, undeveloped brain, leaving them utterly helpless and dependent on the care of others for many years. Humans thus possess a strong instinct to summon care as a child, but also a corresponding (and conflicting) instinct to provide care for helpless young humans. Awww…it’s a cute little baby. I want to take care of it.
Thus do we perpetuate our species. But this evolutionary arrangement sets up an internal battle between the child within you who’s hungry for care and the adult who feels obligated to provide it.