A while back, my daughter and I had a series of conversations about her difficulties with remembering to eat, to take breaks, and to generally take care of herself instead of working too hard all the time. We noted that I often end up doing things for her that I also do for my husband, to make sure that he's eating properly, resting well, and generally taking care of himself. Then we discussed how she was going to deal with self-care once she was on her own out in the Big World, and how hard that can be for some people unless they have someone to help them with it. We ended up joking that what she needs is a wife - in other words, someone like me who takes care of other members of their family as one of many things they do in life.
When I mentioned this idea later at a small gathering of friends, one of them responded by interpreting "She needs a wife" as "Oh, you mean a slave" (those were the actual words the friend used). That comment really shocked me, and made me wonder if my friend thought I was a slave. After all, I chose to quit an office job and stay home with my children. I continue to choose to take care of my family, even while I also work as an editor, writer, and artist. Yes, I recognize that for a very long time, staying home was the only option women had, and many didn't want to. I'm glad there are more possibilities now. But what about those of us who want to do the caregiving work? Are we somehow being brainwashed into slavery because we're doing domestic labor without being paid for it?
I spent some time after that conversation contemplating how, as a society, we have arrived at the idea that a person should only take care of others under duress or when being paid money for it. Or that caring for others, even within a person's own family, amounts to slavery because it's unpaid labor.
And there's the catch: unpaid labor. Setting aside for the moment the enormous subject of slavery (both formal and informal, legal and illegal), we still have a huge amount of unpaid labor around the world in the form of women's work. Caring for children, spouses, and the elderly members of the family has long been women's responsibility. And because this work, much of it difficult and emotionally draining, doesn't earn money, society devalues it even when the woman is quite happy to be doing it, to the extent of even classifying it as "not really work." This devaluation of caregiving work is also how we end up with jobs like child care and low-level nursing (nurse's assistants, LPNs) being paid so poorly. It's a real problem that stems from capitalism's insistence on finding value only via money, which means that the garden I grow that produces food for my family has no value, while the neighborhood next door that was built by destroying many acres of woodland and two creeks has lots of value. (Environmental issues are a close corollary of this human issue, as you might guess.)
I'd like to recommend a couple of books that explore this topic in depth: The Real Wealth of Nations by Riane Eisler (my husband actually asked for this one as a holiday gift a couple of years ago - yes, he's a keeper) and Counting for Nothing by Marilyn Waring. Both of these books address the issues of what we currently value as a society, and why, and why that's a problem. A marvelous organization, Caring Economy, is also a great resource for building a just, sustainable, and caring economy that values humanity over dollars.
If you feel compelled to make an analogy with slavery, to me, that's the one you should make: that being stuck in a system with such screwed-up principles takes away the human aspect and the real worth of life. Until we shift our priorities away from profits and onto people (and community and the environment), we're going to continue to devalue the things that make life bearable and that give us real meaning.