It Took a Woman

Obama has all the right instincts—but it took a fiercely focused female to really get it done. Gail Sheehy on a major victory for family caregivers.

03.21.10 10:59 PM ET

Today is a victory for humanism. American style. Messy and mollycoddled as the process has been, the about-to-be health-care law finally accepts that basic affordable health care is a human right.

I can almost hear an oceanic sigh of relief from members of the Sandwich Generation. Even before the Great Recession, middle-class parents were falling into debt, squeezed between keeping their children on their payroll well beyond college and spending out-of-pocket to care for their long-living, chronically ill parents.

Nearly 50 million adults are now working as unpaid, unsubsidized family caregivers for aging parents or spouses or  siblings. This is the silent reality inside one-third of American households.

Many of these primary caregivers lose or forfeit their jobs to perform this noble role and lose their own health insurance and financial security in the bargain. They tiptoe around a sinkhole, praying their kids don't get sick and they don't get a devastating diagnosis requiring treatment that will drive them into bankruptcy.

More Daily Beast writers on the health-care vote.The new law does have a caregiver benefit. It's funded with peanuts—$102.5 million—to support adult children taking care of elderly relatives at home. But it's a start, and with Joe Biden behind it, you can bet there will be more noise in Congress.

Thank goodness this president is willing to listen to strong women and change strategy when his is not working, just as he did when he was bombing as candidate Obama and Michelle and Valerie Jarrett led him back to his strengths. This time, his Valkyrie is Nancy Pelosi. This powerhouse of a speaker stiffened the spine of a president too eager to bend before the false promise of bipartisanship. He has all the right humanistic instincts, but it took a fiercely focused female to be his partner in leadership and courageously carry the day.

Gail Sheehy is an American writer and lecturer, most notable for her books on life and the life cycle. She is also a contributor to Vanity Fair, and can be found at Her new book, Passages in Caregiving, will be published in early May.