Parenting, work, and values

tl;dr: read this, this, this and this in combination with this

Recently New York Magazine published a long piece about what it identifies as a trend of wealthy women who identify as feminists choosing not to work and instead to care for their children full-time. I’ve had a version this post sitting in my drafts folder since last spring, when some of these same issues popped up partly in response to the publication of Elisabeth Badinter’s book The Conflict. I chose not to post it then mostly because, for good reason, it’s all so contentious. Maybe I’m less risk averse now. (Also for some reason I thought a good title would be “attachment parenting is a consumer good,” which is true, but man that’s a stupid thing to call a post about parenting on this internet.)

Katha Pollitt (who is right about everything), wrote a very good column in the Nation last May about “attachment parenting,” responding to a sensationalist piece in Time about the “mommy wars.” (I won’t link since it’s the worst sort of trolling link bait.) Pollitt’s point is similar to the one I was trying to make in response to Sherry Turkle, that most commentary about parenting and concern for children is really about disciplining adults—disciplining women—and that holds true for a certain version of attachment parenting.

So I’m on record as thinking that claims that childrearing is a fundamental value are mostly just mechanisms for controlling women. But I do think we need a more complicated critique of things like attachment parenting that hopefully doesn’t require us to only value public activities and devalue private ones.

I want to highlight this point from Pollitt:

Badinter blames intensive mothering for distorting feminism and pulling women back into the home. But one could also say it’s a socially approved way of withdrawing from a workplace that, in addition to all the usual sorrows and pains, has been sexist in general and hostile to mothers in particular, and of resolving the frustrations of the double day — women’s greater domestic burden. (These are also features of French life, despite France’s excellent daycare system.) America is famously unfriendly to mothers — no paid parental leave, a lack of affordable daycare, patchy after-school, long workdays, little vacation. Even legally mandated paid sick days are controversial. Individual mothers manage to negotiate these shoals — after all, most mothers are employed — but overall, lack of social supports is America’s way of telling them they don’t really belong at work. Their real job is at home.

I think the bolded part is pretty tremendously insightful, and I want to push on it point a bit, and also to question the implication that the specific reason to bemoan this state of things is that having a job is good in itself. Certainly we live in a society in which work is the primary source of social value, and there are very good reasons for valuing women’s participation there and for being strongly skeptical of attempts to encourage or really even legitimate a retreat to the private sphere that looks strongly like a retrenchment of gender hierarchies. (Pollitt: “As long as women’s primary focus is domestic, men will run the world and make the rules.” True story.)

But I also don’t think we can say enough that jobs suck. With a very small number of exceptions, jobs are alienating, humiliating, boring, stressful, time-consuming, unproductive, wasteful, physically and psychologically debilitating, exhausting, joyless, and terrible. Caring for children also sucks (because caring for children is work, and jobs suck), and it’s intensely wrong for folks like Turkle or attachment-parenting guru William Sears to tell women that their child’s well-being demands their complete sacrifice of time, attention, ambition, and individuality. I think maybe it’s also wrong to tell people they must have personal ambitions involving wage labor. Childcare sucks. Work sucks. We should revise our values around both of these things.

I think the issue is similar to a point David Graeber makes (Harper’s paywall; full text; full text pdf) when he compares enlisting in the army to getting involved in campus-based left activism: both decisions are about sidestepping the unfulfilling world of wage labor in favor of work that expresses one’s values. And both decisions are pretty easy to criticize as themselves alienated—I wouldn’t say that actively participating in US military hegemony is a great way to express one’s values, though I think I understand and respect the sense of solidarity and commitment to a (nationalist) community that such a choice expresses:

As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter-recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you.

This is how things like attachment parenting make sense to me, as an expression of noble purpose, purchased by relatively wealthy people the same way they purchase things like health care and education for loved ones. What’s being purchased is time away from work, and time focused on what they understand to be of much higher value: their children and families. Graeber again:

What is really at stake here in any market economy is precisely the ability to make these trades, to convert “value” into “values.” All of us are striving to put ourselves in a position in which we can dedicate ourselves to something larger than ourselves.

I agree with Pollitt and Badinter that these parenting ideologies can be a real problem. But I also think that what we want is a world in which any person is free to reject wage labor, and I think that we want a world where care of any sort (for children, for the elderly, for other dependents, for oneself) is valued. We can and should be critical of the particular formulation of this value placed on the family (again, reproductive futurism is no good, or rather, it is all bad), but I don’t think it’s right to say that acting on the value of intimate relationships over commodified relationships is necessarily bad. Rather, what I’d say we want is a world in which many more people are free to bypass wage labor and pursue the activities and relationships they value (and, of course, hopefully, for those values to themselves be valuable, where intimate relationships are but the gender hierarchies they presuppose are not). Similarly, here’s Peter Frase on hipsters and privilege:

The false (but not without a grain of truth!) intimation that hipsters are all white kids who are subsidized by their rich parents legitimizes this position, but even if it were accurate it wouldn’t make the attitude of contempt any more sensible. For even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.

That is, dropping out of the workforce in order to be able to spend time with people you love (or do any number of other things you might actually value and want to do) really is kind of the goal, and I think we’re missing something if we don’t recognize that this is part of what’s happening with things like attachment parenting.

I don’t think that’s quite the same as the simple anti-politics of “choice feminism.” I’m interested in something more akin to the politics outlined in this amazing essay about work and disability by Sunny Taylor. Taylor argues that disability activism has implications for many more people than those normally identified as disabled, partly because we will almost all be impaired at some point in our lives by illness or old age, but also because it entails fights for things like the right for everyone not to work:

Western culture has a very limited idea of what being useful to society is. People can be useful in ways other than monetarily. . . . The same rule that often excludes the impaired from the traditional workplace also exploits the able-bodied who have no other choice but to participate. The right not to work is an ideal worthy of the impaired and able-bodied alike.

Valuing work too highly necessarily devalues care and intimacy and dependence, and certainly doesn’t leave a lot of room for the value of people who are unable to work or excluded from work. Or what’s almost the same thing, valuing work too highly can place such priceless, infinite value on things like children and the family that they are all but value-less, so we get the reproductive futurism that we have, which is what leads to the current perversion in which actual care work is done for extremely low wages, or by mothers who are sacrificing significant earnings, social prestige, social insurance contributions, etc. One reason the parent-friendly policies Pollitt would like to see are missing in the States is precisely because work is over-valued here. The bizarre contradictions of a “family values” rhetoric that has no time for family-valuing policies like paid medical leave to care for dependents (like during the 2012 presidential campaign when Mitt Romney was simultaneously claiming the value of his wife’s role as a mother while arguing that a single parent’s focus on caring for their children denies them the dignity of work) make sense if fully distinguishing those spheres is the whole point of reactionary family values rhetoric.

This sort of parenting is interesting for how it involves many people who identify as liberal doing something that looks a lot like a more characterisitically right wing move—as Graeber puts it, it enhances the division between egoism and altruism (by enhancing the division between public and private), rather than trying to efface that division in the more traditional manner of the left. (See also Dana Goldstein on the contradiction of “progressive homeschooling.”) One response to that is just to say that these practices clearly aren’t recognizably liberal or left, and that’s right. But I think they are practices that can help expose or reveal where value is located in people’s lived experiences, and if I’m right to make these connections to Graeber and Frase and Taylor maybe that can also help reveal some intriguing points of odd commensurability between radical and reactionary cultural politics. Or something.

(For the record, the answer to all this is “wages for housework,” though as Federici argues, that’s not so much a policy solution as “the only revolutionary perspective from a feminist viewpoint and ultimately for the entire working class.” So let’s do that.)


25 thoughts on “Parenting, work, and values

  1. Great article. I was a child that came home to an empty house due to having a single parent. I can tell you that nothing is more important than to spend time with my kids as a father. My wife is a at home mom and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is that this position (it is a job) is not respected in our society. Thanks Moms’ around the world for doing the hardest job in world. I applaud these Mom’s for the jobs that most do not do. Once again, great article.

    1. I, too, was a child who came home to an empty house. Not due to have a single parent, but due to having two married parents, both of whom had to work to support said house. So, yes, I was a latchkey kid who came home to an empty house, but at least I had a house to come home to! When I see some of these kids today who, with their mothers, are bounced from shelter to shelter to the street, I am very grateful for what I had (despite all the whining I engaged in at the time).

  2. Read through some of the article and wasn’t really impressed. Seems like some valid points. I guess it would be nice to have a govt that caters to needs of single parents and at same time is also fair to traditional, 2 parent families. Raising kids is extremely hard work so anything we can do to help each other is welcome.

  3. I totally agree with this article, people shouldnt be valued according to monetary worth, and there can be fulfillment in things apart from paid employment.

    Just one point ” it’s intensely wrong for folks like Turkle or attachment-parenting guru William Sears to tell women that their child’s well-being demands their complete sacrifice of time, attention, ambition, and individuality.”

    this seems to negate the fact that it can be a legitamate ambition to be a stay at home, and care for your family and that a womans individuality can be expressed in this way. In a society where women are expected to go to uni, then go to work, bucking this trend to fulfill the ambition your heart really desires is definitely an expression of individuality and going against the expected societal norms in my opinion.

  4. I was very blessed to be able to stay at home with my three children when they were young, and if it hadn’t been for finances, I would have done it all their lives! As they are now grown and preparing to leave the nest, I am noticing that the years I stayed at home with them truly made a difference in their lives. Great article that reminds us of what matters most to our children. When my babies drive away for college they will not remember that we could afford new Nike Shoes … but go safely and confidently into the world with roots and wings I am so blessed and humbled to have had the time to give them. Thanks, and keep writing!

  5. I totally agree, parenting is a separate issue to employment. Implying that women are choosing full time motherhood to avoid employment issues or as a easy solution is offensive.

  6. Although I can’t stay home with my son due to finances, we spend lots of time together solo and have common interests. I think that it is all about balance and being free from guilt that stems from saying that it is one or the other. You can be attached to your child, and also show him (in my case) that what you do for a living matters too. There is some gray in between these parenting schools of thought.

  7. Great article! As one who recently was able to leave paid work to be home for my special needs teenaged son, as well as help watch my grand kids, I agree with much of what was written. The ability to do this shouldn’t be only for those who have a partner who can pay the bills, and it should have a higher value socially to be an at home parent.

  8. I could only read through half of this blog because it was so overwhelmingly negative against women staying at home. WOW! I was in the military for seven years. Missing my daughter’s firsts was so saddening to me. It is not degrading to be a part of your child’s life! It is victorious to see the cell that was spawned inside you blossom into a person through time. To say that it is boring and all of the other horrific verbs you used to describe being a mother, I pray you don’t have any children! Feminism shouldn’t be stated as saying we don’t belong. All actions are perceived by an initial spark in our brain. If you find everything so boring, I would suggest that you find a doctor to sit you on a chair and talk about your subconscious woes, but most of all I would send you to a pastor to help you in remove such a negative spirit. I went to your blog thinking I would be reading a great post but instead I am just disgusted by the ill thinking and now I must fill my mind with something to remove such garbage from my mind. BOO!

  9. “That is, dropping out of the workforce in order to be able to spend time with people you love… really is kind of the goal…”

    Yes, yes, yes! Aren’t we all just searching for a job that doesn’t feel so jobby? I traded a beeper that sent me running to the emergency room for permanent on call status as mom and never went back. Every day is a luxury. But my husband and I worked our asses off to attain this luxury. (However, taking care of small children can also be a mind-numbing, lonely time vacuum… and it doesn’t make any one any less feminist or motherly to admit it.)

    Whichever path you choose isn’t the point… the conversation is. How can we structure our lives to pursue the things that blow our hair back? That’s what we need to demonstrate to the kiddos.

  10. I love a good debate about parenting. I fall somewhere in between the attachment parent and the working mom. I work part time, as a contract teacher for a program at a University. I decide how much I can take on.
    It gives me a good balance of meaningful adult time, without missing put on all of the things I cherish the most. Namely, the precious “first” of a baby.
    It’s tough, though. There is a difficult balance between surviving financially and staying at home with your kids.
    I think in the end, people would be surprised to find out what “necessities” they could live without if they had to cut the budget in order to have one parent at home. Especially when you factor in childcare costs.

    Interesting, well researched article.

  11. So many angles to this blog don’t know where to start…

    I’ll just start by saying that although Badinter is an authority on the subject, I can never seem to agree with her views, especially since I lived in France as a nanny for +3 years and decided that I was never trying to live like them (the family included 3 kids, 2 workaholic parents that rarely saw their children and therefore always felt guilty about loving their job so much, a dog, plus a housekeeper, an “orthophoniste” and myself who didn’t live with them but worked for them every day), along with the fact that Badinter was raised as a rich girl and then married into money, so her views will never be those of the average population.

    I do agree, however, “That is, dropping out of the workforce in order to be able to spend time with people you love… really is kind of the goal…” which is why I work at home. This allows me to be there for my daughter without sacrificing a job that I love.

    Many of the stay at home mothers I see at my daughter’s school are women who don’t know what to do with their lives, so they end up being a little too participative in school activities, to the point of meddling (boy, the stories I could tell). The point being that although I get why they do it, I believe that their behavior doesn’t do them much credit either, because they come across like helicopter moms instead of caring and selfless, which I assume is the goal…

    In the end, I suppose it’s more about how each one manages to balance all the options and live the life chosen, rather than sorting each lifestyle into a box and classifying it as appropriate or inappropriate.

  12. I say this as a woman who planned to be a stay at home mom for more than half my life: there is a lot to be said for a mother modeling certain behaviors for her children. Behaviors like balancing home and work, earning money yet not valuing it as the only important factor and most importantly using their talents and intelligence for a greater good. I agree with another recent commenter. There is a gray area and the gray area is the sweet spot. Additionally, many people are able to negotiate work from home situations or PT work from home arrangements with their workplace. If the government offered tax incentives to businesses which were more flexible toward families (and I mean this for mothers and fathers) different options and arrangements could be explored. But I agree with one point absolutely: there’s a few too many Mitt Romneys out there who shroud their sexism in a family values Trojan horse. If they truly valued families, they would help create opportunities for working class families to spend more time together. But they’re not here for families or the working class.

  13. As to Parenting, work, and values, I think the correct mix is the equation that works for your family. I worked full-time, have great values which added to me raising some awesome kids.

  14. Reblogged this on kdalukha and commented:
    I am as a muslim women against this as there is no connection to let go your professional life for maintainig personal life now-a-days, Because there is a lots of gadgets you can use to solve your problem & save time. The choice is yours & it always will be.

  15. interesting piece. I wholeheartedly agree that the issue is not necessarily that women are choosing to leave the workplace but that the workplace is not set up to value the family (and I’m assuming I’m interpreting your point correctly). As a mother, the decision to stay home versus working is a double-edge sword. I can see your point that placing a high value on childrearing may force women out of positions of control, but I don’t see this as inherently negative. I’m a feminist and I believe women should pursue powerful positions in our society in order to enact change but the decision to leave the workforce encompasses much more than whether or not things are mother-friendly. I value my job greatly, and I feel empowered by my employer, but I feel the same sense of empowerment when I watch my child grow and learn under my care. If I chose to leave my career to be a stay-at-home mom it would be for her primarily. Women have more independence than we sometimes give them credit for.

  16. The larger issue — which you touch on — is how grim many jobs are. Having kids (and enough $$$$ to stay home with them FT) is a great “get out of jail” card and one increasingly being brandished as the goal– i.e. my husband makes enough to support ME…Who wouldn’t want to get the hell out of Dodge when so many jobs pay crap and are boring and people are miserable?

    It evades the larger question of wanting a life, with or without children (we have none, in our 50s) that allows us to be human in ways we value. No one wakes up in the morning gleeful that they are/have become a weary wage slave.

  17. Guilt on both sides all the time. Guilt at work, guilt at home. My mother, who raised 5 kids in the 60’s and 70’s, worked full time from home. She had a non traditional job as a reporter for a newspaper and is, to this day, my # 1 role model. My daughter tell me all the time how much she admires my work. We have smaller families these days. We can do both if we want. We shouldn’t whine about either choice.

  18. I completely subscribe to Attachment Parenting- and I have a near-full time job. I am successful at work and home. My life is full but balanced. The worst thing mothers (parents) can do is judge each other or pick apart other’s reasons for staying home or in the work force. As parents, we are stronger if we stand together and support each other. It’s important to have an opinion but one should never place judgement on the choices of another parent. Overall, good, interesting commentary on a complex, red-button issue.

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