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.)


What does it mean for children to say that adults have become like them? (Some thoughts on Adorno, Kidz Bop, and “regression” inspired by @musicalurbanism)

Leonard Nevarez, blogging at his site Musical Urbanism, has a fascinating post up about Kidz Bop, which is an ongoing topic of interest for me. This post is the first of a series, and it focuses on Kidz Bop’s history and the contexts of it’s production (economic, corporate, technological, etc). It’s incredibly thorough — I don’t think I’ve seen all this material assembled in one place, and it’s telling a fascinating story already about the role of children’s music in a changing commercial music environment. The post is a masterful overview and history of Kidz Bop — definitely a much better introduction to the topic than my own published work is.

Nevarez pulls a quote from Adorno’s essay on the “regression of listening“:

The counterpart to the fetishism of music is a regression of listening. Not only do listeners lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, but listeners come to stubbornly reject the notion that any such perception is possible. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear. They are childish. However, their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded.

I’ve always kind of loved this piece of Adorno’s in particular, mostly because I think it’s remarkably insightful about how commodity fetishism works as listening practices. (One of my main goals in my MA thesis on karaoke was to find some empirical verification for Adorno’s account of listening here.) Funnily, however, I haven’t returned to that one since I’ve started working on children and music, and so I forgot the role that “childishness” and a sort of age- or development-based “regression” played in its structure of values.

Also, lately I’ve been sort of collecting statements by prominent cultural theorists who say that the (adult) world is becoming childish somehow — things like Lauren Berlant’s “infantile public sphere” or Benjamin Barber’s jeremiad against consumer culture as puerile, infantilizing, juvenile, etc. (For the record: the former is wonderful and in the best tradition of feminist critique of the figure of the child and reproduction; the latter is a deeply reactionary and sensationalist howl of unreconstructed prejudice.) In principle I take these with a grain of salt, but I also enjoy ironically repurposing them to justify my own interests: if the adult world is being infantilized, what does that mean for children?! So it’s pretty wonderful to return to this piece by Adorno that once influenced me very deeply and see exactly the same thing!

The questions for me are (1) whether Adorno and other critics are correct that the phenomena they identify are somehow characteristic of children or childhood, (2) whether that’s good or bad or something else, and (3) whether such an account of adults provides some insight for understanding children. I think (1) remains an open question that probably depends on too strong a definition of “childhood” to ever be really answerable. And personally I’m happy not to confirm it because from some neurosis built as a scholar of childhood I take a lot of pleasure in letting major theorists assert the importance of childishness for me.

Regarding (3), Nevarez suggests that Adorno’s references to childishness and development make it clearly relevant to a product like Kidz Bop, but I’m not so sure. It seems a bit circular to talk about kids and the regression of listening, so long as “childishness” (or worse, “retardation”) is what makes regressive listening regressive. If Adorno’s right and commodity music reflects the regression of adults, then shouldn’t it be developmentally appropriate for children themselves? But if anything it seems like the popularity of products like Kidz Bop would reveal more the similarities rather than developmental differences between kids and adults (or at least older youths), which is that everyone loves pop music (it’s great!), while younger kids have been artificially excluded from participation as pop audiences for a long time. That is, it’s not teenagers and young adults who are turning to a childish medium, it’s children who are being provided with a genre associated with older people. That’s not obviously infantilization. (I also disagree somewhat with the “getting-older-younger” thesis, but that’s for a different post.)

Regarding (2), I think we need a critique of capitalism that doesn’t require that childhood or disability (regression as “retardation”) be definitionally abject. Cultural critics have been discovering the infantilization of adults or public culture or what-have-you for long enough that it would seem to reflect more on them than on any actual cultural development. Or, to say the same thing, regressive listening is only bad if we think childhood and disability are bad. I tend to think that the more convincing answer is that adults (especially parents) are stodgy ideologues desperately consolidating their own elevation above the vulgarities of consumer culture by deciding that their children’s pleasure must be either abject, unsophisticated, or inauthentic (manipulated). I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this video, which I think illustrates the point as well as anything could:

(edited July 2017 with new video link. For some reason the Ad Council took down the original?)

So I love Adorno’s essay because I think it’s correct about a lot of empirical questions about how pop music works, but it evaluates them through a set of liberal/enlightenment (rather than properly Marxist) values around ability/maturity that I don’t think hold up to scrutiny. To the extent that someone like Adorno (or Benjamin Barber) is correct that the world is becoming childish, it is important to at least ask if that might reflect something desirable — an openness to relations of care and dependence, an emphasis on pleasure and consumption over against “productive investment” and the classic capitalist traps of wage labor, relations like “friend” rather than “spouse” or “coworker,” valuing silliness over seriousness, etc. (And as music scholars we’re supposed to always end up hating the music we study, but to be honest I like kids’ music more and more. The Super Duper Party Troopers in that video above are really good! Maybe kids’ music in general is good? [For the record: I do know that the answer to these questions is that I have no taste, but I still can’t help but raise them.])

Anyways, none of this should be read as a critique of Nevarez’s piece, since he doesn’t really develop his Adornian critique so much in that first post. More this is a welcome opportunity for me to return to an essay by Adorno that I haven’t read in a while and be pleasantly surprised how relevant it still is. I’m looking forward to seeing how he explores these question in the text/consumption posts to come.

Sherry Turkle’s reproductive futurism

I know Sherry Turkle has plenty of critics, so maybe this is piling on. But I want to make a particular point from the perspective of childhood studies, to note how so much of Turkle’s expressed concerns are focused on parents and childrearing. Especially in her public presentations about the book, the central emotional concern she seems to expect her audience to take away is that children are being harmed. (Others do a better job than I can critiquing Turkle’s “digital dualism” problem, like when she describes “bailing out from the physical world” in the TEDx talk below, as though that were something that might be possible.)

So, for instance, in this TEDxUIUC talk from a year ago, Turkle’s examples are of parents pushing kids on the swing while texting, kids sleeping with their phones, or, in what I think is a really telling example of her style, she says (at 3:13):

Children describe that moment at school pickup, they’ll never tell you that they care, but they describe that moment where they come out of school looking for that moment of eye contact, and instead of that moment of eye contact with a parent, who after all, has shown up at school pickup, that parent is looking at the iPhone, looking at the smartphone, and is reading mail. So from the moment this generation of children met technology, it was the competition.

There’s this affective resonance here, for an audience who’s caught up in a series of stories about how the minute, everyday aspects of our lives are actually full of emotional power, and that emotional power depends heavily on the preexisting intensity of the trope of concern for children. That is, once we start talking about children, we allow ourselves — we enjoy, even — this immersion in sentiment that seems wholly commendable (how can concern for children be something to question?)

But I think Turkle use of this rhetorical approach really asks her audience to suspend their critical faculties as she goes through this list of concerning moments. Because, really? A parent reading while waiting to pick their kid up after school is creating some sort of notable emotional distance or disappointment? What if you substituted a paperback novel for the iPhone in this story? Turkle’s concern is explicitly about attention, and in situations like this a book would clearly be creating precisely the same interactional dynamic as an iPhone — i.e., preventing the parent from giving 100% attention to the possibility of their child’s appearance at the school door.

And thinking about books, I think it makes sense, here, to draw a connection to Janice Radway’s classic article about women and romance novels. In that piece, Radway talks about housewives using romance novels as a form of escape from their domestic lives. Radway describes immersive reading as being very much about transcending the physical space within the walls of a family home to enjoy a fantasy life, really, a way to “bail out from physical reality.” So if one of the 1970s midwestern stay at home mothers in Radway’s study were to drive to pick her kids up at school, and sat with her book while she waited, at least from Radway’s account, she wouldn’t just be managing boredon, she’d be actively avoiding her duties as a parent — duties which in very many cases are not, it can’t be stressed enough, always fulfilling or happy.

But in that situation, we’d never think to blame the technology of the book for preventing women from being good mothers. (On second thought this is probably only true for a narrow sense of “we,” but I expect Turkle would be part of that “we.) Instead, we have feminist tools for criticizing the situation that puts mothers in a position of needing to escape an oppressive and unfulfilling family life, and we have additional theoretical tools for thinking about how even such private, escapist reading might be a tool for building connections and community that really do counterbalance the failures of family life (Warner’s chapter on “Public and Private,” especially the discussion of the Beechers, really resonates with Radway, I think). And if someone were to argue that the problem is those darn mass market paperbacks, well, it would be hard to see that as anything other than a cynical attempt to change the subject, and to comfort the comfortable.

So, since we already have a good understanding of how exactly this dynamic of media-vs-parental-attention has played out in another context, it’s really on Turkle to argue that the issues are different (that they’re not about gender roles, about ideologies of parenting and the family, about time and money and work, etc.). Why, for instance, doesn’t Turkle ever cite Arlie Hochschild, who actually has a substantive political and sociological story about how the attention of family members is increasingly directed away from one another? And Hochschild’s story accounts for the same issues but goes back decades, so where’s Turkle get the idea that phones are too blame?

Another favorite example, from an interview Turkle did for the American Psychological Association:

One gender element that did become apparent is that mothers are now breastfeeding and bottle-feeding their babies as they text. Of course, in feeding an infant, so much more is going on than giving nutrition to a baby. There is the emotional exchange on the most primitive level, the feeling of gratifying someone and being gratified in return. A mother made tense by text messages is going to be experienced as tense by the child. And that child is vulnerable to interpreting that tension as coming from within the relationship with the mother. This is something that needs to be watched very closely. It reminds me of something that has occurred to me often as I have done this research: Technology can make us forget important things we know about life.

So again, in remarks for a popular, educated audience, Turkle turns to concerns about failures of intimacy in families. A while back Kieth Humphreys at the blog Reality Based Community posted [updated below] a link to this interview, with the quick aside that “some moms are texting while breastfeeding instead of focusing on their infant (which many mothers tell me was one of the most intimate experiences of their lives).” I and one other commenter noted that breastfeeding, while certainly intimate, can be a very tedious and time-consuming experience as well. Humphreys’s response (link doesn’t go to a comment because this whole exchange was deleted; see update) to me was “As a parent I like to know about research findings that are relevant to children’s well being, if you don’t that’s up to you of course, but this is the reality-based community … we discuss scientific findings here whether they make people feel good about themselves or not (the climate is changing too, BTW).” What’s notable is that Turkle’s comments don’t actually reflect “scientific findings” — in fact, breastfeeding doesn even appear in Alone Together, except in a discussion of robots. So, as with her TEDx talk, Turkle appeals to this concern and sense of emotional primitiveness that her audience is going to be primed for that exists around children and parenting, and she uses that to get educated audiences to suspend their critical thinking, and instead to project disapproval towards some other group of people (namely parents, which means, really, toward mothers). I single out Humphreys because I don’t want to overgeneralize about audiences, but his response is a clear example of my point: he compares my suggestion that these scholarly discourses might have an ill effect on mothers to climate denialism while using the word “science” to describe Turkle’s off-hand comments to an interviewer for a popular publication, always keeping “the well-being of children” at the forefront, as though we’re sure we know what that is and as though that trumps anyone else’s well-being.

It really seems like Turkle and Humphreys (himself a psychiatrist), seem to think that for every moment they are breastfeeding, mothers should be focusing all of their attention on this “primitive” emotional exchange, having some sort of transcendent euphoria for several hours of each day. What I find just impossible to understand is that Turkle doesn’t see right off that the expectation of having an emotionally primitive connection during every instance of breastfeeding would itself create the sort of “tension” that she worries receiving a text might create — especially because she simply worries that the tension elicited by a text message might be understood by the child as being about the child’s relationship with the mother, when the tension caused by excessive pressure not just to breastfeed (for possibly overstated health reasons), but also to have an emotional connection at the most primitive level with the child (who may just be hungry and not interested in cuddles or whatever) … that tension is bound to be interpreted as about the child, because it is about the child.

So, mothers are under extraordinary pressure to be perfect, and mothers of infants, especially, are given this impossible task of shifting happily from the particular and often exhausting work of pregnancy, to the particular and often exhausting and often alienating work of giving birth, to the particular and often exhausting and often incredibly isolating work of caring for their child. And now they’re not supposed to text their friends or family?? It’s a very similar issue with waiting for your kid at school: are parents really supposed to spend several minutes every afternoon staring at a school entrance just to make sure that the very moment their child appears there they will make eye contact and provide their child with that little nugget of emotional connection? How does Turkle’s example make sense if that’s not her prescription? From where does Turkle claim the authority to conscript what seems like the entirety of parents attention and internal lives to the emotional management of their children? Is Turkle’s goal for mothers of infants to be alone in the home with their child, cut off from the world? From her comments, the only situation that wouldn’t be concerning would seems to be a return to the world of bored housewives cut off from connection or fulfillment that Betty Friedan described. Of course she’d protest that characterization, but the direct implication of her arguments about technology distracting parents is that parents’ attention is the rightful claim of the family, regardless of the consequences for their own well-being (again, this means ipso facto that women’s lives are the rightful claim of the family). But for parents and their children, women using media (in the form of smartphones) to communicate with friends and family while they’re caring for their young children simply must be a better thing than women using media (in the form of romance novels) to escape the isolation that a particular social configuration of mothering forces on them.

At minimum, Turkle’s playing really fast and lose with childhood as a social figure that is uniquely available for affective moralizing. What this is is reproductive futurism, which in the end is a lot more about disciplining adults than it ever is about caring for dependents. The irony here is that Turkle’s earlier work held out the promise that computers might accommodate play and experimentation with non-traditional, non-normative identities and now, when she returns having changed her mind in light of new developments, her objection is not that such promise is unfulfilled, but rather that computers are disrupting traditional, heteronormative sexual and gender identities, by giving parents (mothers) connections to a world beyond the home and childcare. And that’s the problem with making arguments about technology instead of making arguments about people.

Update: Looks like a little while after this post went live the comments containing my exchange with Humphreys were all deleted, along with comments of third parties weighing in, as though to pretend the exchange never took place. That’s really unfortunate, in my view, but most of the exchange is up here and here. These comments are out of the Google Cache already, but as evidence that my comments are actually being deleted, here’s a screenshot of a more recent comment that is also missing.