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.)