Life with children: a socially necessary example (

For a long time, baby shops were a real alternative to nuclear families and state institutions. But they also could not resolve the social contradictions.

Photo: Ostkreuz / Harald Hauswald

The nuclear-bourgeois family in general is suspect to the left: what is considered the nucleus of society must necessarily bear the signs of capitalist and patriarchal rule. But this criticism also runs the risk of excluding existing families, and this reinforces the family’s tendency to lock down in supposed privacy. The left’s critique of the organization of this primary care work must therefore solve the family’s privacy problems and at the same time open liberating perspectives. This is not an easy task, as new methods are constantly being sought.

Two books have made important contributions this past year, which not only analyze the problem of separating family privacy and social propaganda, but also aim to eliminate it: The Handbook of Feminist Perspectives on Fatherhood, edited by Lisa Yasudhara Haller and Alicia Schlender, and the second edition of the anthology “Links leben mit Kinder”, edited by Almut Birken and Nicola Eschen. As stated in the backbone of the brochure, it is not a matter of conflict “against the family, but against circumstances in which life with children becomes unreasonable”. The two books complement each other in some way. For while the pamphlet containing many articles provides an overview of the problems of paternity and cohabitation informed by social science discussions and studies, the question remains unanswered as to how to synthesize sometimes divergent viewpoints in feminist politics. The volume “The Left Lives With Children” tells about these attempts to overcome the nuclear family.

Not just a petty bourgeois family

Birken und Eschen’s volume collects reports on the countless tensions and crises that arise when experiencing living with children: between ideal and reality, between different ideals, experiences and biographies or between disparate feminists. Many of the descriptions are not related to success stories. Instead, there are reflections on the failure of various approaches, often characterized by anger, disappointment, and frustration.

The personal tone of some of the contributions is particularly striking when compared to the above evidence. They read like letters from acquaintances or friends, as if writers hoped, at least in book form, to overcome the boundaries between parents and the rest of society—or at least to the left. Contributions are directed against leftist individualism that neglects children and thus makes the nuclear family attractive as a refuge. Because if leftists demanded the abolition of the nuclear family while there were no concrete practices on how to organize childcare differently, that demand would not be fulfilled. Even worse: it would become a one-sided requirement for parents to try to find another form of education. Anyone who cannot do this is considered arrogant or bourgeois.

So parents have to choose between different educational options, and in doing so, they will have to meet their own demands and those of others that are widespread. But this reduces parenting to an individual decision – between free and non-free (?) kindergarten, between wooden and plastic toys, vegetable food or sausage, between baby clothes in pink or neutral colors. Each of these decisions has significant weight, because “a little person is at stake”, as the anthology describes it, and with it one’s social standing, at least in the left-wing landscape.

Back to the community

The anthology presents an alternative in the form of a caring community, the so-called caring community, which is contrasted with the nuclear family. For while this necessarily overwhelms the individuals in their distress, society enables the distribution of responsibility and thus also the undoing of entertainment. Therefore, the “authentic community” is considered the goal in order to coordinate needs and take responsibility for each other.

Retreat to society is also a libertarian alternative above all because great idealistic designs have failed (eg the role of children in the Soviet Union as an attempt to take up the upbringing of children through society). If a caring society were to replace the authoritarian nuclear family as the smallest collective unit of society, the hope is that by changing its individual parts, society as a whole may also change. This creates an enormous responsibility on the part of the community, which is placed before the community. Fabian Schwetter writes in the anthology, “In my experience, group living with strong community self-regulation is only possible when activities inside the home take precedence over activities outside the home.” The “withdrawal from social life” perspective may tend to dismiss everything outside of society from being a problem.

Certainly, community forms can offer support to individuals, especially when they are growing up with children. But society is not the opposite of society that can radically change it. Rather, society itself constitutes the possible social withdrawal from society, which is part of the reproduction of conditions. Because this retreat is simply necessary to recover from wage labor and thus restore one’s ability to work.

The Handbook of Feminist Perspectives on Fatherhood illustrates this connection. It shows the privilege of being able to withdraw into such a society: there is no mention of parents of color in Leave Live With Children, nor parents with disabilities or those making a living with Hartz IV. Instead, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for many writers to move out and get another apartment in case of house project disputes. Other spouses are held together only by the fact that it is not financially feasible to rent an apartment as individuals. The “slouch through motherhood”, as the pamphlet describes it, primarily affects the vulnerable in various ways.

As a desirable supportive society, it cannot be a substitute for libertarian politics if the chances of creating such a society are unevenly distributed. In addition, even for those who supposedly found it, the social contradictions were not resolved. Therefore, the failure between idealism and reality is a recurring motif in many field reports in the anthology. The critical test is the escalation of the continuing risk of committing the crime of wrong parenting. Not only is the child’s well-being at stake, but also leftist ideals and ultimately change in the world.

ideal and reality

In particular, those articles in the anthology that talk about abandonment and abandonment point to a problem: if society dissolves and the social left doesn’t want anything to do with parental problems, then fathers – mostly mothers – remain locked in their lives. Apparently a private care room. Society offers a simplification and aid to this isolation, but to some writers these social promises appear to be concessions to the wrong state of society, with which one does not actually wish to be associated. Without a community that supports you, you have to resist the temptations of society. The claim to change the world turns out to be an ideal versus reality. Therefore, the risk of “falling into the mindset—my life/happiness—is what is most important to me” should be avoided, says the anthology. However, individual happiness should not conflict with social change – for what could the left orient itself to if not on a happy life for all?

The danger of this ideal of fatherhood lies in the fact that it indicates that existing disagreements over paternity compatibility, political commitment, paid work, and participation in public life can indeed be brought under control now. Instead, these are constantly conflicting. After all, participation in public life as an independent person requires that care remain private. Thus, the change in this particular organization of care is only a part of a larger change in those social conditions which require a decision between children, activity, wage work, and much more in the first place. Therefore, the question must be raised about how to create the conditions for the practice of solidarity-based care at the community level. Because the experiences of failed societies point to the limits of this approach. Societies cannot make their own conditions of existence available to everyone at the same time, and evidence points to these remaining blind spots. Both books are important in this sense to work on the boundaries between private and public parenting. They advertise what is considered private. This makes it understandable that these are not random stories from individual parents, but rather they are crafting a common experience and, by crafting that experience, they simultaneously want to contribute to changing it.

Almut Birkin/Nicola Eschen (Editors): Living on the Left with Children: The Care Revolution between Claim and Reality. Unrast Verlag, 242 pages, paperback, €16. Lisa Yashodara Haller / Alicia Schlender (Editors): A Handbook of Feminist Perspectives on Parenting. Barbara Podrich, 632 pages, paperback, €59.90.

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