My brother and I didn’t know how good we had it.
Our mother stayed home with us for a large part of the time we were growing up. For a while, she worked a job where she’d get home around four, half an hour or so after my brother and I got home from school. We were on our own barely long enough to qualify as part-time latchkey kids .
We were far from wealthy. But, we were heirs to benefits that would take years to appreciate. Fewer kids now are in the same position. The reasons for this are many. In the intervening years, economic changes have taken place for sure, but the deepest changes have been social.
A recent New York Times story makes this clear. The article summarizes a Pew Research Center survey:
Children are much more likely than not to grow up in a household in which their parents work, and in nearly half of all two-parent families today, both parents work full time, a sharp increase from previous decades.”
More parents are working full-time ostensibly to make ends meet. The article contains a snapshot of one of these families.
“Aimee Barnes, 33, and Jakub Zielkiewicz, 31, both work full time at the California Environmental Protection Agency and are the parents of Roman, 15 months. They said they knew they were lucky to have help, like flexible schedules and extended family nearby. Still, figuring out how to manage work and parenting has been hard.
“You basically just always feel like you’re doing a horrible job at everything,” Ms. Barnes said. “You’re not spending as much time with your baby as you want, you’re not doing the job you want to be doing at work, you’re not seeing your friends hardly ever.”
For all its detailed reporting, The Times fails to get at the heart of the changes.
Some of the differences are economic. My dad worked at a factory like lots of the dads in our town did. When he was laid off, he began his own small business that he ran as a second job once he was called back to the line. I grew up at the beginning of the end for American manufacturing, and even though everyone had a sense that things were going downhill, a solid job at the plant was enough to keep a family afloat even without a spouse who worked full time. Because there existed in those days, a vital blue-collar path to economic stability, people could establish homes without advanced training. People I knew back then had jobs, not careers.
Things today are different. Look at the employers of the people the Times chose to represent the contemporary family: two work for government, one is a “biotech consultant”, the other works at Twitter. Most people would consider these stable, elite jobs with, one imagines, commensurate salaries. Still, achieving economic stability seems to elude them in a way it did not elude people a few decades ago.
If people in these prestige positions are struggling to make a home, one can only imagine how much more the big-box-retail employee is suffering.
Shifts in Social Attitudes
The NYT story also touches on cultural and political changes that have made the situation worse. As American manufacturing disappeared, the insistence that everyone go to college became ever more strident. Pushing a large percentage of American young people through higher education predisposes them to a certain set of assumptions about the role of work in their lives.
After years of schooling at, no doubt, expensive, elite universities, the men and women in this story are conditioned to see their devoting the strongest years of their lives to laboring for government and corporations as their unquestionable destiny. Work, especially work in “cool” and “important” jobs justifies their existence.
The home is not the center of their identity, but peripheral to it. They wonder how to care for the kids so they can work. They don’t wonder what work must be done in order to care for the kids. Children, for these people, are a hindrance to work, not the reason for it.
At no point in the story does anyone seriously entertain the question of whether it is necessary for both spouses to work, of whether there is a possibility of scaling back. Instead, everyone considers having a career his birthright. The possibility of chucking it all to move somewhere cheaper than Brooklyn or Central California never comes up. These people would likely regard the suggestion they give up an elite career in the same way they would regard the suggestion that their problems could be solved by suicide. The former is as unimaginable as the latter.
Instead of focusing on renunciation of luxury and status as a means of managing the problem, the Times intimates solutions more acceptable to the upper-middle class leftist: egalitarianism and paid parental-leave.
From the story:
There is a gender divide in parents’ perceptions of how much responsibility they take on, Pew found. Fifty-six percent of fathers say they share equally, while only 46 percent of mothers agree.
“As they’re being squeezed harder at work, the pressures for egalitarian parenting are increasing at home,” Ms. Blair-Loy said. “They’re doing more than their fathers ever did and they have a belief in egalitarianism, so of course they want to interpret it as equal.”
Asked about the division of household chores, Sean O’Malley, 37, a biotech consultant and father of Fiona, 11 months, said: “I think we’re dividing pretty equally. And if it’s not equal, then we certainly want it to be.”
“I’d say I do more,” said his wife, Anne Mercogliano, 33, a marketing executive at Twitter.”
Notice how this guy, working full-time and doing his best to help at home, is set up as a buffoon who is incapable, because of his self-delusion, to see how much more work he ought to be taking on. He’d be better off if he’d just said, “I don’t care who does more.” Then, he would only have been made to look callous, rather than both callous and deluded.
Had he said that, he would have been guilty of a sin against the system by suggesting there exists a domain legitimately outside the influence of the corporate-state axis. See, the concern for egalitarianism is really about finding a means of managing the home to allow both parties to maximize the portion of their lives they sacrifice to the public sphere.
Should the wife stay home and do more than her “fair share” of the housework, we are led to believe, she would be cut off from the world of public labor and therefore from the font of human meaning. Only a really mean guy would do that to his wife, and thus, we get a fetishization of “egalitarian parenting” which, as we can see, is an ideal even men who are sincerely trying their to uphold are doomed to fail to achieve.
The author of the article brings up paid family leave as a possible means of relieving family stress. While there are many ways public policy might be shaped to better support families, forcing corporations and taxpayers to foot the bill for paid time off is more likely to only strain families even further as the costs for that policy get passed onto them in the form of higher prices and taxation.
Paid family leave is only the current iteration of the ultimate goal of subsuming the family into the corporate state. The preferred solution to the problem is that parents would surrender the raising of children totally to the corporate state under the guise of expanded “educational” enterprises.
A Better Way
A better solution would be to turn back toward a culture in which home and family are central to our understanding of human life, a culture where those to whom we are closest have more say in shaping our identities than the corporations and government for whom we labor.
This is the real difference between the families profiled in this piece and the family I grew up in. Thirty years ago, the colonization of domestic life by corporations and government was incomplete. There was still space to be a family.
Expectations then were, in one sense, lower. Not everyone needed or wanted a career. There were other sources of meaning, sources of meaning that remain available to us if we really want them. Accessing them is less difficult than it seems, but to find them the first thing we’ll have to do is take some time off from work and stay home.
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