In many countries one can find political movements that combine a proclaimed concern for ‘family values’ with neoliberal economic policies. As we will discuss in this essay, those two positions stand in a tense relation with each other and require rethinking.
When my first son was born, the private hospital asked us if we wanted to buy the ‘attachment parenting’ package that would in practice allow us to hold the baby (!) right after birth for over 3000 peso. We refused this shameless act of turning our newborn into a commodity, ignoring the implied warning that if he didn’t bond since birth he might suffer emotional instability during life. Due to the pandemic we had to return to this excessive hospital with my second son, where I was unaware that in the act of hearing his length I apparently bought the tape used to measure him for 129 peso (of course I took it home!). I will spare the reader more similar absurd stories, but the above helps to illustrate the extent to which capitalism has found ways to commercialize the family since the moment of birth.
At this point the commercialization has penetrated all aspects of raising a family, as almost every product exists in a more expensive child version, which usually is identical – baby water! One of the reasons why there is so much money in this lane, is that raising children is still excessively hard on families in the 21st century, making parents welcome all promises to alleviate or improve this work. In this essay we will further explore the plight of families in liberal society.
Starting with the very basic family composition. In most societies, while there has always been a special bond between child and parent (usually mother), raising children is historically considered to be at least partly the responsibility of society as a whole. As Plato already knew, without this equal participation in society is impossible. With modernization came a greater emphasis of the nuclear families as the core unit, and in the last 30 years the single-earner family with the dedicated parent is increasingly replaced by two-earner families. This partly because of female emancipation, but partly also due to stagnant wages during neoliberal years and greater pressure on both parents to work to maintain the family or keep up appearances. While some might hail the latter movement from a gender equality perspective, we must immediately remark that the societal two-earner standard hurts single parents. For multiple reasons, the divorce rate kept increasing during this period as well, leaving many parents vulnerable.
Furthermore, families are hurt by both the absence of true equality and the increased difficulty to do things the ‘traditional’ way as an alternative. Woman still earn substantially less than men in Mexico, while men by default don’t enjoy or enjoy extremely limited rights to parental leave when having children (in case of your servant, HR just never mailed back). Such rights in general are much less generous than they are in socialist countries, such as Sweden with 480 days to be split between parents. That is, if one has rights or social security at all, as the majority of Mexican parents (including many in the middle class) still work without the right contract.
What results is a situation that strains two-income families, both financially and in terms of time. In this regard, we have to recognize that the independent two-income family ‘that manages fine’ is simply a fiction in Mexico. In many cases, the excess of domestic work is often carried by grandparents, whose economic inactivity is the key to the reproduction of society. For the (upper)middle class, this is often supplemented by the informal labor of (permanent) domestic workers, typically of southern origin. The above points to the harsh reality that the emancipation of middle class woman in many of two-income families is a simulation: it got outsourced to other, more vulnerable woman. The cliché used to be that behind every successful man stands a strong woman, but now increasingly behind every successful mother stands either an indigenous nanny, a sacrificing mom or a looming divorce.
Let us further explore the class aspect of this situation. The rich are to a large extend immune for the stresses of daily family life, as an army of maids, nannies, cooks, guards, gardeners and drivers essentially protects both parent and child from adult life. For them, spending time with family is indeed a moment to relax (or moralize). Additionally, the truly rich usually can still attain unproblematic single-earner status, freeing up the woman for managing (but not doing) the domestic work or be decorator-in-chief. Yet it are often exactly these people who will champion conservative family values and planning, and moralize the poor about their upbringing – all while voting for neoliberal parties that tolerated informality, outsourcing, low wages and lacking social programs. While evaluating social student projects at an undisclosed elite university, more than once I noticed the inclination of kids-with-drivers-who-see-their-dad-once-a-week to suggest that poor fathers need to spend more time with their children. While essentially true, such projects (workshops, etc.) would usually fail, since they ignore the need of parents to desperately earn money to feed those children. This anecdote points to one of the central paradoxes of conservative politics: we blame parents for the state of their family, while constructing a competitive, harsh society that increasingly impedes family life.
If the only upper middle and upper classes can compete in this family values game, what happens to the rest? As mentioned above, the middle class scrambles for any shortcuts it can afford, from party-time domestic help, to tablets and sugary snacks to keep little Miguelito happy. More humble families either need to resort to a single-income structure, which almost ensures poverty but allows (typically) the mother to safeguard the raising of the children. Or they must combine reliance on family and neighbors with a dual-earner structure (or triple, including the oldest children who drop out of school). This situation can evidently cause stress or falling behind in terms of education, socialization or development, with extra perils in case the children have special needs. On a side note: what time is left for political participation?
Lastly, middle class youth is increasingly uninterested in or delaying the founding of a family. A tacit understanding of all the difficulties mentioned above is one reason for this. Yet woman are also persuaded to delay children by the neoliberal portrayal of emancipation as careerism, and the trendy idea that the harshness of such a life must be compensated by travel. Unsurprisingly, a cult of pets-as-the-new-children (including similar excessive expenses) and a pseudo-environmentalist negative discourse on children gained popularity with younger citizens. While capitalism never misses an opportunity in commercializing both having and not having children, social conservatives are correct to point out that decreasing birth rates have implications for social security (who will pay your pension?) and the reproduction of society.
While there are environmental advantages to lower birth rates, in the core we have to agree with social conservatives that families deserve more attention and help. When reflecting on this problem, there are two ideological positions we should avoid. On the one hand, many of the aforementioned conservatives tend to support neoliberal agendas that in practice undermine family life. Less redistribution, more labor market ‘flexibility’ (informality, irregular times), and more competition will not solve this problem. On the other hand, the emerging ‘progressive’ anti-child discourse does nothing to assist actual families. Additionally, we should stop ignoring these struggles with the excuse of some simulated gender emancipation, as in practice this too often doesn’t happen (high five to the fathers who do manage), ends in divorce or is reserved for the rich.
If society still pretends to care for family values (or be pro-life), it needs to truly support families. That implies more than conservative rhetoric, but also understanding the effects of social policies. Sometimes this is straightforward, such as the 4T expanse of support for children with disabilities, the support for working mothers or cash transfers for school going children that take away the incentive to drop out for work. But also policies like the universal pension are relevant, since they recognize the key role of grandparents by financially supporting them, as well as the youth employment subsidies (for ‘ninis’) that help people become independent.
Yet these are not enough. If we are going to pretend to have gender equality and still have functional families, the social institutions should follow (or wages need to rise to single-earner levels). Expanded and equal parental leave is a starting point, but only the tip of an iceberg including nutrition, social work, quality public services, coverage of (not just physical) therapy, etc. In turn, besides requiring redistribution, many measures won’t matter much in the form of social rights when coupled to employment as long as employers keep preferring informal employment. Bringing the entire iceberg above water goes beyond the scope of this essay. The neoliberal era has done much to make life harder on families, the first step is to have an open and honest discussion that identifies the damage and sets expectations on how the people are supposed to raise the people in this economy.