Life with children: a socially necessary ideal (

For a long time, children’s shops were a real alternative to nuclear families and state institutions. But they were also unable to resolve the social contradictions.

Photo: Ostkreuz/Harald Hauswald

The bourgeois nuclear family is generally suspect on the left: what counts as the core of society must necessarily bear the stamp of capitalist and patriarchal rule. But this criticism also risks simply excluding existing families, and it reinforces the family’s tendency to shut itself off in supposed privacy. A left-wing critique of the organization of this basic care work must therefore process the problems with family privacy and at the same time open up emancipatory perspectives. It is not an easy task, for which new approaches are constantly sought.

Two books made important contributions to this last year, which not only analyze the problematic separation of family privacy and social publicity, but also aim to eliminate it: »Handbook Feminist Perspectives on Parenthood«, edited by Lisa Yasdohara Haller and Alicia Schlender, and the already second edition of the anthology »Links leben mit Kinder«, edited by Almut Birken and Nicola Eschen. As it says on the spine of the handbook, it is not about a fight “against the family, but about conditions where life with children becomes unreasonable”. The two books complement each other in a way. Because while the handbook with numerous articles provides an overview of the problems of parenting and family coexistence, informed by social scientific discussions and studies, the question remains unanswered as to how the sometimes divergent perspectives could be brought together in a feminist policy. The volume »Venstre bor med børn« tells about these attempts to overcome the nuclear family.

Just not a bourgeois little family

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

The personal tone of some of the contributions is particularly striking compared to the manual mentioned above. They read like letters from acquaintances or friends, as if the authors hoped, at least in book form, to overcome the boundary between parents and the rest of society – or at least the left. The contributions are aimed at a left-wing individualism that neglects children and thus involuntarily makes the nuclear family attractive as a place of refuge. Because if leftists demanded the abolition of the nuclear family, while there were no concrete practices for how childcare could be organized differently, then this demand would come to nothing. Or even worse: It would become a unilateral demand on the parents to try to find another form of education. Anyone who fails to do so is considered closeted or bourgeois.

The parents therefore had to choose between the various educational options and thereby had to meet both their own and the diffuse demands of others. But it reduces parenthood to an individual decision – between free and not so free (?) kindergarten, between wooden toys and plastic, vegetarian food or bear sausage, between children’s clothes in pink or neutral colors. Each of these decisions carries weight, for “a little person is at stake,” as the anthology put it, and with it one’s own social position, at least on the left.

Back to the community

The anthology presents an alternative in the form of the community of care, the so-called community of care, which stands in contrast to the nuclear family. Because while this necessarily overwhelms the individual members in its narrowness, the community enables the distribution of responsibilities and thus also the retreat for recreation. “Authentic community” is therefore considered the goal of coordinating needs and taking responsibility for each other.

The withdrawal to the community is also considered an emancipatory alternative above all because great utopian designs have failed (such as the orphanages in the Soviet Union as an attempt to take over child-rearing through society). If the caring community is to replace the authoritarian nuclear family as society’s smallest collective unit, the hope is connected that society as a whole can also change by changing its individual parts. It creates an enormous responsibility for the community, which is placed before society. “My experience is that collective life with strong shared self-organization is only possible when activities inside the house tend to take priority over activities outside the house,” writes Fabian Schwitter in the anthology. The perspective of being “withdrawn from social life” could tend to want to ward off anything outside the community as a problem.

Certainly, forms of community can provide support to individuals, especially as they grow up with children. But community is not an antithesis to society that can radically change it. Instead, community itself constitutes the socially enabled withdrawal from society that is part of the reproduction of conditions. Because this retreat is necessary simply to recover from wage labor and thus restore one’s own ability to work.

“The handbook feminist perspectives on parenting” makes this connection clear. It shows what a privilege it is to be able to draw into such a community: There is no mention of parents of color in “Lefts who live with children”, nor of parents with disabilities or those who earn a living with Hartz IV, it must. Instead, it does not seem to be a problem for many of the writers to move out and afford another apartment in case of disputes in the house project. Other couples are only kept together by the fact that it is not financially possible to rent an apartment as individuals. “Precarization through motherhood”, as the handbook puts it, primarily affects those who are vulnerable in various respects.

As a supportive community is desirable, it cannot be a substitute for liberating politics if the opportunities to create that community are unequally distributed. In addition, even for those who allegedly found them, the social contradictions are not resolved. The failure between ideal and reality is therefore a recurring motif in many of the field reports in the anthology. The decisive test is the escalation of the constant danger of being guilty of wrong upbringing. It is not only the well-being of a child that is at stake, but also the ideal of the left and ultimately the change in the world.

ideal and reality

In particular, the articles in the anthology that report on abandonment and being abandoned point to a problem: if community dissolves and a social left wants nothing to do with parenting issues, then parents—and mostly mothers—remain locked in their apparently private care room. Society offers simplifications and help for this isolation, but for some of the authors these social promises appear as concessions to the wrong state of society with which one does not actually want to be associated. Without community to back you up, you must resist society’s temptations. The claim to change the world hardens into an ideal against reality. Therefore, the danger of “falling into my-own-life/happiness-is-most-important-to-me frame of mind” must be averted, as the anthology puts it. However, the happiness of the individual must not come into conflict with social changes – because what can a left-wing orientate itself on, if not on a happy life for all?

The danger of this parenting lies in the fact that it suggests that the existing conflicts about the compatibility of parenting, political engagement, paid work and participation in public life can already be mastered. Instead, however, these constantly come into conflict. After all, participating in public life as an independent person requires that care remains private. The change in this private organization of care is therefore only part of a larger change in the social conditions that initially require a decision between children, activism, paid work and much more. Questions must therefore be raised about how the conditions for a solidary care practice could be established at community level. Because the experience of community failure points to the limits of this approach. Communities cannot make their own conditions of existence available to everyone at the same time, and the handbook points to these remaining blind spots. Both books are important in this sense for working on the boundary between the private and public aspects of parenthood. They publish what is considered private. This makes it understandable that these are not random stories from individual parents, but that they formulate a common experience and by formulating this experience at the same time want to contribute to changing it.

Almut Birken/Nicola Eschen (eds.): Living on the left with children: care revolution between claim and reality. Unrast Verlag, 242 pages, paperback, €16. Lisa Yashodhara Haller/Alicia Schlender (eds.): Handbook Feminist Perspectives on Parenting. Barbara Budrich, 632 pages, paperback, €59.90.

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