Book cover provided by University of Minnesota Press / Headshot by Peter Krapp
From the very moment of conception, which for professional managerial class (PMC) parents is always a “choice,” the future child and infant possesses “potential” that has to be both optimized and maximized. PMC mothers have to do prenatal yoga while setting up intrauterine Mozart streams on pregnant bellies. Preparing for a child is just the beginning of a torturous and expensive preoccupation for today’s elites. PMC people are both terrified of and thrilled by procreation, because children cannot help but amplify social anxieties about competition. For Paula Fass, fear is one of the distinctive features of contemporary middle-class parenting, as middle-class parents “imagine what an unsuccessful child might face in the future.” Even with full-time hired help, PMC working parents are stressed about infant pedagogy and proper stimulation while pulling down the double salaries that allow them to maintain upper-middle-class consumption habits.
Babies are notoriously sensual beings, both dependent and hedonistic. Their helplessness and drive for pleasure represent an existential threat to the Puritanism of American elites. It is not surprising, then, that managing the development of children into successful adults dominates the ethos of PMC parenting. For them, the 40 percent of American children conceived outside of marriage and the upper middle class are deemed unworthy of collective attention or public concern. You don’t have to be a socialist to see the reproduction of class privilege played out in the most dramatic and extreme ways in childcare, children’s health, and children’s education.
In her bestseller Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety, Judith Warner decries the anguished, competitive perfectionism of contemporary upper-middle-class motherhood. Since Warner published her book in 2006, the anxiety she describes has only intensified. Megan Erickson argues that these anxieties and fears are not unjustified, “given the increasing stratification even within the top 1% of the country’s earners as the 2008–2009 financial crisis has only exacerbated the class war that those on top wage against all those below them.” Parenting fads have become hot commodities in America’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Perfectionist PMC parents are crusading class formation pioneers: they will not hesitate to humiliate nannies, babysitters, teachers, grandmothers, and other parents about the horrific effects of vaccines, screen time, tickling, dolls with faces, video games, cigarette-shaped candy, or sugar in general. With COVID-19, children of the wealthiest Americans who are enrolled in private schools enjoy full-time private tutors and smaller class sizes on Zoom and/or in person, mitigating risk and maximizing stimulation and education.
Around 1900, the emerging PMC became concerned with children’s welfare from a public policy standpoint. As Judith Sealander notes, social reform movements promoted a powerful vision of the role of government in redressing social ills, especially when it came to childcare and maternal health. But as the twentieth century came to an end, PMC elites became fully neoliberalized and joined their voices to the right-wing denunciation of “big government” and its allegedly debilitating “handouts.” Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, or welfare reform, inaugurated a relentless war against the youngest, the poorest, and the most vulnerable people in the country. To qualify for welfare, the poorest American mother had to find a job and keep it, even though she could not afford childcare on her meager salary. Austerity and “personal responsibility” have been the sigils under which benefit-cutting austerity policies were forged to torture those who had the least in an affluent society. In the United States, there is always enough for tax cuts for the rich and never enough money for social programs for children and their caretakers. In matters of child welfare, the PMC elite believe that the social surplus, or surplus value generated by the totality of economic activity, should be enjoyed by the children of the wealthy few, while the majority of working-class and working-poor children and their caretakers are consigned to lives of punishment, surveillance, and parsimonious rewards.
In his enduring best seller Baby and Child Care, first published in 1945 as the baby boomers were taking their first baby steps, Benjamin Spock advised anxious postwar parents to trust themselves with their babies. Dr. Spock became one of the most influential experts in child-rearing for post–World War II America. Popularizing psychoanalytic ideas about pleasure and projection, he played a critical role in the formation of new PMC identities. Spock advocated against traditional ideas about infant discipline and told young, newly prosperous blue- and white-collar parents to trust themselves with their babies. Despite the fact that Spock warned parents against faddish child-rearing counsel, his own advice was packaged in a popular book that has been hailed as the American twentieth century’s second best seller, after the Bible. Dr. Spock was also an outspoken, anti–Vietnam War, New Left activist. Conservatives blamed him for fomenting counter-cultural revolt and encouraging young people to be self-indulgent rebels since their Dr. Spock–reading parents had not disciplined them as infants. His advice, however, had a paradoxical tone, familiar to consumers of self-help literature. Dr. Spock reminded his readers relentlessly that they were the ones in the know. “You can read books and articles, but the main way you will learn is to be observant in a meaningful way. That means spending time, looking and listening to your baby, not just feeding and cleaning him . . . and then trusting yourself. Because you do know more than you do.”
In the 1970s, as budding PMC boomers dabbled in “Eastern” religions, privileged self-exploration over tradition, and pursued emotional and sexual experimentation, they looked at the working class as out-of-touch authoritarians who married for life and lived in traditional two-parent families. Today, after decades of austerity, working-class families and kinship networks are at a breaking point. Jefferson Cowie and Jennifer Silva have shown that working-class Americans today have more unstable family lives and greater instances of divorce and single parenthood than their PMC counterparts. PMC people are far more likely to marry and remain married. They rarely if ever marry outside their class. The PMC family has become a veritable redoubt from which class privilege is reproduced, but with stingy parental leave policies, increasing health care costs, compressed wages, and the exploding cost of higher education, the PMC family feels beleaguered and threatened by the possibility of failing to raise the most “successful” children. In the time of COVID-19, these anxieties have not gone away. They have been exacerbated.
In 2014, Yale Law School faculty members Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld proved Marx right by publishing The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, a book that was purely determined by the “material life conditions” of its authors. After the runaway success of 2011’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a best-selling parenting memoir about Chua’s attempts to optimize her daughters’ childhoods and childhood activities, Tina Bennett, Chua’s literary agent, no doubt hoped for a follow-up volume that would fly off the shelves like the first book. Chua’s best seller was an irritating but highly entertaining read. When the Wall Street Journal excerpted a part of Battle Hymn under the title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” the Tiger Mother brand hit pay dirt. Despite her repeated protestations that her book and its title were both self-disparaging and self-reflexive, readers took her memoir as a parenting how-to guide.
Chua and Rubenfeld argued in perfect matrimonial sync that successful “cultural groups” have the triple package: (1) a superiority complex, (2) an inferiority complex, and—wait for it—(3) better impulse control. This last quality, famously (and falsely) lacking in those who happen to be African American, Mexican American, or just poor, explains why groups that do not defer satisfaction fail to “succeed.” Chua and Rubenfeld offer repackaged social Darwinist–tinged, culture-of-poverty arguments that are trotted out every few years to justify the entrenched immiseration of large swathes of the American population. Who are successful in America, according to the two Yale law professors, one now disgraced? A narrow band of wealthy meritocrats, of course. In Chua and Rubenfeld’s United States, there is no polity, no class, no society, no collective endeavor, no social responsibility: there are only “cultural groups” vying for advantages in the fields of prestige and business. Their idea of a better world? The abolition of the whole idea of a “group.” America will be a better place when there are only successful and unsuccessful individuals, all competing on an allegedly even playing field.
Despite Rubenfeld’s apparent professional “success,” he has proven himself woefully lacking in impulse control. In August 2020, Rubenfeld was quietly suspended from Yale Law School for sexual misconduct, including predatory and harassing behavior toward female students. Recently, Yale Law School students have demanded his permanent removal. A group of students is petitioning the president of Yale, Peter Salovey, to have Rubenfeld permanently removed from the faculty. As the gulf between rich and poor has widened, while social mobility has decreased in every racial and ethnic group, the PMC home has become a laboratory of increasingly lavish and expensive childcare equipment and demanding child-rearing techniques that now include outright bribes and elaborate cheating strategies to help their children succeed at any cost. The Varsity Blues case, which revealed that rich and super-rich parents were paying college counselor Rick Singer hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children through the “side door” of athletic admission into college, is only the logical outcome of ruling-class determination to guarantee their children’s “success.”
The class war from above has had dire consequences for all American children and their caretakers, but the toll it has taken on the poorest families is staggering. Recently, the Urban Institute found that children are the poorest segment of American society, with 22 percent of American children living in poverty, while 38.8 percent of American children have experienced some form of poverty in their lives. The numbers for African American children are even more grim, with 38.8 percent of African American children living in poverty and 75.4 percent of African children having lived in poverty.
While PMC parenting books promote the extraordinary measures to which elite parents will go to guarantee their children’s “success,” D. W. Winnicott praised ordinary devoted mothers for bonding with their infants in a way that gave an astonishing majority of human beings the mental health to be able to enjoy play, creativity, and richness of experience. Winnicott had an expansive, gender-neutral idea of the caretaker; however, for the sake of brevity, I use his term the “good enough mother” in discussing his ideas. In learning to take care of an infant, the “good enough mother” loves her baby but responds imperfectly to its needs; a good enough, but not perfect, caretaker begins to adapt to her baby’s growing physical and emotional capacity to endure frustration by sometimes failing to respond immediately to the baby’s demands. These necessary failures reflect the mother’s absorption in other tasks and represent opportunities for the baby to establish a healthy tolerance for frustration as well as an incipient recognition of self and other.
In his introduction to The Child, the Family and the Outside World, published in 1964, Winnicott writes,
I am trying to draw attention to the immense contribution to the individual and the society which the ordinary good mother with her husband in support makes at the beginning, and which she does simply through being devoted to her infant. Is not this contribution of the devoted mother unrecognized precisely because it is immense? If this contribution is accepted it follows that everyone who is sane, everyone feels himself to be a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman. . . . The result of such recognition of the maternal role . . . will not be gratitude or even praise. The result will be a lessening in ourselves of a fear. If our society delays making full acknowledgment of this dependence which is a historical fact in the initial stage of development in every individual, there must remain a block to ease and complete health, a block that comes from a fear.
It is clear from this passage that Winnicott believes that the care of infants is a social and public good to which each caretaker contributes in an infant’s earliest days. Caretakers cannot be parsimonious in their gifts of love and sacrifice of sleep and libido to the dependent infant: their generosity provides the child with an inalienable legacy of security and fearlessness when facing the challenges of growing up in an uncertain world. The stressed and deprived caretaker who demands repayment or calculates the debt of a child is one who instills fear and anxiety, a state that our present-day world, made by fiscal austerity and economic sadism, knows only too well.
Although it is difficult to imagine a time when the richness of childhood experience was embraced as a public good, it was only sixty years ago that Winnicott built his psychoanalytic theories on the idea of collective and mutual responsibility for dependents and their caretakers. Winnicott’s 1964 optimism about overcoming fearfulness should be both inspiring and worrying for us today when fear of falling and fear of failing seem to be generalized conditions. In postwar Great Britain, Winnicott welcomed the redistribution of social surplus that would allow the greatest number of Britons to experience the richness and health of his own privileged childhood. He admits openly that his happy childhood allowed him to expand upon his ability for observation, empathy, and play. These qualities and abilities are part of a human legacy that every baby on the planet deserves to enjoy. Winnicott always argued that the support of a baby’s caretaker is a social and collective responsibility. The unglamorous infrastructural support of good enough parenting is the good enough state, a social democratic system of redistributive support for those people who take care of the neediest and most helpless human beings. If the good enough mother can be cherished as a cultural and collective inheritance and social good, we can begin to build a society where dependency is not feared or demonized. We can begin to build a world where happy parents and stable childhoods are a collective good and no child will ever be “fine-tuned” to “succeed.”
Catherine Liu is professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Excerpted from Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class by Catherine Liu. Published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2021 by Catherine Liu. Used by permission.