The Neoliberal Parent Trap: Family and Its Anti-Social Fantasies

Jon Bailes discusses the work-life balance, parenting or not, the myths of neoliberalism, and films from Bad Moms to The Road.

The concept of a culturally dominant neoliberal rationality is well established. It often comes down to that negative refrain, ‘there is no alternative’, almost encouraging cynical or resigned acceptance, but hidden behind that are a variety of implied ideals and expectations. A range of concepts in social theory, from Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk regime’ to Jodi Dean’s analysis of neoliberal ‘freedom’ that tell us it’s possible for everyone to win. There is also  what Wendy Brown calls ‘responsibilization’ and Slavoj Zizek’s notion of the apparent loss of the big Other. These ideas help us to understand how this rationality interpellates or orders subjects in advanced consumer capitalist societies.

When we bring theories like these together, the neoliberal logic that emerges is a kind of generalised demand on us as individuals to be self-made achievers and take personal responsibility for our living conditions.

Moreover, this demand comes from multiple directions and institutions at once, and functions as a ‘superego’ injunction that is never satisfied. As such, it asks us to do the impossible: simultaneously balance and maximize all areas of life – work, leisure, property, family, social life, health, education. And because it affords us the formal freedom to pursue these goals, it makes us solely to blame when we inevitably fail.

Perhaps the clearest contradiction within this demand is that in the concept of ‘work-family’ balance, or the pressure to have children, provide them with unlimited care and attention within the confines of the nuclear family, and still continue to do everything else. As Adam Kotsko explains in Neoliberalism’s Demons (drawing on Melinda Cooper’s Family Values), neoliberal ideals recreate family as a replacement support network for a shrinking welfare state. It is thus our duty to form familial support blocs, and those who don’t are ‘demonized’ as irresponsible, as they have chosen to be a social burden. The obvious irony here is that it’s often neoliberal capitalist mechanisms that split family networks in the first place. We are encouraged to relocate to find work, whether to survive or for career advancement, and childcare itself becomes a commodity.

But since neoliberal rationality wants us to manage everything together, we are guilty if we don’t have kids, but guilty in a different way when we have kids and then struggle to maintain our social lives or careers. Go to Reddit’s ‘parenting’ or ‘childfree’ subreddits, for example, and numerous threads exist in which a frustrated parent explains that they love their kids but wish they could turn back time and not have them. The common theme in these outpourings is that the parent misses their old life, whether their career, intellectual pursuits, social life, sex life, fashion or holidays. The impossibility of balance and maximisation takes its toll, as those other desires refuse to go unfulfilled.

In cultural representations of parenthood, however, it’s far more common to see fantasies that attempt to somehow reconcile the impossible demands of neoliberal rationality. Perhaps the most common such fantasy focuses on the possibility of achieving a satisfying equilibrium, in which the family unit successfully balances attentive, hands-on parenting with full-time careers, consumerist leisure pursuits, fitness and so on. Another fantasy imagines a different potential – a situation in which the neoliberal demand of parenting can be fully met, by removing the other demands around it. Both of these fantasies try to transcend the contradictions of neoliberal rationality, but remain stuck within its individualistic logic.

The first fantasy is best understood through the image of the ideal mother. At its most basic, this image links good parenting to consumerism, as in advertising, where maternal care involves using the right products to properly protect and nurture the child. But this underlying philosophy continues even as representations get more sophisticated. The front end of online forum Mumsnet, for instance, resembles a retail site, with its soft-lit images of slim, smiling young women and clean, chuckling babies, and dropdown menus that place child related issues next to categories such as life and style (including food and drink, entertainment, health and wellbeing, money, beauty and travel), jobs, product reviews and shopping. It gives the impression that parenting problems simply require a purchasable fix, whether the right food, medicine, books, technology or therapy, and that parenthood is no excuse not to achieve high degrees of success in all neoliberal demands.

The site’s discussion boards are less idealistic, but the same sense of social pressure remains. In a 2016 study, Sarah Pederson and Deborah Lupton analysed how women discuss their feelings on Mumsnet, and demonstrated a prevalence of negative emotions around motherhood and work-life balance. Feelings of guilt and inadequacy are common, and mothers judge themselves harshly or feel judged by others. And although the community response to such feelings is generally one of reassurance and solidarity, it can mostly only offer emotional support or recommendations for outside help. Even if the ideal image of motherhood is outwardly rejected, discussion is about coping with its expectations, rather than questioning them or imagining an alternative social situation with reduced pressure.

Bad Moms (2017)

Similarly, even when popular culture criticises the concept of the ideal mother, such as in the comedy film Bad Moms, there appears to be no escape. Here, Mila Kunis’s modern everymum character, Amy, becomes increasingly exasperated as she tries to balance childcare with her career and loses her sense of identity. Eventually, Amy and two other misfit mothers decide to embrace the ‘bad mother’ label, which in practice entails shopping, drinking and partying, or reinstating a sense of balance through hedonistic consumerism. But the guilt of irresponsibility soon re-emerges and, in the end, Amy gives a rousing speech to the PTA in which she explains it’s OK not to be perfect, since ‘being a mom today is impossible’. Yet behind this act of refusal, the hope is merely that mothers can balance their neoliberal aspirations and stop judging each other. There’s no consideration that today’s ‘impossible’ situation is changeable; it’s more an unfortunate fact of life that must be borne within the family.

What’s glossed over here is the element of class struggle, embodied in the rivalry between Amy and the tyrannical PTA President, Gwendolyn, who projects a perfect image of motherhood. The reason Gwendolyn has so much time to organise PTA events and bully the other mothers is that she’s independently wealthy. So what really makes the others guilty is that they aren’t rich enough. This follows a ‘neoliberal feminist’ rationality, which Catherine Rottenberg defines in her book on the subject as a focus on ‘self-responsibility’ that ‘no longer demands anything from the state or the government or even from men as a group’. Rottenberg shows how successful career women are celebrated for balancing work and family life, but in a way that presupposes financial comfort and implies that women are responsible for their plight and should struggle harder as individuals. The flaw in the fantasy of balance is then not only its belief that the neoliberal superego can be satisfied, but that it represses how wealth and class disparity are at the core of the ideal.

The second fantasy, of actually maximising success in a single aspect of life, is more often visible in images of fatherhood, with the idea that a man must rely on his strength to protect (rather than nurture) his child from the evil outside world. Most obviously, this figure is visible in the modern day action film. In Taken, for example, Liam Neeson’s teenage daughter is targeted by sex traffickers the moment she sets foot on foreign soil. Local police cannot help (they are corrupt), so it’s his responsibility to rescue her using his ex-CIA skills. In this way, his role as father mirrors that in the CIA, in that his mission supposedly justifies mass murder, regardless of risk to innocent bystanders (other people’s children) or the possibility of causing a major diplomatic crisis. Morality and politics are irrelevant. In fact, we learn that Neeson’s character quit the CIA to spend more time with his daughter – in neoliberalism family comes before country, even for the right-wing patriot.

Taken (2008)

This neoliberal action hero needs things to be personal (caring about actual social change is a utopian fantasy left to superheroes). In films such as Taken, Skyscraper and others, the father may find himself embroiled in a world of sex trafficking or hi-tech organised crime, but dissolution of the wider criminal enterprise is merely a welcome side effect of achieving the main goal. If his family weren’t stuck in that blazing tower, Dwayne Johnson would lack an incentive to get involved. And it is always his family, as if the other members are simply the father’s valued possessions, which dovetails neoliberalism’s anti-social rhetoric with its ethics of property accumulation.

The problem for the action hero is that this singular focus on protecting the family can only be maintained guilt-free as long as a state of emergency suspends life’s other responsibilities. Once things return to normal, the fantasy ends and the contradictory demands return. The true realisation of the fantasy then requires something more permanent, such as a post-apocalyptic scenario. Perversely, something like the father-son dynamic in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road provides a perfect resolution. Here, society really is dead, and every encounter with another human in the sunless wilderness is a potentially fatal threat. But there will never be any work, social life or consumer desire to worry about. Even the wife has gone. The father can dedicate his full attention to keeping the boy alive.

Of course, The Road demonstrates the paradox of this singular paternal love. In a scene towards the end of the book, the duo catch up to a thief who has stolen their belongings. The father forces the thief at gunpoint to return everything and give them his clothes. Against the boy’s wishes, they leave the man stranded in the cold, almost certain to die. For the father, this is necessary to protect them and ensure the thief doesn’t target them again. He chastises the boy for failing to appreciate the need to make tough decisions: ‘You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.’ The boy responds, ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘I am the one.’ The boy is right. In giving everything to the boy’s survival, the father abdicates all other responsibility, and the boy has to carry the moral burdens of their actions. In becoming the perfect neoliberal parent, the father’s deeds chip away at any slim hope of a future community, which still resides in the boy.

The Road (2009)

In The Road, the tension between individual and collective needs is irresolvable because of the hostility of the situation. But it highlights how, in the neoliberal present, the pressure to act in this individualistic way is unnecessarilyanti-social, since communal ties are still possible. It shows that, even more than the consumerist individualism of the fantasy of balance, this toxic masculine fantasy aggressively opposes society as the enemy of parenthood. It twists the idea of parental sacrifice into a measure of personal achievement and an act of strictly identitarian love, which rejects anything external or foreign.

These fantasies are ways of coping with a demand to maintain the family regardless of social cost, meet childcare needs through voracious consumption, and balance a range of urgent, conflicting demands. But even if they recognise the contradictions of neoliberal rationality, they can’t challenge its logic of destructive individualism. In effect, the neoliberal demand rejects the old cliché that children are the future, because neoliberalism is a system that borrows from the future, whether economically, socially or environmentally, to generate wealth in the present. Following its logic, cultural representations of parenthood often encourage us to care only about the family in the moment, implicitly or even explicitly in opposition to the social situation.

This does not mean we can resist this neoliberal demand by simply not having children, as if that in itself is more socially-minded. After all, there are plenty of other neoliberal demands to distract the non-parent, and many critiques of the family equally reinforce a neoliberal rationality. Warnings, for example, about how much money we’ll spend or how great a carbon footprint we’ll create by having a child, play into exactly the same concepts of individual responsibility and guilt that neoliberalism imposes. Yet, it is still important to challenge the ideological baggage that comes with parenting culture, from the equation of consumerist habits with good motherhood, to concepts of perfect balance or the idea that the family is in conflict with society. As with so many things, the politics of parenting is in unity and organization. And for parents and non-parents alike, neoliberal ideals of individual success must be rejected to reinvigorate social responsibility.

Jon Bailes is author of a new book out with Zero, Ideology and the Virtual City: Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism (2019). He writes on technology, politics and games for The Guardian, Kotaku and other places.

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