A Reproduction of Mothering
some notes on Book Week and the intersection of gender, structure, and constrained (but real) agency in some local families (with inspo from Gorz, Nancy Chodorow, and Ulrich and Elisabeth B-Gernsheim)
On Wednesday last week, I signed up to help with my Childcare Co Op’s Fathers’ Day Cake Stall. Each year, the stall raises 2-3000 dollars, using the collective labour of 20-30 people, doing 2-10 hours each. Very often, the people who buy the cakes are the very women – they are 95% women! – who baked and sauced and creamed themselves (and one another) into an escalating frenzy of rising and icing and whipping and whipping and whipping. It’s all supposed to be for Fathers’ Day. Yet no one gets laid.
Let’s say there’s 150 hours of labour in said cake stall, this means it’s a 20 dollar an hour thing, tops. Maybe it’s a ten dollar an hour malarkey, if you really break it down. And most of these women, they earn more than this already. This is an upper middle class scene, this cake stall.
It could also be otherwise. Let’s say there’s 30 families at my Co Op: each family could donate 100 dollars. If they did, and we all agreed this was easier, we could collectively avoid the opportunity cost of having to organise and staff a cake stall, and avoid the baking, as well as the material inputs, as well as the cumulative opportunity costs, the lost Saturday.
Dollar for dollar, cake stalls are a crazy mugs game, as far as I see it. Or, at least: they reveal that bare economics is barely about economics. Or, as the younger among us might say, the ‘economics’ of baking, it’s cooked.
And yet, reader: I signed up. And I did so ‘cos there were literally no male-seeming names on the list. It was Elissa and Emma and Anna &c &c, all the local Gorman mums.
Where are the dads?
So I put my name on there, and next to the empty slots, I drew a big arrow, then I wrote:
In tragicomic fashion, I then realised I am actually away this weekend: literally one of two weekends in the past nearly three years where this could be true. I’m actually writing this from the Tathra Pub, two pints deep. It’s working.
All the same, where are the dads? And how is this happening in 2022, in a gentrified suburb where the parents involved are highly educated and typically left-leaning Guardian readers who profess some kind of liberal feminism? Like, is feminism a thing, or are we just conformy normies who are actually reproducing all the norms – and modelling the very behaviour do our kids! – that made our parents unhappy; especially our mothers? Have we learned nothing about our parents frustrated strivings, our mothers’ thwarted lives?
More recently-topically (last week), where were the dads for Book Week?
I knew of none who did the costumes (there could have been many); I knew of many mums who worked and worried for hours and days (I did know of many).
What follows below is an AI-generated transliteration of an audio note I sent to two friends in the froth of Book Week ressentiment late last week – one dad and one mum – in response to some ‘posted frustrations of posted frustrations’ (reactions to op eds in The Guardian) where authors were frustrated by the onerousness of Book Week, and how it falls to overburdened and professedly burnt-out parents – mostly mothers, yes – to carry Book Week.
(also, as a book nerd, since when is it okay for Book Week to be about films and computer games and so forth? Cos Play Day? I digress)
The micropolitics and dynamics of Book Week I find super interesting in themselves, but they also resonate in lots of more general ways – to do with how we’re living together, somehow. They say a lot about who we strive to be and who we actually might still be now – subjectively and structurally – as members of (I speak for myself and my kids’ community) a privileged milieu of upper middle class parents professing progressiveness and feminism, but reproducing mothering instead.
The following has been edited lightly so it scans better on the page, without trying to lose too much of the spontaneity of the audio, and also as a commitment I have with this outlet to a kind of semi-automatic writing that’s put out before it’s quite ready (as befits a blog, I ween).
I thought I’d go into some more detail about last week’s Book Week thing because like, I feel …. like it's one of those things where you’ve got a surface phenomenon that seems a certain way; but when you get closer to it, it’s actually kind of sociologically, incredibly rich. And the detail, I think, kind of tells you like a lot about how – I think gender above all – but, like, gender and class plays out, at least in my local ‘hood. And, you know, like, it does change from place to place. Like, I think what X was saying about Book Week, it's like: it’s different Northside to down here in the Inner West, where we’ve got more upper middle class normies. Now, I guess you’d call them… people who are…. a bit older than me, they’re typically parents in their mid to late 40s. And they’re university educated, and quite a few of them are corporates, or run their own businesses. Compared to Northside, there are fewer Triple R bumper stickers and fewer Subaru Foresters, and more Volvo XC60s and VW Passats. You know what I mean? It’s bougie, and it’s normie. You know, like, he’s a dentist, and she prices gas, or like: he works for the banks, or in IT, and she runs a physiotherapy clinic, teaches Pilates or yoga.
You know, that's sort of some of the typical white parents, I should say, at XXX primary school. It is also still multicultural and there’s a lot of class – still a lot of real diversity, still, in the neighbourhood. But among this milieu, who I know well, Book Week’s division of labour shakes down like this.
She's a public servant, and he’s a partner at “Deloitte” (subbed out real name of firm). Right. So she works like, notionally, 35 hours a week, and then does extra work in the evenings after the kids have been put to bed, in order to, quote, “finish” her full time job. But because he's a partner at “Deloitte”, it’s super demanding, and super masculine, and unreconstructed. Guy works like fucking 70-80 hours a week, I shit you not. And even though it's working from home a lot of the time since COVID, that kind of workload has continued. And moreover, *because* it’s from home, he’s actually doing nearly all those hours as hours in front of his screen, and working on into the evenings and on weekends. And from the employer side there's no flexibility, and the workload just absolutely continues and continues, and ramps and ramps. And if you talk to people who work in corporate law and the upper levels of state and federal government, those are the kinds of jobs and conditions that you're routinely talking about, is what I hear. So there’s already a kind of a structural problem here generated by existing corporate work cultures, which has been intensified by the two pandemic lockdown years.
There’s a really insightful book by a French philosopher called Andre Gorz: The Critique of Economic Reason. It’s a wonderful book, and one that tells us a lot about where we are now, which is incredibly ahead of its time, as he was writing in the France of the 80s. Gorz predicted that in the OECD-style countries, where we were shifting toward a postindustrial service economy, and where automation has been threatening (since the 70s!) to replace us all [NB this was transcribed by a very capable AI, so, well], that we would end up in society where you've got one group of people, a minority who still have proper Jobs. They work way too much, and earn way too much money: they do the jobs and make the money of three people.
Alongside this group are a whole bunch of servile, precarious people on scooters, you know, delivering delivery to these people. This is because, under this iteration of an ‘advanced’ capitalist economy, their lives and their labour are literally worth less than the guy working and earning three people, so it’s like, quote, better, unquote, to sit in front of your laptop and have some Indian international student bring you a taco, than it is to stop work for half an hour and make yourself a sandwich. And to me, what a sad, fucked up servile economy that is; just how unbalanced is a society like that?
Yet this is exactly what we saw intensifying during lockdown: a privileged group, on Zooms working from home, and all these minions delivering tacos and Oodies and new blankets for couches and standing desks and limited-edition colourways LeWand (free delivery if you order in the next FIVE MINUTES).
So, you know, we’re now in a societal situation where very few people have actual proper ‘career vocation’ Jobs. But: these so-called ‘good jobs’, the Jobs I’m speaking of (not the Job of the Testaments of yore) are way too much for one person to do, and they completely destroy your work life balance, and you have to crush yourself to do them, and keep trying to do them. And the dividend is wholly material; you get this massive material benefit, and so you can afford a house in the good suburbs, when nearly no one can. This is literally the family I'm talking about, you know what I mean? When said house costs, like, 2.5 million, 3 million now, kind of thing.
So in their case, like, yes, of course she does all the Book Week stuff, because he does not have any time to do anything at all; barely time to order a taco.
Now, he can push against that culture, and he can pull back, and he can change careers, he’s got all those options; he’s got options. But for a lot of them, and the few I know try to be good men, I mean, they're decent people who maybe don’t have such a kind of critical understanding of their role, but they're extremely diligent, and they orient their whole lives around supporting their families. And they really… they fundamentally see themselves as The Provider, and if you get to know them you see how they have Provider Fever. So their way of being a good person who’s worthy of esteem and respect is to, like, work, and work like a dog and keep working and never stop working and provide provide provide.
You know, there's like a whole bunch of patriarchal dividend shit there, right? Going along with it; getting promoted by it. And there’s no doubt about that. But like, if one does become a partner at “Deloitte”, one finds one cannot so easily buck these norms as an individual, because they exist on the level of the culture of the institution and are enforced from the top down – in a hierarchical organization. So, you know, we as individuals still have choice and agency, no doubt; but it’s very constrained.
Then I think about like other people at the school where, like, he’s working as an artisan or in a specialist trade that is just not earning very much money, relative to the incredibly high costs of living of the selfsame gentrified area . And she’s been at home not working, I think, because of like, trauma stuff, right. And so, at the surface you see this overly solicitous helicopter mother who's like doing way too much at the school, in relative terms. And also to my eyes, like, seems to be actually postponing living her own life, because of trying to sacrifice everything – to her only son. And I think that latter thing is really important.
And so this venerable type-of-woman will constantly put other people's needs ahead of her own her son's needs – and her partner’s needs of course ahead of her own. Classic self subjugator. And let’s say, as is true in a few cases locally, that here partner’s like kind of a workaholic jerk who doesn’t do anything around the house unless they’re asked to, but still expects dinner – it's like total 1950s normies zones, but in 2022.
And yet: she also contributes to reproducing this situation by never saying anything, never raising this, and raising her son in a way that subjugates her own needs to Him. Then, of course, she has so much repressed hostility towards the whole situation, she's full of resentments and stuff like that, and her mental health is chronically fragile, or, at best, up and down. But then, when she starts to go and do new things, try new things, she doesn’t get the support, and it falls to her or it falls in a heap. In the background is no extended family here and, basically, nothing beyond material security, ‘provision’, from her husband.
She did Book Week too.
So just in those three families I'm talking about, who are already demographic types in my ‘hood, there are really concrete and like complex reasons why it tends to stay the way it is. And I just don't think it can be left up to individuals here. Like: we need a broader cultural change, like we've had around drink driving, and littering and seatbelt wearing, and more recently around domestic abuse. It’s really important for people gendered/gendering as men to try and lead, ‘cos they’re the ones sitting on this dividend and the balance of privilege in terms of their working lives; they most often have the jobs where, if they changed their MO, it would change a lot for many people. But a lot of the middle aged men I know, they don't have the emotional and discursive tools in the toolbox to speak up and say anything. I don’t want to let them off the hook. But I'm also trying to kind of understand their struggles from their perspective. And conversely, like, a lot of the women, they say yes to way too many of these things. They don’t push back up front; they just back talk and snark, but keep saying yes. And then they fucking hate it, and get snippy and resentful and express that through backtalk with their other allied people.
But then what I find is that there’s all of these, like, chat apps, like WhatsApp especially still, where people enforce norms and gendered conformity, as well as police and judge one another. And the latter, like, those are the group threads on WhatsApp that the women are on. The men – such as they are on chat apps, the ones who do this – they’re talking about like sport, you know, football, and horseracing (I shit you not) and fucking gambling. They don’t talk about school or Book Week one another or the feeling of emptiness that plagues them, just horses and odds and who’s favoured to win on Saturday. To me it was a grim surprise to find all this going on in the 2020s. It's a pretty bleak picture, not what you’d expect to be by 2022.
And also: there’s a big minority of families who just aren’t like that. That’s the big caveat of everything I’m saying here.
But: in order to have a more equitable distribution of gendered roles in the family, and to actually get men to get on board, I feel like you really need to change the culture of the workplace, workplace expectations, because if a man is basically going to be called a cuck – effectively – by his boss, because he's not absolutely breaking himself at work all the 80 hours of the week… Like: if you get labeled as soft, and you get passed over for promotions and stuff like that, ‘cos you slacked off on Saturday arvo, then that's a huge blow to most of these guys’ self-esteem, because they construct their self-esteem around being material providers for their family. So you kind of… fuckin’ unpick that, man, and that's really, really hard to do.
But the only way you can do it, I think, failing a complete demolition of capitalism in its current form, is by things like flexible workplaces, parental leave, and somehow changing a structural situation we have with capitalism in 2022 where we don't live in a world of like, you know, 5% of people in this very wealthy country we live in who are pulling in 3-500,000 dollars a year to be on Zooms all day. Meanwhile, all of the overworked teachers and public servants and health workers – and mums in the middle, baking the cakes and fucking dressing the kids up, there. And then all these, like, delivery riders on scooters, like, bringing the middle class tacos, ‘cos they’re so hungry from Zooms and baking and dressing kids as Gandalf or SpongeBob (not a book!). Like: it's a pretty bleak picture, you know, but it's hard to – it's hard to change. And it's actually…. it’s actually really hard to have those conversations with those community family members as well. I think I can have them with some but I can't have them with many and not with all anyway, that's my thoughts on it.