With the promise of a revived left politics gaining improbable traction on the American scene, it’s high time we took a long unsentimental look in history’s distant mirror, analyze our victories, and conduct some honest post-mortems of previous failures. How can we develop a workable strategy for movement-building and coalition-nurturing in a broader political culture that thrives on the psychology of possessive individualism? How can we bring together a diverse array of agendas and constituencies without obsessing over the disabling complex of small-bore purity tests and deviation-spotting that Sigmund Freud memorably dubbed the “narcissism of small differences”? How can we affirm the messy human quest for pleasure and sardonic wit along the oft-competing mandate for vigilance and ideological rigor? Most of all, how can we transcend the subcultural left, stop acting like power is a dirty word, and go about seizing it in the service of a socialist future for all? Join fearless Baffler dispenser of all-purpose wisdom Amber Frost on this brave new intellectual sojourn—the answers may surprise you!
What is wrong with the deterioration? I think we have gone through a period when too many children* and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.
—Margaret Thatcher (*emphasis my own)
Recently, a friend and comrade of mine—who is also a husband and father to a young baby—wrote a socialist defense of reproduction at his wife’s request. She also edited the article, and the entire magazine issue along with another woman and mother. The piece was immediately met with fury and ire, with attacks generally falling under one of four categories. First there are the Malthusian, deep green anti-natalists. These people are so virulently anti-social, and so removed from the reality that children are historically one of humanity’s greatest joys, that I don’t consider their criticisms worth responding to. Second there is the Standpoint Theory objection, which litigates who is allowed to talk about what; the idea that only women should talk about having babies (and the subsequent implication that children are first and foremost “women’s work”) is appealing both to the most extreme of identitarians and to the feminist careerists defending their “turf.” This argument of course falls apart immediately when those same critics get clicks, likes, and faves from commenters bemoaning the absence of men’s voices from the discourse of the family; you can either get mad when they don’t speak up or you can get mad when they do, but you can’t do both. The third absurd objection I noticed involved staging a fantastical strawman of a conflict between the right to have children and the right not to have children. This, too, was a whopper of a zero-sum false dichotomy, pivoting on the notion that the demand for children and parents’ welfare detracts from the defense of abortion. With 21 percent of children in the United States already living below the federal poverty line (a number that greatly underestimates the scope of precarity and want that afflict the many more families subsisting just above the outdated and scandalously low federal definition of poverty) the idea of counterposing procreation to reproductive freedom as though women were only entitled to one or the other life choice is not only slamming the gate well after the horse has bolted; it’s utterly heartless.
The fourth critique though—one that I saw espoused by many a professional liberal feminist—does merit some close attention, and a detailed response. This line of argument endorses the conservative idea that the real problem with parenting is that men don’t take “personal responsibility” for their children. Now perhaps these women have only dated negligent brutes, but having met many of their unremarkable, soft-handed partners, I seriously doubt these Baby Bjorn-wearing male-type-people are leaving little Clementine in a hot car so they can enjoy a quick Chantal Akermen feature at Metrograph before a few rounds of revolting scotch at some gastropub with the lads. No, I suspect these women are referring to those other men. You know, the men who never took a gender studies class and don’t read feminist blogs, who conduct their trains and drive their Ubers, or prepare their food, or repair their appliances. Also, the men who build their beautiful homes and deliver all their fun purchases right to their door. Those barbaric working men and their insidiously coarse masculinity.
Anti-masculinity is a neat little trick of the liberal reactionary; you can get away with open contempt for working-class men and their struggle for something as essential as the time and resources to care for their own children, as long as you smear them as deadbeat dads and shitty husbands. The idea that it’s men, not money, who are most responsible for preventing parents from devoting more time and labor to their homes and children is so astoundingly condescending and divorced from reality that it’s hard to believe anyone would have the confidence to say it out loud. But I suppose if your biggest problems in life have always been romantic or familial and not financial, it can be easy to mistake your resentful fantasies for a political program.
I don’t generally like writing about the intimate details of my life, especially not the less-than-cheerful ones. I’m smart, I’m funny, I’m incisive, I’m fucking electric. So why do women always have to flay themselves open and let everyone gawk at their guts just so someone will listen? This piece is, ostensibly, a personal essay in the service of socialist and feminist polemic; people should be able to have and enjoy their children in economic security. However, given the tendency of liberal feminism to employ personal narratives in countering such basic socialist demands, I figure the time has come to roll out my own.
I seriously doubt these Baby Bjorn-wearing male-type-people are leaving little Clementine in a hot car so they can enjoy a quick Chantal Akermen feature at Metrograph.
Romantic love and the nuclear family are lovely ideas, but history has clearly shown them to be unreliable economic models. I am empirical evidence of this fact.
My father had the sort of bipolar tendencies that most people reading this could recognize a hundred yards away, but his parents were highly religious people and they had even less of a conceptual frame of reference for mental health than the average person of their age and class background did. He would start a new romance, job, business venture, baby, hobby, you name it, with a burst of wild enthusiasm, but at some point the mania would wear off and he’d collapse on the couch for weeks. Sometimes he’d just skip town.
I believe my father has failed a total count of five biological children, along with the five different mothers of those children. I could not count the number of children whose mothers he married or moved in with. I know two of my half-siblings, but most were well before my time. One, an older brother, I met for the first time about five years ago. He is a very good person, friendly and kind, but I avoid him because he has my father’s face. A previously unknown half-sister reached out to me recently on social media. I have not responded.
Once I asked my dad why he had been married so many times. He paused, waited a beat, and said with a grin and a shrug, “Well, I guess I’m just the marrying type.” Even I have to admit that’s a pretty good joke.
He could be very charming and funny. He could also be very irresponsible, negligent, abusive, and downright mean. He was not fit for the task of fatherhood, not for me or for any of my biological siblings or step-siblings.
Oh hard is the fortune of all womankind,
they’re always controlled, they’re always confined,
confined by their parents until they are wives,
then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives
—“The Wagoner’s Lad”
One of my earliest memories is of one of the churches my grandparents bounced to in their never-ending quest to recapture the old-time religion of their Kentucky home. This one was Nazarene—a literally patriarchal denomination professing as a matter of doctrine that a husband is the second-highest authority figure, just under God. (Preachers barely count in this spiritual hierarchy, since these are the sort of American Protestants who are highly suspicious of any authority whatsoever.) We weren’t allowed to play cards, dance, or see movies—rules that my grandparents secretly flouted constantly, as lovers of Uno, Appalachian clogging, and John Wayne. Women had to wear modest dresses—no pants, ever (a stricture that my Mamaw also regularly ignored for practical housework)—and they weren’t supposed to cut their hair.
One day, after Sunday school, I was dallying in the church vestibule, resentfully scratching my ankles, because my Mamaw had taken to sewing itchy lace on every pair of socks I owned.
One of the “sisters” spotted me, smiled, and made a beeline. She took me and my Mamaw aside and said to me, in a failed effort to mimic a sympathetic tone that wouldn’t melt butter, “It’s a shame your Momma doesn’t take your Daddy back. Then she wouldn’t have to work so hard and we’d see both of them here on Sundays.”
My mother was then working full-time and attending college classes at night. I think my dad was on the lam at the time, I believe for failing to pay child support, but also possibly for some assault committed in a bar fight or on behalf of some loan shark. It’s hard to keep track, and I would have been about five.
In what remains to this day the only time I have ever heard my grandmother refuse to defend her son, she replied, “Naw. He ain’t no good.” She then took me by the hand and we went home, where I would be allowed to take off the itchy socks, put on jeans, and stomp barefoot through the creek trying and failing to catch frogs while she prepared a massive Sunday dinner and my Papaw watched sports. I think sometimes that my grandparents just never figured out the modern world. They didn’t have a clue how to raise a boy in the modern world, and they certainly didn’t understand mental illness; they believed it was the handiwork of the literal devil. Evangelicals are a very literal people.
My grandmother is an incredibly dutiful and loving woman; I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for her to watch her son fail over and over again to fulfill his patriarchal responsibilities. The community she left to work in a paper factory in Indiana—to make a better life for their children, no less—prized god and family above all else, and everyone had a job to do to keep it running. She also loved kids and babies—her home was covered in pictures of children, some of whom she wasn’t biologically related to, some of whom were only the grandchildren of church brethren whom she’d babysit free of charge. In what was probably his most responsible act of fatherhood, my father signed over all his parental rights and responsibilities governing one son to the child’s mother so that her new husband could legally adopt him. The boy was a toddler at the time, and my grandparents had already grown strongly attached to him. When his mother said they couldn’t see him anymore, they were absolutely crushed. His baby pictures remain all over the house to this day.
Many bourgeois feminist social reformers have a lot in common with the clucking parishioners of my youth; they both believe that my childhood poverty was the fault of a failed patriarch. But my mother didn’t need a man—and she certainly didn’t need my father. She needed money.
Parents Without Pittances
She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight years old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who “could no longer endure” (he wrote in his goodbye note) sharing want with us.
—Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing”
There are many reasons why the model of paternal child support is a faulty one, especially when applied to poor or sick fathers. There is the punitive and inhumane cycle of inability to pay, imprisonment, loss of employment, and all over again. And of course, as with anything regarding the prison industrial complex, black men are disproportionately represented in this cycle.
And then there is the secret that poor parents only speak of in abashed whispers: that it’s difficult to love a child whom you cannot adequately care for as you reckon continually with the humiliation and fear of your own inability to provide for them. This private shame causes such pain and anxiety and sometimes eventually delirium that when these put-upon parents reach their limit, it appears downright rational to flee. So sometimes they do.
My father was a frustrating, sometimes dangerous person, but I have no anger for him. I’m told he’d often be assailed with the regrets that any self-aware absentee father is bound to experience, and I feel nothing but pity for a sad old man who missed so much.
You still hear from liberals that you shouldn’t have a baby until you have the money to have one in economic security. In reality, though, that day will never arrive for the majority of people born without money, even when they’ve dutifully launched two-parent homes. And my mother didn’t want to wait. When she found out she was pregnant, she wanted a baby. Lots of people want babies, especially once they become pregnant.
At the time of my (first) abortion, back in Mike Pence’s Indiana, I was married, but I didn’t want my (now) ex-husband to attend; I wanted my mom. She was the one who drove me and took care of me both before and after; my ex wasn’t a bad guy, he just wasn’t a very good husband, and it would have just been more work for me to try and teach him on the fly just how he might go about becoming one.
The day before, I asked my mom if she had ever had an abortion and she said no, that she knew a baby was right for her the same way I knew that it wasn’t right for me right now. She did ask if my decision was about money—I had none—and I said I would still want the abortion if I won the lottery tomorrow. She nodded understandingly and didn’t say anything else.
Romantic love and the nuclear family are lovely ideas, but history has clearly shown them to be unreliable economic models. I am empirical evidence of this fact.
I always wonder whose responsibility it is to make men “take responsibility.” So much time and resources were wasted in trying to track down my father in order to extract the absolute pittance of child support he was obligated (though nonetheless often unable) to pay. My mother would have to miss work for the support court hearings that she was obligated to attend. Sometimes he just wouldn’t show. In place of that futile ordeal, she would have absolutely loved free, twenty-four-hour day care, or even a child allowance. The child support system worked mainly to tie her to a selfish and mentally ill man for the full duration of my childhood. Half the time, he was too out of sorts even to hold down a job. Maybe if he had access to mental health care he would have been a better father. I’ll never know. But some men are just hopeless, and my mother would have preferred to be free of her dependence on him—to relax, to live in a less decrepit apartment, to spend time with me, to socialize, to fucking sleep.
By the time our little family’s finances got out of the absolute pits—a state of precarity created in no small part by the enormous amount of student debt my mother would not pay off for many years and the many work hours she spent away from her latchkey daughter—I wasn’t little anymore. And that was the end of that.
Walkouts and Walkabouts
Your parents don’t like me they say I’m too poor,
they say I’m not worthy of entering your door,
But I work for my living, my money is my own,
and if they don’t like it they can leave me alone
—“The Wagoner’s Lad”
At some point, my Mamaw started to feel underappreciated in her marriage, so she stole my Papaw’s car and drove down to her sister’s place in Kentucky. After a few days and countless burned meals, my Papaw called her in sincere contrition, and there were changes. They left the Church of the Nazarene for what was, in all likelihood, an equally retrograde denomination (I believe this one was Pentecostal). She got a separate bank account. He took her to Florida.
When I say my grandparents adhered to a patriarchal religion, I mean a literal patriarchy—not an offensive TV ad, or some sports bar where you hear a sexist joke or two. She had to “steal” his car to run off because she didn’t have one, because men are supposed to be the ones who drive. She didn’t even get her driver’s license until she was well into her forties. Nonetheless, she knows the worth of her labor in the home and out. Once every couple of years, she leaves him again—just for a few days—before he begs her to come back and meets at least some of her demands. This ritual may appear volatile to onlookers, but as far as I’m concerned, regular strikes are the sign of healthy and vibrant labor relations.
I’m proud of her for learning, in her own way, how to negotiate. I’m proud of my Papaw as well, for managing to modernize his own outlook in some partial fashion as a result of these walkouts. He’s nicer, more considerate and doting, and he does more things that she wants to do—mainly visit her vast retinue of relatives, and drive to the mountains and beaches very far from flat, land-locked Indiana. He also funds more of her hobbies—mainly, flower beds, which he always considered a frivolous waste of good arable land that could be used for potatoes or sweet corn at the very least. Their marriage is generally happy, though it probably isn’t recognizable to most of the people reading this. They truly love each other.
Who’s Your Daddy?
If I feel by intuition that he doesn’t love me anymore, I will immediately fly away like a stricken bird.—Rosa Luxemburg
It seems to me that if you want to socially engineer a loving and responsible masculinity, men themselves must become thoroughly optional—meaning their participation in romantic partnership and or parenting would not be necessary to the financial security of either a woman or a family. There are those who fear this idea will lead to a rash of men like my dad, but I find this suspicion highly cynical. I don’t believe that men are so thoroughly heartless they need a financial obligation to remind them to love their children. I think they need the same things women need to be good parents—time and money. A culture of involved fatherhood will follow from those two basic conditions. There’s no trick to it. It’s not complicated. Economic security and a comprehensive welfare state make for involved dads in a startlingly direct fashion—and in a priceless conceptual bonus, such core allowances for collective family welfare would instantly obsolesce the conduct of gender conflict as socioeconomic trench warfare as it’s now preached in countless liberal feminist think pieces.
If you want to socially engineer a loving and responsible masculinity, men themselves must become thoroughly optional.
Of course, co-parenting relationships will still involve pretty regular negotiations. The administrative division of labor will still exist after socialism and will still be decided within the home. And there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be the case—some people prefer different aspects of the job.
And even when the economy makes way for the culture, you still always run the risk of ending up with a nogoodnik—however rare they may be in a just (and subsequently more enlightened) economy. (Sorry honey, some men are just duds. There’s nothing to be done for it, but a problem without a solution is not, per se, an insoluble problem—it’s just a fact of life.)
There is literally no other effective alternative solution to the culture-wide challenge of male parenting than socialism. If you’re right-wing, you can attempt to “instill accountability” through church and patriarchy; I think my own dad is a pretty clear example of that idea’s failure in the modern world. If you’re a liberal, you still basically want church—but you think it’s feminists who should be the preachers of bourgeois social reform and consciousness-raising (or, if you’re of the Margaret Sanger persuasion, you just tell poor women they shouldn’t be having babies in the first place). The problem with both approaches is that there’s no way to incentivize or legally enforce an enlightened model of masculinity on a large scale without economic leverage; so what we now have instead is mostly just high-profile media feminists scolding and nagging their lives away at unnamed men. (I was always told never to take umbrage on behalf of parties not present, but the liberal feminists are always here to protect the rest of us from our men, and never from capitalism.) I can’t imagine a more miserable and futile calling than that of the professional busy-body, but to each their own, I suppose. Nonetheless, I cling to a vision of socialism that liberates women from sanctimonious cultural tirades and professional nagging.
I cannot deny that the failures of men are tragedies, but I refuse to live in a world where they are a disaster.