I crouched down below the table, carefully collecting the small pieces and large chunks of boiled broccoli that my nine-month-old had dropped on the ground. We were eating dinner at the Chili’s near our hotel on Christmas Eve near O’Hare, since we had an early morning flight to visit with family. It took several minutes to wipe her hands and face and to collect all the food and other items she had used to make a mess. As I crawled around on what I imagined was a filthy carpet, I became keenly aware of myself, and if I’m being honest, I felt irritated that this had become a daily ritual in my life.
Caring for young children, especially as a primary caregiver, can be debilitating, exhausting, terrifying, joyful, and wonderful. As Mara Benjamin writes in The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought, there is a connection “common in daily life for parents between profound love and profound disappointment, frustration, and rage,” (24). As children grow from infant to toddler to child to teen to adult, the challenges and joys of caring for and about them will surely take different forms. In this phase of my daughter’s life, I have been especially preoccupied with all the tasks required to feed her.
Perhaps it is because the day when she can eat well, both independently and healthfully, seems years away. Further, I have found that this particular care task is often tedious and requires more mental and emotional energy than I had imagined. It’s not all so dreary, though. I do, in fact, really enjoy cooking and sharing food and I’ve loved the moments when she eats something new that I’ve prepared.
Still, teaching a child to eat is quite elaborate. For the child, the mechanics include learning to chew and swallow a variety of textures, learning to use their hands or utensils to get a variety of foods (mostly) into their mouths, and learning to drink from straws and open cups. Then there are the social aspects of eating like learning how to deal with forks, spoons, cups, plates, bowls, or unwanted food. They also need to learn how to keep their bodies, clothes, and table relatively clean while eating, or how to clean a mess they’ve made. We would be shocked at an adult who threw his fork after taking a bite at dinner or who rubbed a fistful of oatmeal through his hair mid breakfast. These are some of the explicit skills that caregivers must repeatedly attend to for roughly 4-5 years beginning when the child is just 6 months old.
The caregiver has much to consider while introducing solid foods to infants, balancing the need to expose them to a variety of textures and flavors while being mindful of sizes and textures that are safe to eat. This is compounded by the need to balance meals with a variety of fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein, while determining when to incorporate added sugar or salt. There are further social considerations for caregivers: Will the child eat the same (or similar) food as the adults? Will the family eat at the same time? How should the caregiver address “picky” eating or snacking?
Before this particular care task became a mark of my daily life, I hadn’t given much thought to either its complexity or how much sustained labor it takes to teach this skill. Importantly, eating is both a physical and a social skill that takes years for most children to acquire, and children with various disabilities might need more individualized skills or time as they practice these physical and social skills.
When we are responsible for sustained care tasks like this, especially with young children, it can underscore the vulnerability and dependence so inherent to the human condition. Mary Nickel describes young children, especially in the newborn phase, as “a person in need—profound, extensive, expressive need…an astonishingly fragile bundle of needs,” (Matrices: Pregnancy, Piety, and the Social Constitution of Human Agency, 49). These features are so evident to those who care for young children, yet they should not be viewed as features exclusive to young children. In other words, it is not just the child whose vulnerability, needs, and dependence are made plain, it is also the caregiver’s.
Vulnerability, dependence, and the need for others to provide care labor are fundamental features of the human condition. This can often be obscured for the able-bodied adult who has relative stability in their income and housing. Bringing a newborn home, however, will quickly shatter this illusion.
When we brought my daughter home, some folks from our church delivered meals, and I hired a postpartum doula to help with cooking and cleaning in those first weeks because we had no immediate family in the area to help. I vividly remember when I realized that I would have to be alone for a few hours when my husband returned to work part time. I sobbed, not knowing how I could manage. Gone was the image I had of myself as a fully capable and independent woman. This tiny person, so vulnerable and completely dependent on me, rendered me vulnerable and reminded me of my deep need of others.
Yet, what do these private moments where we viscerally understand our dependence have to do with political theology?
Political theology’s traditional categories of authority, sovereignty, and governance don’t appear to have much to do with these quiet moments of exhaustion among the primary caregivers of young children. The experience of caring for young children in contemporary US society, however, illustrates our need to theorize the private in relation to the socio-political. Feminist and family abolitionist thought have long made these connections, and in what follows I hope to demonstrate how these traditions theorize about care (both materially and affectively) as a public, communal issue.
As I read contemporary family abolitionists such as Sophie Lewis and M.E. O’Brien, their critical analysis is coupled with an imaginative, constructive project. In their critical capacity, abolitionists offer critiques of the structural features of families, noting the violence, domination, isolation, and sheer exhaustion often found within the nuclear family structure. Further, family abolition is a fundamentally anti-capitalist critique. As O’Brien explains, “families as private households are embedded in the broader circuits of property, labor markets, and the state. All these link together to reproduce capitalist society as a whole” (7).
Capitalism itself depends on the unpaid domestic work, the reproductive labor, of mostly women for the production and maintenance of its labor force. This critique can be traced to Silvia Federici and others affiliated with the 1970s Wages for Housework Movement.
Amid these varied yet intersecting critiques, family abolitionists keenly hone in on the issue of care. From care as affection and belonging to more materialist reproductive care tasks, abolitionists recognize the centrality of care to human subjectivity. “Human life depends on care,” explains M.E. O’Brien, “we are all inescapably interdependent,” (6). What the abolitionist argues, however, is that the family functions to privatize this care.
In Sophie Lewis’s Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, she explains, the family “is the reason we are supposed to want to go to work, the reason we have to go to work, and the reason we can go to work. It is, at root, the name we use for the fact that care is privatized in our society,” (4). Most of us experience this privatized care, then, as a scarcity.
Both Lewis and O’Brien further articulate this critical analysis through histories of radical feminist, queer, and family abolitionist movements. Lewis cites Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh’s 1991 The Anti-Social Family in her historical analysis—“the stronger and more supportive families are expected to be, the weaker the other supportive institutions outside them become,” (59-60). In other words, the more we romanticize and idealize the care work within the private household, the more we exculpate the broader society from the responsibility of this work.
Herein lies the heart of the issue for political theory and political theology. The sheer exhaustion that so many primary caregivers experience is not really a private matter. Yet, it is also not obviously a matter exclusively for the State. Rather, theorists like Lewis and O’Brien are gesturing towards collective care and notions of the commons. And in this regard, political theology ought to consider questions of care, such as: How should a society justly distribute the care of its children?
As I noted above, family abolition has both a critical and constrictive register. Proposals for new social practices or policies gesture toward that constructive register. Yet, abolitionists also employ speculative fiction, imagination, metaphor, and utopian thinking in an effort to draw us beyond what we think is even possible. Some ideas include “free universal 24/7 community-run-child care,” communal kitchens, ectogenesis, and reordering homes so that adults and children “democratically inhabit large, non-genetic households” in a post-capitalist future (Lewis, 57).
As Alexandra Kollontai summarizes in her 1920’s pamphlet, “society will gradually take upon itself all the tasks that before the revolution fell to the individual parents,” (quoted in Lewis, 49). This is a vision of reversal, one whereresponsibility for the care of children is gradually de-privatized, where its burdens (and joys) are shared collectively among the broader society.
In O’Brien’s assessment of the materialist theory that informs her work, Marxists have often neglected the affective and psychological features of a free, post-capitalist society. She then highlights strands of feminist, queer liberationist, and Black liberationist thought along with “many religious faiths [that] have some element of universal love” (238). More specifically, O’Brien points to Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community. This vision, or horizon, was the orienting aim for many in the Civil Rights Movement and imagines a society of mutual dignity and respect.
For both Lewis and O’Brien, the imagined society is characterized by an abundance of care and love unbound by genetic notions of kinship. For O’Brien, “family abolition is a commitment to making the care necessary for human flourishing freely available throughout society” (6). For many people the language and concept of family is how they “often articulate their yearnings for care, for affection, for the long-term interweaving of our lives,” and for abolitionists, abolishing the private household is precisely how we might realize those yearnings for all (6). Family abolition is about envisioning and creating a world where not only those we love, but especially those who aren’t loved, have the care they need to flourish.
Like so many millennial women, I have experienced parenthood as a dizzying combination of awe, joy, anxiety, and exhaustion. My daughter has a belly laugh that melts my heart, and I delight in every new thing she learns. Yet, I have also experienced motherhood as a dearth of care. Perhaps the private nuclear household is not, in fact, the most effective way of providing the care we all need to flourish.