“The personal is political” was one of the rallying cries of second-wave feminism in the US. As much as this slogan has been contested and put to different uses, it came to my mind as I sat down to write this piece (the 7th in my “Apart and Together” series about the Coronavirus) because of what it came to oppose: the separation between the public sphere – the realm of men, equality, freedom, and production – and the private sphere – the realm of women, young children, necessity, and other aspects of what Marx called reproduction. Strange to a contemporary ear, this “reproduction” includes bringing children into the world, and tending to everyone who is part of the “home,” reproducing, as it were, the workforce, by feeding, clothing, and otherwise caring for those who go to work.
As in many other areas, the Coronavirus gift to us, with all the suffering that it is wrapped in, is the opportunity to look more deeply into what has already been true and has now been intensified to a degree that previously overlooked aspects of our contemporary life force themselves on our consciousness, insisting that we look, and think, and create massive changes if we are to maintain and care for our life on our precious and only one planet. In this case, the destabilization I am focusing on is the consequences of a substantial proportion of the human workforce in many countries working from home, and not by choice.
The invitation is to examine the very foundations of how we engage with each other and with our children both in our most intimate settings and in relation to what it takes to care for our material needs – our current world of work. Given how effectively knowledge in these areas has been made invisible, a tiny bit of history is in order first.
A brief look at how we got here
Although separation of spheres goes back to ancient Greece, both the public and the private spheres, as well as the particular forms of separation between them, have seen major changes over many centuries. Specifically, there have been overwhelming changes in what constitutes a home and a family; which kind of work happens where; what men and women do; what children do; what types of relationships exist in which sphere; what norms govern behavior in the two spheres; what community means; and many other similar aspects of life.
The history that traces all these changes is largely unknown. Few know, for example, that the relationship between husband and wife, with its romantic, emotional, and intimate significance, which is currently so central to so many people’s experience of well being, is a modern invention, not a universal feature of human societies. Similarly, the many contemporary mothers who face the immensely difficult choice of participating in the public sphere of work and leaving the care of their children to strangers or living an isolated existence with children in a home separated from community and participation in adult activity – likely have no idea that this dilemma never existed prior to industrialization.
Even more intensely, I doubt the children of today, especially in the global north, can imagine that life could be different from what they experience. How many children have any inkling that school, too, is a fairly recent human invention? How many have ever considered that living in an apartment or house with mostly one or two parents and maybe another family member, would strike most children over the overwhelming majority of human life on this planet and in many places still now as a bizarre experience? How many grasp that having no one and nowhere to go to if they run into a difficulty at home could likely make them less resilient for life? How many could take in that having to buy rather than make or collect what they will play with is likely a denial of creativity rather than a boon? How many have the awareness that being most of the time only with other children of their own age and having essentially no avenues of contributing meaningfully to making life happen until young adulthood is neither necessary nor supportive of well-being?
None of these changes simply happened. All of them, and many others, are deeply intertwined with the emergence and intensification of capitalism. I have written, in this series and elsewhere, about the degree of violence that always accompanies the shift to capitalism. This violence almost invariably involves tearing people away from land and from community, often includes enslavement and colonization, and usually leads to reduction in women’s power and choice.
These changes have come in two forms: those imposed structurally, and those brought about through orchestrated cultural shifts that complement the structural changes. How intentional or accidental the massive outcomes have been is a question I leave to each of us to ponder. I find it implausible that the outcomes were entirely unintentional, and it too devastating to contemplate that it was all orchestrated. I suspect it’s some of both.
In the last number of decades, simultaneous shifts in several dimensions have occurred within the global north. One shift is that private home ownership has become a goal even for the working classes, thereby replacing previous ways of living in communities that, though impoverished, included a deep web of solidarity. The shift toward increased dependence on the market rather than community for basic material needs, makes it more and more necessary for more and more people, in particular women, to seek employment in order to meet even basic needs. Additionally, the significant increase in household debt combined with the family increasingly becoming a unit of consumption rather than production adds to the pressure to go outside home and community to work. A shift which tampers with us from an early age is the establishment of compulsory education with its regimentation and goal orientation imposed on us, as children, early on. This then combines with the intensification of social stratification that schools both reflect and reinforce. The cumulative result is summarized in painful brevity by Silvia Federici in Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons: “Mindful of the threat of working class recomposition during the Depression, American capital excelled in its application of the principle that has characterized the organization of economic life: cooperation at the point of production, separation and atomization at the point of reproduction” (page 111).
Working from home
The pandemic didn’t invent the possibility of work from home, meetings on Zoom, and being around children for much of the time. It did, however, shift these situations from being optional, reserved for the very few, to being widespread and imposed.
Prior to the pandemic, those working from home were only 4-7% of employed people in the US and 19.4% of the self-employed (who constitute about 33% of the workforce), which yields roughly 11% of US adults working from home. The numbers for Europe were in the same vicinity. In those countries, most of those working from home were in higher-paid work, primarily in the so-called knowledge sector.
Globally, the number of people working from home was somewhat lower: 7.9%. Where there is a dramatic difference between countries is in the proportion of people who are self-employed: in low-income countries, 81.9% of the workforce are self-employed. (I put together these numbers from multiple sources, and leave it to the interested reader to delve into it some more.) I am under no illusion that this high number represents the experience of freedom so coveted by employees in the higher income countries.
When the requirement “work from home if possible” came, only some people could fulfill it. Earlier pieces in this series have looked at the economic and social impacts of the pandemic and what we can learn from them. In this piece, I focus on the minority of people who are still able to work from home, while acknowledging that the majority of people are either without work or needing to be in jobs that expose them to higher risks. I made this choice to reflect on this unexpected experiment of working at home in higher proportions, because I believe it reveals a lot in terms of how we live, what’s possible, and what we can imagine about transforming the lives of children.
Creatively responding to extreme conditions: one family’s story
As part of writing this piece, I chose a family of friends to interview. I chose them, because they were working from home with children, and I had a sense that they were engaging with the impacts of that in a conscious way. I also chose them because theirs is an unusual family arrangement, and I wanted to ponder, with them, how that either supported or hindered their capacity to navigate the challenges.
By unusual I mean this: Neil and Asha lived through months of lockdown in Brighton, England, with Asha’s first child Rumi, who is now twelve, their joint two-year old daughter Bella, and Rumi’s father, Asha’s first husband, Aasim. When lockdown began, the three adults consciously chose to have Aasim relocate from London to be with them and the children during lockdown.
Lastly, I consider Neil, Asha, and Aasim radical thinkers, steeped in academic traditions I also drank from and acting in the world to challenge existing structures; so I trusted we could reflect together about their experience in a larger political context. I liked the idea of interviewing and engaging with thinking partners.
Children as work
Asha described how having children at home constantly, especially the young one, meant bringing a lot of efficiency and planning to their time, something she isn’t used to and doesn’t like; not her natural rhythm. Neil spoke about being spectacularly busy the whole time, how inescapable the situation of working from home without any relief or support was, and how they had to reconfigure everything around it. One of Asha’s phrases really struck me, especially since she said it twice, in two different ways. First, in speaking about how her relationship with the children might have changed, she said, referring to Bella, “my experience of my own child … changed a bit. …she often does feel like a task to me. And this became very clearly a task.” Then, a few sentences later, she spoke about the scheduling nightmare, and said, “It’s very much fitting her in around the edges of other stuff that was scheduled. And so it [parenting] was like stuff that was scheduled, and it became work.” In the blurring of the public and the private, work encroached into the private sphere of home and family. To make any of it possible, it became necessary to track, plan and account for time. This wasn’t anything Asha wanted or was welcoming: “This is not how I have lived. And not how I want to live, either. … I feel like it kills something, something in my soul, to account for time in this way.”
This idea of killing of something in the soul continues to echo within me. It seems to me as if Asha was describing a process that happened to her over the course of weeks which mimicked the transition to industrialization, when living by the clock became part of following the artificially constructed rhythms of machines and factories. Previously, humans mostly followed the natural cycles of seasons, sunrise, sunset, and the organic flow of tasks. Clocks weren’t necessary. Now, everything is clocked, including the lives of most children, at least in some parts of the world, where schools are so deeply engrained they appear as natural as jobs.
These are two of the ways in which capitalism, the most intensively destructive offspring of patriarchy, has completely transformed our lives: reducing learning to schools and work to jobs. This helps me understand what I’ve heard about from so many parents over the years (and not in this case from Neil or Asha) about two primary zones of struggle between parents and their children: getting out of home in the morning, and bedtime. In both instances, what happens doesn’t follow the organic flow of life, and both are organized around jobs and schools. I sometimes think of these moments of struggle as life pushing back against patriarchy, still, after millennia, in each child’s individual life, freshly. None of us gave up easily. None of us want our souls to be killed, at any age.
With the lockdown, work comes home, and, with it, more regimentation, taking over even areas of life that were previously in flow and spontaneity. “Spontaneity,” said Asha, “has largely gone out the window. We’ve had to account for every minute of the day for many, many days.” And Neil reminds us: “Aside from children’s spontaneity.” And then Asha smiles: “Oh, sure. Allowing for them to break into scheduled stuff.” Indeed, over the course of our interview, Bella came in a couple of times, unperturbed by the focus and seriousness of what she observed. She smiled, she exclaimed, she engaged with others, she looked at me and said hi, she left. Simply life following its own rhythm.
Breaking the two-some trance
The husband-wife-children family structure, named “nuclear family” only in 1949, continues to be an ideal against which to measure. For some, it has become a standard for measuring the morality of a society. In the industrialized countries of the global north, the nuclear family has been declining in actual numbers despite still being held as an ideal. In the US in particular, that family structure peaked in the years 1950-1965, and has been declining ever since, to the point where it’s now a minority form: only 22% of households are nuclear families. In Europe, that number is slightly higher, averaging 28% across the EU.
That decline, however, reflects movement to even smaller family units, not back into more extended families or de facto extended families with neighbors. More people live alone, and more children are raised by single parents, than in earlier times. Nuclear families of the 1950s had more social ties than now, and typically had (at least in the “ideal family”) a woman holding it together with a man who was a breadwinner. This extended well beyond the educated middle classes. Support for the nuclear family was a major component of the post-WWII deal, offering working class men a “family wage” that became equated with a sense of dignity and the promise of a middle class life. Even some Black men in the US, despite major obstacles based on racially oppressive policies, could sometimes move up the class ladder, usually based on getting union jobs. (It was in support for a strike of sanitation workers for better wages that MLK, Jr. came to Memphis, where he was killed.)
This whole arrangement didn’t last. With major changes – both economic, such as declining wages for men starting in the 1970, and cultural, such as the feminist revolt against relegating women to the home – “the sheltered family of the 1950s was supplanted by the stressed family of every decade since.”
My own perspective on all this is quite simple: we were never meant, evolutionarily, to face life as a two-some only. It’s only quite recently, and only in some groups, that we have set this up as an ideal. For most of our existence, we were foraging in small groups of five to eight as part of larger groups of about one hundred. Since settled life began for humans, we either lived as part of a community, or as part of extended families, or both. Living in groups that share resources increases capacity, for everyone. Both adults and children have somewhere to go for company, relief, snack, support with a task, conflict resolution, or any other need that arises.
My own childhood in the 1960s and into the 1970s in Tel Aviv was an example of some kind of unofficial neighborhood “village.” I remember in particular how this functioned in the twelve-story apartment building we moved into when I was fourteen and my sister Inbal was five. There was a constant stream of children and household items moving around the building, and we often had an extra child or two with us at supper.
When I shared this with the family I interviewed, Aasim spoke of similar conditions in the squatter-settler slum he has been working in for some time: “Everything is one on top of the other… There’s no notion of not cooperating, because everything is open and built upon where we’re across from one another. So children come and go. Women share conversation. You always see people sitting across their hall doorways talking. There’s a shared water pipe, so they have to share it. You have to take turns.”
The modern expectation that two people will provide all of their own and each other’s needs with their only support being that which can be bought with money, and, on top of that, that they will be able to care for however many children they bring into the world, is a recipe for disaster. If this is hard enough to pull off when the children are “outsourced” for significant portions of most days, it becomes near impossible when all are home together all the time, like many families since lockdown began. The general high expectation on the nuclear family is also a recipe for increasing inequality, as only those who have sufficient access to resources can purchase enough support and, through that, offer their children enough stability to be able to reach adulthood with sufficient capacity to form and sustain their own families.
My hope (here as with every other challenge I have been calling attention to in this series) is that the Coronavirus crisis will make it impossible to ignore the degree of isolation and stress that so many live with, and that risk sharing, of the kind I wrote about in part 5 of this series, will once again become a central part of our lives, moving us back towards interdependence, the commons, and a sustainable relationship with life as a whole.
Neil, Asha, and Aasim are, in that context, pointing to new possibilities. Choosing to live together under difficult conditions is, precisely, a way to shift out of the trance, to recognize that two adults are simply not enough, and to experiment with one form of change from the unsustainable life form known as a nuclear family.
They also, unwittingly, are supporting their children’s well-being, since, as an article from the Greater Good center at UC Berkeley suggests, in the face of significant adversity, children “who were the most resilient had the most supportive relationships outside the immediate family.”
Needs, availability, and trust
How they made it all work was based on a simple principle that was never made fully explicit. In Aasim’s words: “At any point in time, on any given day, one [or another] of us was more or less available. And the others would pick up the slack.” What made it possible? “Lots of existing love and trust,” said Neil. This made perfect sense to me: the less trust, the more structure and rigid agreements we need to make things work. The more trust, the more flow of gifting is possible. Still, it was amazing to hear and also see the flow; to see people able to live under really, really difficult conditions, and do it fluidly. It is one shining nugget of our possible future: a conscious return to the fullness of the gift economy.
Ultimately, even the three of them wouldn’t be enough. As Neil reflected: “I think if we had been with multiple generations of others – cousins or something – it would have been a lot easier. And the children would have had a lot more peer-play and so [would have been] occupied. In any other direction it would have been less intense.”
To some extent, the fluidity of who was mobilized when, and what resources were available, extended to the relationships with the children and their needs. The most significant piece that I heard in that regard was about how Rumi’s school encouraged him to actively participate in Marx’s “social reproduction.” As Neil said: “And although there was some resistance in getting there, he quickly got there, and then he was cooking stuff, taking responsibility for things, and having more understanding of how much fucking work goes into keeping a household going. … It was a learning on his part, and then us witnessing part of that. Which was nice.”
This is a tiny example of what having children and adults sharing space more of the time can bring: organic learning based on participating in the activities of the adults, contributing and learning at the same time. This is precisely the fundamental insight at the heart of unschooling: that when children are part of the organic flow of life, their natural interest and curiosity, along with the creativity and ingenuity of the adults who are with them, will create enough opportunities for learning. In times past, most of what adults did was in principle something children could join with in this way or, at least, watch and learn from. Today, very little of adult activities could be open to children in the same way.
The needs of children
What makes it almost impossible for unschooling to exist today as the common way of being (as it effectively was for millennia) is the changing nature of work. This is one more complexity of the separation of public and private spheres where this piece began.
In ancient Greece, what is now the public sphere was called the polis, and what is now the private sphere was called the oikos, the home. It’s easy to see the relationship between polis and politics. How economics, which derives from oikos, and originally meant home management, came to be associated with the public sphere, is entirely related to the migration of production from the home to the factory.
The significance of that migration of production for children is monumental. Before it, children could be home, or near home, and gradually learn what older members of their families and communities were doing. Work, learning, and relationships were all part of an interconnected web. Even in early years, children could both learn and contribute, all while remaining in close connection with their important adults. When work moved from subsistence farming and workshop to the factory, initially women and children migrated with it, until laws banned first children and then women from such work. While in the factory, children’s existence was abysmal, and, still, they were to some extent sharing in the life of adults. Being sent back home didn’t change the dramatic shift: there was no productive focal point at home, no way for children to participate in making things happen. This also affected women, reducing their power and likely sense of meaning, and, gradually over time, isolating them from other adults. The private sphere is also the sphere of separation, which is part of the etymology of the word private (“set apart from” is part of the original meaning of privatus).
With the next change, as industrialization progressed to the service economy and, later, to the technological boom of our current times, the gap grew larger between what adults do and what children can do with them. At this point, there is little that adults do which children can do with them and learn in the process. Instead, children are sent to school, where they learn things for a distant future, with little that is immediately relevant to their lives, and they have almost no avenues to be part of contributing except through chores.
Sure, unschooling parents find their ways. Baking can turn into a lesson in math. Being on the road can become a lesson in physics. And curious children will find their ways to learn. And none of it is a solution to what we have done to children’s lives, to all our lives.
I come back, again, to the intertwining of the personal and the political. No individual solution is a true solution. Individual solutions only appear to solve something because our lives have been so deeply individualized that we no longer see the links that make what happens in the home, in our personal lives, and in our relationships entirely inseparable from the larger political and economic systems within which we live. Children were not meant to be living in such conditions any more than adults are. I am not a psychiatrist or researcher; I am only a heartbroken human being who refuses to be convinced that our natural evolution led to one in ten children in the US believed to need medication in order to get through the day. I am grateful for the presence of a few brave souls like Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist who questions the use of drugs to attend to what I see as the consequences of systematically not attending to the needs of children. I don’t see how the evolutionary biology of foragers living in small, loving intergenerational groups – which is still our biology – could equip us to survive being confined to sitting still for hours on end, needing a permission pass to attend to our bodies’ needs, and having to switch our attention from topic to topic on someone else’s schedule which is announced through a loud bell. I am not at all surprised that a growing proportion of children simply cannot cope. Medicating them, to my sensibilities, is about closing off a feedback loop that tells us, ever more loudly by the year, that our modern lives are not working.
Nor do I see unschooling being a scalable solution without dramatic structural shifts. It’s not only fossil fuel use and climate change that are the issue. Even if we made massive shifts to a so-called green economy, unless mass scale production, work organized around wage labor, and global supply chains that undermine locally based production are fully transformed, we will continue to be dependent on most humans leaving home to do work that lacks meaning and doesn’t support sustainability. In such conditions, only few will have the resources to have their children be truly well-cared for, in connection with family, friends, and community. We have been severed from our original relationship to life and land which we had when we were foraging, and then, again, from the second form of directly relating to life and land that we created: the commons. The commons, in particular, was a way of life that connected communities to land and other resources in fully interdependent ways, regenerating people, plants, animals, and land into an indefinitely long future, broken only when capitalism began its assault on the commons. (I often touch on the commons in my writing. See in particular part 5 of this series, and an earlier piece in which I wrote a lot about the commons). What I envision as a path into a livable future is fully restoring and reinventing the commons and mobilizing our vast intelligence and creativity in service to finding ways of caring for ourselves, as a species, in ways that are interconnected and oriented towards needs; a form of collective mothering of the whole. Only in such a world would I ever want to be a child.
All photos free to use.
Globe with Mask – Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.
Hour glass – Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels.
Lamp – Photo by Emre Kuzu from Pexels.
House with coins – Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels.
Kid on dad – Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.
Asha, Neil, Aasim, Rumi, and Bella – Courtesy of the family.
Clocks – Photo by Andrey Grushnikov from Pexels.
Woman working – Photo by Alexander Dummer from Pexels.
Reaching for glasses – Photo by Biova Nakou from Pexels.
Cooking together – Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels.
Working with kids – Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.
Screaming girl – Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels.