Every Child Needs the Good Enough State

The richness of childhood needs to be embraced as a social good.

Illustration by Esther Aarts

It took the devastation of the Civil War to establish government provision for veterans and their kin. Panic about childhood and its inviolability along with a collective sense of responsibility for soldiers, widows, and their children intensified at the end of World War I. Mass immigration, industrialization, and financial crises also cast new light on collective responsibility for the suffering and deprivation of society’s most vulnerable. Agitators such as Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs led movements demanding social services and publicly funded welfare for working people.

Beyond just capitalists, workers faced a new class of antagonists at the new century’s dawn: bosses, engineers, experts, and advertisers. In their 1976 essay, “The Professional Managerial Class,” Barbara and John Ehrenreich defined the salient qualities of this intermediary class, between the proletariat and the capitalist, who advocated for wealth redistribution while decrying working-class consumption habits. Their role in the class war was not obvious in the Progressive Era, but the pmc began to serve capital by pioneering new forms of cultural discipline and reinforcing the social order. With complete faith in their position as arbiters of morality, the pmc established cultural norms that would shape American child-rearing for generations.

Benjamin Spock was one of the most influential figures of this new class. Popularizing psychoanalytic ideas about pleasure and identification, Spock played an important role in the formation of new pmc identities. In his best seller, Baby and Child Care, first published in 1945 — just as the first boomers began to toddle — Spock advised new parents that they should trust themselves with their babies. While the naturalness and intuition that Spock praised seemed like an antidote to authoritarian baby care, his readers were squarely positioned as mid-century consumers seeking assurance and “empowerment” through the consumption of new ideas about child development.

Breaking with family traditions of austerity and infant discipline, the newly prosperous American parent/consumer of advice distinguished herself from previous generations and working-class people by embracing expert advice. Even though Spock warned parents of both old-fashioned and faddish child-rearing counsel, he still packaged his ideas in an attractive book that has sometimes been hailed as the American twentieth century’s second-best seller, after the Bible. Even at the height of his New Left activism, and while under attack for his countercultural sympathies, his critics never failed to call him doctor. Dr Spock emphasized the PMC love of professional credentialism even while he reminded his readers relentlessly that they were the ones in the know. “You can read books and articles, but the main way you will learn is to be observant in a meaningful way. That means spending time, looking and listening to your baby, not just feeding and cleaning him . . . and then trusting yourself. Because you do know more than you think you do.”

In the 1970s, as budding PMC boomers dabbled in self-indulgent experiments with “Eastern” religions and privileged self-expression over family ties, they looked at their blue-collar brethren as backward traditionalists. Today, the situation appears reversed. Historians and sociologists like Jefferson Cowie and Jennifer Silva have shown that working-class Americans today have more unstable family lives and greater instances of divorce and single parenthood than their PMC counterparts. After four decades of capitalist attack, working-class families and kinship networks are at a breaking point. Facing layoffs and evictions, workers find it almost impossible to establish continuity of relationships and stable kinship ties.

In the meantime, college-educated Americans are far more likely to marry and remain married within their class. In the past fifty years, the PMC family has become a veritable redoubt from which class privilege is reproduced. From the very moment of conception, which for PMC parents is a “choice,” optimization of children and their “potential” has become a torturous preoccupation. The 40 percent of American children conceived outside of marriage are deemed unworthy of collective attention or public concern. It is not an exaggeration to say that the reproduction of class privilege, or as the Ehrenreichs put it, “the maintenance of order,” is being played out in the configuration of childhood itself.

Paula Fass identifies fear as one of the distinctive features of contemporary middle-class parenting as “[middle-class parents] imagine what an unsuccessful child might face in the future.” In her best seller, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety, Judith Warner decries the anguished, competitive perfectionism of contemporary professional-class motherhood. Since 2006, when Warner published her book, the anxiety of parenthood has only intensified. Jacobin editor Megan Erickson argues that these anxieties and fears are not unjustified, “given the increasing stratification even within the top 1 percent of the country’s earners as the 2008–2009 financial crisis has only exacerbated the class war that those on top wage against all those below them.” Parenting fads like “infant education” have become hot commodities in a society where economic polarization and a collapse of public institutions and goods undermine the well-being of dependents and their caregivers.

Perfectionist PMC parents are crusading class-formation pioneers: they will not hesitate to humiliate nannies, babysitters, teachers, grandmothers, and other parents about the horrific effects of vaccines, screen time, tickling, dolls with faces, cigarette-shaped candy, or sugar in general. For their children, they model social superiority and utter indifference to the experiences of others.

Parental anxiety begins early for the wealthiest parents, but their PMC faith in parenting fads and technology are inflamed by start-ups and venture capitalists. Take, for instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH)–funded development of the Owlet Smart Sock. A baby sock designed to monitor your baby’s heartbeat and oxygen levels while she is sleeping, the Smart Sock collects a constant stream of data about your bundle of joy and sends an alert to your smartphone if any of her measurements appear abnormal. In 2012, Owlet received $3 million from the NIH as well as $25 million of private equity and venture-capital funding, as the government and investors all risibly claimed to be interested in improving US infant health. Obama-era federal programs were so enamored with entrepreneurialism that the NIH was willing to back the Orwellian idea of the “connected nursery” with taxpayer dollars.

Smart Socks or no, should we be so worried about infant health outcomes? A quick glance at World Bank data on under-five infant mortality shows that there has been a dramatic global decline in this area in the past fifty years. Thanks to the successful implementation of polio and smallpox vaccines and other advances, early childhood deaths have diminished from 93.4 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 40.8 in 2016.In the United States, the decrease is just as dramatic, with 30 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 6.5 today — with no help from the Owlet Smart Sock at all.

So, what in fact does the Owlet gadget do other than attract grant money and venture-capital investment? It cuts off communication between parents and babies; the most carnal and demanding of human relationships is reduced to a bitter cocktail of anxiety and information. “Owlet” babies are strangely unable to demand the care that they need: a sensor, an app, and a smartphone must be activated to alert parents to a baby’s needs. As the gulf between rich and poor has widened, and social mobility has decreased in every ethnic group, the PMC home has become a laboratory of increasingly lavish and expensive childcare equipment and demanding child-rearing techniques.

The class war from above has had dire consequences for all American children and their caretakers, but the toll it has taken on the poorest families is staggering. Recently, the Urban Institute found that children are the poorest segment of American society, with 22 percent living in poverty and 38.8 percent having experienced some form of poverty in their lives. The numbers for African-American children are even more dire: 38.8 percent of black children living in poverty and 75.4 percent have lived in poverty.

While PMC parenting fads promote extraordinary caretaking techniques, D. W. Winnicott praised ordinary devoted mothers for bonding with their infants in a way that gave an astonishing number of people the mental health to access play, creativity, and richness of experience. Winnicott had a very expansive, non-gendered idea of the caretaker; however, for the sake of brevity, I use his term the “good enough mother,” in discussing his ideas. The “good enough mother” is based on her imperfect responses to her baby’s needs: early adaptation to newborn dependency is intense, but a good enough mother adapts to her baby’s growing physical and emotional capacity to endure frustration by failing to respond to the baby’s demands immediately. These necessary failures reflect the mother’s absorption in other tasks and represent opportunities for the baby to establish a healthy tolerance for frustration and recognition of self and other. Winnicott’s most famous case study, described in Holding and Interpretation, analyzes a man incapable of spontaneity or excitement, whose mother, rather than identifying with the infant, had tried to be “perfect” in her infant-care routines.

In his introduction to The Child, The Family, and the Outside World, published in 1964, Winnicott writes,

I am trying to draw attention to the immense contribution to the individual and the society which the ordinary good mother with her husband in support makes at the beginning, and which she does simply through being devoted to her infant. Is not this contribution of the devoted mother unrecognized precisely because it is immense? If this contribution is accepted it follows that everyone who is sane, everyone feels himself to be a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman . . . [T]he result of such recognition of the maternal role . . . will not be gratitude or even praise. The result will be a lessening in ourselves of a fear. If our society delays making full acknowledgment of this dependence which is a historical fact in the initial stage of development in every individual, there must remain a block to ease and complete health, a block that comes from a fear.

In postwar Great Britain, Winnicott welcomed the redistribution of social surplus that would allow the greatest number of Britons to experience the richness and health of his own privileged childhood. That childhood allowed him to expand on his ability for observation, empathy, and play — qualities every baby deserves to enjoy.

Though it is difficult to imagine a time when the richness of childhood experience was embraced as a public good, it was only fifty years ago that Winnicott’s psychoanalytic theories were founded on the idea of collective and mutual responsibility for dependents and their caretakers. The unglamorous infrastructural support of good enough parenting is the good enough state, a social-democratic system of redistributive support.

If the good enough mother can be cherished as cultural inheritance and a social good, we can begin to build a society where dependency is not feared or demonized. We can begin to build a world where no child will ever be “trained” or “fine-tuned” to “succeed” or “excel.” We will be able to imagine a world where playfulness and the environments that support it will be prioritized when we decide how to redistribute the social surplus. We will be able to imagine a world where a baby communicates beautifully with her devoted caretaker because he has the time and space to be absorbed from her first hour, in the richness of the infant’s expanding world.