Introducing Red Flags, Novara Media’s new advice column for anti-capitalists. Inspired by our columnist Sophie K Rosa’s book, Radical Intimacy, Red Flags will explore how capitalism fucks up our intimate lives – not just our romantic relationships, but also our friendships, home lives, family ties, and experiences of death and dying – and what we can do about it.
From sex to housing, work crises to climate crises, Red Flags will offer guidance rooted in radical politics and informed by psychoanalytic theory. Its advice won’t be prescriptive or dogmatic, but will instead invite readers to consider the roots of the problems that plague us all. “I don’t believe in ‘right’ answers,” says Sophie. “I have no idea how to live either. But I do believe in creating spaces for dialogue and reflection – and I hope Red Flags can do just that.”
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One of my close friends recently had a baby. It’s been a rough ride: the baby’s been sick, neither she, her partner nor the baby are sleeping, and she often seems miserable. She complains constantly about how hard parenting is, but won’t accept my or any of our friends’ help – even though she often gets her own parents to drive down to London from Liverpool to support her. When I try and talk to her about expanding her support network beyond blood relations, she accuses me (only half-jokingly) of wanting to “steal her baby”. I’m stumped. Why would someone reject their friend’s support when they so clearly need it? How do I encourage her to think beyond the nuclear family for the sake of her own happiness?
– No Cradle-Snatcher
Dear No Cradle-Snatcher,
We’re supposed to be happy when our friends have babies. Actual feelings are usually more complicated. I remember a friend once confiding in me, after someone close to her announced she was pregnant, that she was awash with anger, betrayal, abandonment, sorrow – feelings she felt confused and even guilty for having. Most people acknowledge that having a baby transforms a parent’s life. Less often acknowledged is the impact a new baby has on the parents’ friends.
I sense frustration in your letter. I can imagine it could be frustrating to see your suffering friend refusing to accept support. It might be helpful to pay attention to the ways in which she is already letting you in. You write that “she complains constantly about how hard parenting is”. Many new parents, mothers in particular, hide the trials of having a baby from non-parents, “maintaining a sort of political froideur when drawn upon the subject by childless female friends and then exploding with gory confidences once back in the safety of their coven of co-mothers,” as Rachel Cusk writes in her motherhood memoir A Life’s Work. The good news is, your friend has already invited you into the coven. Let’s consider why she might be resistant to more help.
As a new mother, your friend is going through a period of intense transformation. As you observe, she is likely struggling emotionally as well as physically. She is probably overwhelmed in new and wild, hopefully sometimes wonderful, ways – including by powerful hormones, and by existential considerations about the new life she and her partner have created: the “new life” of the baby, as well as her own new life, and the one she shares with her partner. Battening down the hatches could be a stress response or protectiveness over her new family unit. It’s also possible that your friend would love to accept more help, but is experiencing shame about needing it.
Capitalism celebrates self-reliance; parents are expected to cope with the support of one partner, at most with some occasional help from their respective parents. Your friend’s inability to welcome support could be because she believes that needing it would signal that she is failing. Are there ways you can affirm her? Self-doubt and anxiety tend to make us contract, whereas self-belief and security allow us to open up.
Far from failing, it sounds like what your friend is going through is perfectly normal. The nuclear family has a care deficit. Postpartum depression, write Madeline Lane-McKinley and Marija Cetinic, “describes the social conditions of motherhood under late capitalism”. Raising a human from birth within a household of two adults, without substantial, reliable support from more people (or the state), is – as many parents will tell you – a near-impossible task. The solution, Lane-McKinley and Cetinic argue, are “forms of radical kinship”.
Such ties, they write, don’t require us to reinvent the wheel, but are in fact already visible in “existing frameworks of solidarity and communality”. We already know it takes a village to raise a child, yet putting that into practice in a society that coerces us into nuclear family households, alienated from a wider community, can be difficult – not least because it requires commitment and collaboration from people who, according to normative expectations, are not responsible for providing such care.
Your friend is fortunate to have friends like you, offering to support her family in meaningful ways. I wonder how, as you ask, you could help her to think beyond the nuclear family. Perhaps she would be open to spending more time with you and the baby together? That way, she could witness you caring for her child, and come to trust that they’re in safe hands.
As you spend more time together, conversations may open up about parenting. If you are able to be vulnerable with her about your own feelings on the topic, it may make her feel more comfortable doing so herself. Whether we are parents or not, whether we aspire to have children or don’t or feel ambivalent, we all have complex emotions on the topic. If it feels okay, you could even ask her what is preventing her from accepting your support, and whether there is anything that would help her to feel more comfortable.
During these conversations, you could share thoughts about parenting beyond the nuclear family. Bear in mind that people can become defensive when they feel like their intimate life is under the spotlight. Try to share new ideas with a spirit of curiosity rather than judgement.
Many alternative models of parenting – for example in collective childrearing such as “alloparenting” or “mommunes” – may be out of the question for your friend, but could be avenues for the exploration of more expansive ideas about who can and should care for children. If your friend enjoys fiction, you could recommend Torrey Peters’ novel Detransition, Baby, which explores parenting beyond the couple norm. You could even tell her about polyamorous goose parenthood.
Through contact with new ideas, your friend may feel drawn towards a life in which parenting is less proprietarian, and more – gladly – a group effort. As the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran writes:
Your children are not your children.
They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
The revolutionary feminist Shulamith Firestone argued that the touted reward for the suffering of pregnancy and childbirth is “a-baby-all-your-own-to-fuck-up-as-you-please”. She critiqued the possessiveness and alienation inherent to modern parenting and instead proposed that households of “ten or so consenting [and not necessarily related] adults” share childcare. I don’t recommend quoting Firestone to your friend – but in exploring other models of parenting through the safe distance of a conversation, she might be able to envision – perhaps even desire – other kinds of life for herself. It can be hard to want things you don’t believe are possible.