The best way to describe how I felt when I first became a mother is invisible. I went from going to meetings, lectures and libraries, where people would show interest in me and my work, to being stuck in our apartment with round the clock feedings and baby care. I didn’t see many people, and, more to the point, not many people saw me.
But it wasn’t just that kind of invisible. It was that no one was in the least bit interested in the fact that I had a baby. In a way, this was a good thing. Families are a private affair, and I was free to have one. And yet, it was this freedom, I felt, which also made me invisible. I was free to raise my child as I saw fit. The flip side was that no one cared. They cared about my academic work. But they didn’t care about this work.
And yet, I thought that they should care. Not in a busy-body, ‘I’m going to call the social worker if I’m concerned about your parenting’ sort of way, but in a ‘Thank you for raising a future citizen’ sort of way. I had always been interested in politics, but now being a mother with a baby seemed about as far away from politics as I could get. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that in some way, raising her was a political activity. It was political in the sense that what I did in my home – how I treated her, and the values I taught her – would have an impact upon her. And she, in turn, would one day have an impact on those around her in wider society.
Parenting, Politics, and the Public/Private Distinction
Is parenting a political activity?
To consider this question, I want to point to a previous blog post in which I asked a related question: Could parenting be more important than politics? There I argued that, in some versions of liberalism, the role of the state is limited to protecting our freedoms to live as we choose, as long as we do not bring harm to others. It must remain neutral as much as possible on moral questions regarding a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ human life. By contrast, an essential aspect of parenting is teaching our children the moral concept of what it means to live a good human life.
On the liberal view, there is a distinction between the public sphere of the state, and the private sphere of society, which includes the family. The private sphere is defined by our rights, which are fundamentally rights against the state – things like our right to private property, free speech, free assembly, religious freedom, and so forth. These rights defend us against political authorities seizing control of every aspect of our lives. They set up a ‘non-political’ space, in which (theoretically at least) we can pursue the good, without the state dictating to us what is good.
Parenting, I would argue, is one of the most important activities of the private sphere. This is especially true if we view parenting as an exercise in leading our children toward the good. Thus, if we accept the sharp distinction drawn by liberalism between the state and the private sphere, then parenting cannot be considered a political activity.
Rights-Bearing Citizens vs. Virtuous Citizens
Now, fond as I am of the public/private distinction, it is also problematic. Let’s consider the private realm more closely. I have just explained that the private sphere is a space of freedom defined by our rights. Yet, what this also means is that the state regards its citizens within the private sphere only as rights-bearing individuals. As far as the state is concerned, our personal characteristics – indeed, our virtues or vices, our aspirations, our relationships – are not matters of consideration, as long as we keep the law.
For instance, it doesn’t matter if I volunteer at the local hospital, or sit at home watching porn for hours on end. In the liberal state, the political realm treats these private activities as though they were equal in value. This is precisely because it does not make value judgements regarding the good life. And yet, the first activity requires – and generates – virtues such as compassion, generosity, and patience, while the second activity requires – and generates – no virtues.
So, it seems to me that the public/private distinction, although essential for freedom, at the same time cuts itself off from acknowledging, or valuing, the vital role which private virtue plays in our society. What if none of us were compassionate, generous or patient? What kind of world would that be? It is clear that our public sphere depends upon citizens to be virtuous in their private lives. Yet, liberalism can only respect us as rights-bearing individuals; it cannot ask us to be – or value us as – virtuous individuals.
The Political Need for Virtue – Especially in Parenting
Now, nowhere is the need for virtue more prominent than in parenting. I can’t think of anything in my pre-parent life that required even half as much patience, resilience, self-control, kindness, forgiveness (for myself, mostly), courage, sheer determination and unconditional love as parenting does. And that’s just for ‘getting-through-the-day’ parenting.
Virtue, really, if we think of it in an Aristotelian sense, is what enables us to align our lives with the good. If we believe that parenting is essentially a moral pursuit in which we lead our children toward the good, then virtue is indispensable to good parenting. But if the state remains silent on the good, then it also stays silent on the importance of virtue – even in parenting.
In my experience, this silence has been deafening. It is as if, because we cannot require people to have virtue – and because often we cannot agree on what virtue is – we therefore cannot be honest about how much we need it, especially in parents. Clearly, our characters as parents matter for society, and therefore, for politics. Indeed, they define how we interact with our children, which in turn influences their actions and characters. And their characters, in turn, will shape our future society.
When we think of politics, we think of politicians. They make laws which affect us, to be sure. But I would argue that parenting practices have a far greater impact upon society than laws. Society is shaped continually, in one way or another, from the ground up, and it is parents who are in the trenches. Politicians may go on about the social ills of inequality, poverty, substance abuse, family breakdown, etc., but the truth is that politics will always be an ineffective way to solve these problems. Solving them revolves firstly around parents, and only secondly around politicians.
Parents aren’t politicians. But make no mistake, parents have an essential political role. Raising a family has profound political consequences, whether for good or ill. I’ll say what I wish someone would have said to me 16 years ago:
Your efforts as a parent –
midnight feedings, cleaning, cooking, pushing through exhaustion, budgeting, going without, discipline struggles, rule-making, weeping, teaching, chasing, more cleaning, more cooking, more rule-making, more weeping, searching, reading, playing, working, cold-dinner eating, unconditionally loving –
and the virtues that results from all of that,
matter for us all,
even though no one wants to say so.
Because one day, even though you can’t see it now, your kids are going to be awesome people, who will change their corner of the world.
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley lives in the USA and is the mother of six children. Her other qualifications include an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History and Political Thought from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, England) as well as a BA from Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA). She blogs at Philosophy for Parents, where an earlier version of this article was published. Read her earlier article, Could parenting be more important than politics?