The late-capitalist baby

Those who would never tolerate a repressive State currently accept a repressive pedagogy. (González)

I was at university when we began to talk of horse whisperers. The book, the film, the secret knowledge; the tender servant who with hands and voice brought back broken animals (the spooked, the hurt, the bolters) from whatever haunted their equine dreams. First soothed and then restored, the horses came back to themselves as porters, servants, beast of burden.

While all this was in the air, I went to a house party at which the house dog, a staffie-cross bitch not known for friendliness, took an unexpected liking to a friend of mine. The dog followed my friend from room to room, put her paws on him, tried to lick his face and generally stayed by, adoringly. No-one could see any special reason for this.

You must have special powers, we told my friend, and called him the Dog Whisperer.

Later, there was of course a commercial dog whisperer, but by then the template had changed. Dogs were presented, to the frustration of animal behaviourists, as in need of dominance, the contained aggression of a ruling man controlling a pack of orphans, a model that both reflected the whisperer’s own view of culture and family life and seemed ported straight from Dickens. Dogs gone wild in suburban lounges, controlling their doting carers with snapping, fierce aversions and the worst of tempers, found their household model replaced with another, their wayward owners retrained as alpha, as patriarch.

Now, there is baby whispering, a name given to the commercialising of advice around parenting, mothering and infant care. Some practitioners here and abroad take the name as their own – baby whisperers – but that is of less interest to me than the fact that the term has entered the lexicon of what we do, and with it considerable baggage, some old and some new.

Many experts, no doubt with the best intentions, speak to us of children’s behavioral problems: problems with feeding, sleeping, jealousy, violence, selfishness… Everyone tells us about our children’s problems, about how to detect, prevent or solve them, about how they “manipulate” us, or why we need to establish boundaries for them. No one reminds us that our children are good people. (González)

When my elder daughter was born there was a shortage of rooms at the maternity hospital and I spent her first night rooming with another woman whose daughter, also a first child, had been born twenty-four hours earlier. A ward midwife warned us both that the older baby would likely be noisy and awake as she entered the fabled sleepless second night. This didn’t bother me, since I felt, with all that had just happened, as if I were viewing the world through a sealed bubble anyway. In the early morning I was vaguely aware that the other baby had indeed not slept, and could hear the mother’s own midwife admonishing her to wake the baby again after it fed and fell asleep at first light.

It starts from today, said the midwife. Do you want her to rule you all your life like she’s ruling you now? Don’t let her manipulate you!

It is a harsh world, this world in which infants are said to manipulate us with their inconsistent demands for feeding, their unwillingness to sleep to a timetable (or sometimes at all), their recalcitrance when it comes to the cultural talisman of self-soothing. It is a world in which the weight of ancestry both puritan and papist presses up against the modern era, in which every soul, including the pre-literate baby, is trying to get the late-capitalist jump on those around it. Apply such logic to the lives of those who have not had much sleep for many weeks, and it is easy to imagine the baby willing itself into a permanent state of inconsolable crying, refusal to sleep and feed, manipulating its parents, now as forever, by its recalcitrance, its stubbornness and its cries.

Enter one consolidator of this narrative, the private parenting advisor, the whisperer, the transcender of the health promotional narratives of the State, and the mixed, sporadically-reliable lore of the family. Enter the one-on-one consultation, the help in desperation, the reasonable fees. Enter the return to the life you gave up, save that a baby sleeps and feeds within it.

These days I can tell when my elder daughter is trying to manipulate me, by her pantomime tip-toeing, her theatrical hand-gestures, her difficulty in not giggling as she tries out whatever her new ruse is. Yesterday it was to get tomato sauce from the fridge and attempt to drink from the squeeze bottle as from a sippy cup. All that’s missing is a slower version of the yakety-sax track to set a tune to the lack of subtlety.

The rest is developing mind, emotions only lightly controlled. Why do we call a very young child’s – let alone an infant’s – expression of its ordinary emotional will manipulation?

Acquaintances who have used a private parenting advisor, here and abroad, make references to curing misbehaving babies. I do not want to lean too heavily on their choice of metaphors. The children in my care take me away from the path of personal industry, that is for sure, and to the extent that the life with which I can otherwise “get on” is dropping away, they are the seat of my own misbehaviour.

Late-Capitalist Ratbags, 2013

Nonetheless, I wonder at the extent to which private parenting advice, the curtailing of the wayward baby, the wayward child, by mutual contractual agreement isn’t itself an expression of the awry culture of late capitalism. We are to grow up to know our place, to be controlled or take control, not impinge emotionally with our messy, poorly expressed needs on the subjectivity of others, not even, as children, our parents’. Whom does this serve? And to what end? Others have not pulled punches on some examples of this, and neither, perhaps, should we.

… the child’s absolute submission is only a preparation for the submission of the adult. (González)

… [totalitarian] motherhood itself is an ethical imperative and has to be preserved at all cost. (Tiso)

Works Cited

González, Carlos. “Theories I do not share”. Kiss me! How to raise your children with love. Transl. Lorenza Garcia. London: Pinter & Martin, 2012. Kindle file.

Tiso, Giovanni. “The Fascist Mother”. Bat, Bean, Beam: A Weblog on Memory and Technology. 10 September 2012. Web. 11 February 2013.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Robyn February 11, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    There’s an interview in the Listener with a “toddler tamer” type person. He makes the interesting point that traditionally in human history, babies and small children were not just looked after by their mothers. The whole family – grandmothers, aunts, older siblings – would have been involved, hugely easing the load on the mother. It seems that the modern phenomena of paid childcare experts (either in person or via a book) is another way that traditional parenting has been capitalised.

  • Jen February 11, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    That nurse sounds like she was trained under the old Plunket routine! Of course, the other side of the coin is giving in to all your children’s demands and ending up with horrifically spoilt brats (not that I can imagine you doing so). As with everything, moderation and common sense are worth a lot more than any “rules” the experts can come up with.

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