No One Wants to Be “That” Mother: Middle-Class Ideas of the Good Life

By Emma Jelstrup Balkin

In this guest essay, Emma, a graduate student at Macquarie University, discusses her research on how neoliberal economic models impact middle-class parents in Australia.

“It’s really tough… and no one really understands what I’m going through.” I’m interviewing Laura, a single mother of three children. Her six-year-old daughter Marnie has become aggressive and difficult to manage. “She is extremely emotional, she just flies off the handle, sometimes for no reason. She cries, screams, kicks and hits, anything to command attention,” Laura says. The situation has been going on for months and is putting a considerable strain on family life. “We don’t go out anymore, I just can’t take her anywhere, it’s too embarrassing. People stare, and shake their heads, and you know they’re judging you. Last time we went out, she pulled her pants down in the middle of the restaurant…”

I ask her if she has any support. “Well, not really,” she says. “Everyone has their own life. And anyone that spends any length of time with Marnie will come and say ‘you need to take her to see someone. There’s something wrong with her.’”

But Laura has taken Marnie “to see someone.” She has sought help from her doctor, a psychologist and a speech therapist. But to no avail. Diagnostically, there’s nothing wrong with Marnie. The psychologist told Laura that Marnie just needs firm boundaries and to have her emotions labelled for her. She says this works sometimes, but Marnie is still wreaking havoc on family life. I ask Laura what she hopes for. She says: “I wish she would just be good.”

In 2018, I conducted fieldwork in Sydney, Australia, looking at a topic that is typically the preserve of psychologists—difficult children and their parents. These are children who can’t adjust their behaviour to the norm, who can’t always adapt to the expectations placed on them. Considered neither “normal” or officially disordered, these are children who in everyday terms are labelled as “naughty” or “brats.” Such pejorative and reductionistic terms do not allow people to see the child as a whole person. I use the term difficult to signify how their behaviours are challenging for the adults in their lives to understand, manage and explain to others, and to show that the child experiences difficulty in their daily experiences of Being in the world.

In Australia, these difficulties are usually explained in one of two ways—either they are symptoms of a mental disorder or they result from poor parenting. While these explanatory models overlap, in this essay, I focus on parenting. Parental causality is a logic common to many westerners and is the central tenet of Evidence-Based Parenting and official government policy: good parents produce good children. It is also a distinct cultural logic we transform and interpret as being “natural.” This de-socialised explanation ignores the broader context to hold only the family accountable. The logic affirms the responsibility of the individual over the social context—we are our own makers. With children who have not yet reached a sufficient level of maturity, parents are responsible for moulding their children into desirable subjects through “concerted cultivation[i]” (Lareau 2011) and effective risk-management.

I interviewed 12 women who once wholeheartedly subscribed to this logic. These mothers invested everything—time, energy, money, a piece of their soul—into raising their children. They had read the books, planned their strategies, carefully selected their children’s environments and implemented thoughtful rules and routines seeking to strike the right balance between affection and boundaries. They had immersed themselves in what Hays calls “intensive parenting,”[ii] but without the promised result of a “good child.”

The good child comes up repeatedly in everyday discourse. As a Dane, this puzzled me. In Danish, we do not juxtapose the words “good” and “child.” So, I set out to understand what the implications of this cultural model might be in Australia. What became clear was how this concept of the good child was not about the child. Rather, it reflects the parent and exhibits a distinct set of cultural values. Children are complex, multifaceted humans who cannot be reduced to a simplistic binary value assessment of good or bad. Yet I found that children in Australia are regularly subject to these binary assessments. Everything they do and everything they are is monitored, measured and appraised as good or bad. People incentivise children with reward schemes and keep them in check by the threat of losing privileges.

In middle-class Australia, as elsewhere in the West, the boundary between parent and child is blurred to where a mother’s sense of self merges with the child. This mother feels the world through the experiences of her child and sees the child as an extension of herself, an embodiment of her values and intentions. In this model, parents view children as an essential ingredient in creating the good life. We do not value children for their practical contributions to the household or their innocence, as in times past, but for the happiness they bring. But what happens when their difficult behaviours obstruct the attainment of happiness? What if they do not bring the promised joy?

The good child represents a narrow set of acceptable behaviours and achievements, which bring social capital or prestige to their parents. In this way, children become an emblem and reflection of parental values and virtues. Parents position themselves and each other within a hierarchy of socially produced family virtues. In Australia, good children are often described as a “credit to their parents.” If that’s the case, are difficult children somehow a “deficit to their parents?”

Vanessa is a mother who, despite having done everything right, rarely hears her son Lucas spoken of as a good child. She tells me: “I thought raising a child would be more enjoyable. That once that child finally arrived, I would just be this natural mother. I don’t regret having my son, I love him, but I do feel really let down. He is a very difficult child… I wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember, and had always expected motherhood to be really fulfilling, that it would just feel right, like a higher sense of purpose. It hasn’t turned out like that for me. I’ve struggled ever since I had a child to understand the purpose. I thought the child would be the purpose, and now I’ve seen it more like a cyclical thing—you have the biological urge to have a child, you have them and sort of bring them up, and then they leave and you die. What’s the purpose of it all? So, no, it’s not fulfilling at all. But there’s still a lot to do, I still want to raise a good person.”

Vanessa saw having a child as the final piece in the puzzle of her life. She is a smart, successful, kind-hearted woman whose young son has turned her life upside down. There is a disjuncture between the parenting experience she thought she would have and the reality of life with a child who in no way conforms to that expectation. “I feel judged,” says Vanessa. “And I know that I am because I used to do the same. Those mothers are just lazy I used to think. No one wants to be that mother… But now I am one of those mothers.”

Society has placed Vanessa and the other mothers I interviewed into a social category they never thought possible. It grates against their sense of self and it challenges their confidence as they reassess themselves and their choices through this lens. In this ideology, parents can, and should, shape and mould their children. But we give little thought to how children shape their parents. Most mothers I interviewed feel that through their tribulations with their difficult children, they have come to barely recognise themselves. “I used to be so calm and breezy,” says Alice. “But Freddy changed all of that. I’m not that person anymore.”

These mothers also feel let down by a cultural logic that says if you just fulfil your responsibilities, use the right tools, invest enough, you will achieve a good result. If you notice an economic vocabulary here, you are not mistaken. This surprised me—just how much a neoliberal language and neoliberal practices are transposed on our emotions and everyday lives. The neoliberal ideology holds that success (achievement, happiness, status) is a direct outcome of individual effort, responsibility and effective risk management. It means that when failure or bad things occur, you have no one to blame but yourself. Parenting in middle-class Australia is modelled on neoliberal values of choice, competition, self-reliance and self-realisation. Neoliberal subjects must be flexible, entrepreneurial, ambitious and independent. Something, or someone, is amiss if not.

Input/output logic, using effective strategies, optimising outcomes, and a discourse that parenting is “hard work, but so rewarding,” indexes productive relationships and attempts to make sure children have the best opportunities to secure a “competitive advantage.” There is a paradox here. Childrearing in the middle-class has become a place of innocence and the site of production of future human capital; a utilitarian enterprise where the pursuit of self-realisation is taken for granted as the meaning of life—the earlier you start, the better! One mother described parenting as a career. She participates in parenting classes as a form of professional development. “I see myself as a life-coach to my kids,” she says. This same mother remarks what a lonely task parenting is in Australia, compared to her parents’ homeland of Lebanon. She feels connection has been replaced with aspiration.     

There is a sense of parenting as a competitive game with winners and losers. When children comply, it is colloquially called a #parentingwin. On the flipside, Vanessa says “I knew parenting could be mundane, but I never knew I could feel like such a failure at it. I’m used to having wins at work, but with parenting, there are no wins. I just keep thinking there’s a secret out there somewhere that I haven’t been let in on. How come other people’s children can sit and do the right thing and mine isn’t?”

Frustrated with being blamed for their children’s difficulties, despite their best efforts, mothers like Vanessa and Laura seek the medical gaze. They have faith that a diagnosis will give them answers, solutions and hope. A psychiatrist tells me that parents often beg her for a diagnosis that she is unable to give. Diagnostic labels are the only ray of hope amidst the despair of managing everyday life with a difficult child. Laura explains how “without a diagnosis I get nothing. I am the one who has to hold everything together.” And while diagnoses are sometimes both justified and helpful (they can help families access services), they are also a sign that perhaps we are seeking answers in the wrong places.

While child behaviour and development are usually the domain of psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals,[iii] it is important to step back to consider how these practices and knowledge forms are embedded in and reproduce the surrounding neoliberal political-economic structure. The solutions are focused on the individual child and family and helping them adapt so they can fit in better. We pay little attention to how the macrostructures of neoliberalism shape the microstructures of everyday experience, or the possibility that the demands of neoliberalism may place undue stress on families and children and reshape our expectations of children and parents.

Within our current political-economic system, children who resist attempts to be moulded and controlled are seen as being at risk of never realising their future human potential, and by implication, never being happy. At the same time, these children pose a hindrance to their parents’ moral aspirations for a good and meaningful life. To understand the challenges these parents face, we must question the notion that intensive parenting is the only responsible model for childrearing. We need to consider how it is enmeshed with moral projects of self-cultivation within our broader social and neoliberal regimes of truth.

Questions, comments, or insights? Get in touch with Emma at: emma@jelstrup.com

Interested in reading more? Other essays are here.


[i] Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[ii] Hays, S. (1996). The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven: Yale University Press.
[iii] I am not disputing the value of their work.

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