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For Richer, For Poorer: Re-Imagining and Reclaiming the Family for the Left

Feminist voices emphasize that production and reproduction are inextricably linked to one another. We need to collectively reflect on our contradictory longing for family and dare to challenge seemingly natural forms of living together.

Family affects us all. Many associate the family with (emotional) security, devotion, intimacy and being needed. When all else fails, the family is there, the most important area of life. Yet reality isn’t so simple. In everyday life, family often means squaring the circle, having to manage life by the clock under constant time pressure. A wide range of needs must be attended to, though often exhaustion and excessive work demands gain the upper hand. Time and again, relationships founder on the inflated image of the family and romantic love. For some, the family represents a prison, a place of suffering or violence – the most dangerous place for women and children.

Regardless of this, the nuclear family continues to be a highly popular model in Germany, lending significant shape to people’s future aspirations (see Haug 2017, 480ff). This is hardly surprising, given that the organization of society as a whole is based on this model, from the legal system and the welfare state to architecture, education and psychology. Children’s books and the entertainment industry appear equally unaware of any other forms of life partnerships. Even patchwork families are only rarely anything but recomposed nuclear families. The government, for its part, is constitutionally obliged to protect and promote the family.

The nuclear family’s unbroken appeal is also related to economic changes. The world of work demands that we be flexible at all times. This requires meticulous management of our labour power. Against the backdrop of increasingly socially unprotected living conditions, there is a growing desire for a stable place of retreat. “The siren songs of private-homely familiarity are being heard because of the inhospitality of society,” Frigga Haug and Kornelia Hauser wrote as early as 1985 (57). This is just as valid today: Who gives me security? Who can I reliably trust? Who takes care of the kids when I’m sick? And who takes care of me? These and similar questions are usually dealt with privately.

Family Policies: Appropriation by the Right…

As supportive as the family may be, it cannot compensate for what capitalist societies fail to provide. Frequently, it is overloaded with expectations, while too little time is left for friendships and other social relationships. Indeed, the family is not an ideal world either. It offers no bulwark against the insecure outside world, but is riddled with its conflicts and desires.

The inability of the family to provide a safe haven engenders a longing for old, supposedly intact images of the family, particularly when excessive work demands merge with conservative values and attitudes. Moreover, an open anti-feminism from the right is putting hard-won freedoms, spaces for development and emancipatory perspectives on the defensive. Through its discourses on identity, security and community, the far right addresses fundamental popular concerns, embedding them in a reactionary worldview. It romanticizes the heterosexual couple, idealizes motherhood and promotes rigid ideas of sexuality. Furthermore, the family – supposedly the natural nucleus of the German community – is held to incarnate security as such.

A diverse range of protests has emerged against these attempts to establish patriarchal concepts of family as the norm and inject family issues with a racist charge (“protecting our women and our children”). What they currently lack, however, is a comprehensive positive narrative. The issue of family is often sneered at or addressed reluctantly at best, in leftist circles. Like the question of Heimat (homeland), it is a difficult terrain. But a feminist family policy, spelling out the need for safety and closeness in progressive terms, is long overdue.

… and Class Politics from Above

This is all the more valid given that current family policy urgently requires a more socially inclusive left-wing alternative. Long after the ‘liberation’ of the housewife through the valorisation of her labour power – a double-edged liberty – social framework conditions continue to predefine the function of a mother as that of a supplementary or secondary wage earner. As a result of legislation introducing joint taxation of married couples with full income splitting (Ehegattensplitting), many women remain in so-called ‘minijobs’ (i.e. working part-time, with an income below the threshold of liability for social security payments) because taxation arrangements offer no incentive to move to full-time work. Insufficient childcare facilities perpetuate the prominent role of mothers in the upbringing of children, forcing them to limit their working hours. Studies show that while the majority of parents are in favor of a more egalitarian division of familial duties and gainful work, most handle things differently in everyday practice themselves. A traditional division of roles often becomes entrenched starting with the second child.

At the same time, women are frequently expected to play the role of 24/7 super-women. This usually requires delegating domestic labour to agile grandmothers or badly paid (and often migrant) household help in order to manage this balancing act. Such emancipated ‘top girls’ are not only supposed to be great mothers, but also economically independent, meet their partner at eye level and run the household together with their spouse as equal partners. Constant negotiations about every minute of spare time dominate the routine of many couples.

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The introduction of a parental allowance called ‘Elterngeld’ as a wage compensation has proven to be an instrument benefiting mainly the middle and higher-income groups. Its benefit to poorer families is minimal, since the approved sum (about 2/3 of one’s last income) is often below the breadline. As a result, cleaners, package deliverers and hairdressers feature only marginally in the Elterngeld statistics. Recipients of social benefits (‘Hartz IV’) are denied Elterngeld altogether, alongside child support advances and child benefits. This compounds the fact that, as it is, children already represent a poverty risk to people with low income. Tax-free allowance for dependent children also privileges higher earners, as does the tax legislation mentioned above. Furthermore, there is a proven close link between a child’s social background and access to education. In short: government family policy is class politics from above.

We must call this by its name without giving up hope. What would an appealing narrative sound like – one that recognizes the needs associated with family, and proceeds from the concrete everyday lives of families and other forms of life partnership to a broader perspective? There is certainly no lack of reasonable policy proposals by experts. What is lacking, however, is this urgently needed overarching narrative. Reactionary forces are gaining ground. The skillful appropriation of this matter by the right, and divisive policies from above, can only be countered if the arguments around the issue of family are both feminist and class-oriented.

Thinking Strategically about Family Relations

Security: How can collective family arrangements be strengthened by socially protecting individual needs in any given situation? In other words, how can individuals be treated separately, owing to their being human, but not privately, via public provisions? Other options, such as the community of dependents (Bedarfsgemeinschaft), give rise to the threat of privatized social security, to the detriment of women and families with lower income. The promise to care for one another ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health’ must not entail having to compensate for a lack of public security mechanisms. This creates compulsions that contradict liberal-emancipatory forms of relationship: entitlements to or hopes of security based on family relations entrench the economic dependence of partners, parents and children, and indeed promote traditional role models.

The decoupling of social security from one’s family status would create conditions in which people could form relationships and assume responsibility for one another without an economic straitjacket. The self-determination of all family members, including children (in accordance with their age), the elderly, and sick or disabled people, would be given a material foundation.

Autonomy and Dependence: This raises questions about the relation between autonomy and dependence. An increase in autonomy – which, in this society, is achieved mainly via gainful employment – represents an achievement particularly for women. However, the pursuit of liberation has morphed into a compulsion to be independent: people forge their own destinies, so don’t be a burden to anyone! What disappears from view here is that dependence is a deeply human condition of existence. Human beings, as the social creatures that we are, always rely on other human beings in order to develop well. Not only babies, children and those in need of care – we all depend on others in our lives. The family, too, is a place of dependence. In this sense, the question is: how do we shape society for it to guarantee the greatest possible degree of individual freedom and self-determination, while nonetheless allowing for dependence on other people? And how do we overcome forms of dependence we perceive as unbearable?

Division of Labour: Recognizing mutual dependence and the need for committed relationships as a fundamental human condition allows us to inspect the notion of reconciling family and work. As important as child-friendly employment conditions or the containment of excessive work requirements may be, the debate about the reconciliation of family and work by all means exhibits a blind spot: it reproduces the dichotomies of work-related versus family-related, political versus private, work versus life. As a result, the fact that the reproduction of human beings itself represents socially required labour falls from view. The question is not simply whether a 40-hour work week can be reconciled with having sufficient time for one’s children, relationship, friends and relatives. Rather, it is what exactly is supposed to be reconciled here.

Feminist voices emphasize that production and reproduction are closely and inextricably linked to one another. Instead of conceiving of them as distinct spheres and organizing family life around the golden calf of gainful work, it would be necessary to recognize all care work and work that produces and sustains life as the foundation of productive and creative activities in a society. This would make it plain that both gainful and reproductive work are organically tied to one another. They do not have to be reconciled, but changed. Not only must we develop favorable framework conditions for diverse family arrangements to thrive. But also the housewife’s ‘liberation’ represents a real gain in freedom only if wage labour ceases to follow an exploitative, male-hegemonic logic.

A Left Narrative: Reclaiming the Family by Changing it

In contrast to the second women’s movement, feminist struggles today no longer focus on bringing down the family. One important insight from the care debates is that, in an emancipated society, we actually depend on the skills we learned in the family: taking care of each other, devotion and attention, intimacy, readiness to take responsibility, and dealing with conflict. That said, the task of the day is to decouple these skills from their historical conflation with the nuclear family and to associate them with the wider context of diverse relationships and genders. This is one more reason why a new left-wing narrative is needed about what family can be.

Feminist Class Politics: The initial steps could be quite pragmatic, using existing political instruments on behalf of the most vulnerable – the poor, the precarious and single parents. Social debasement could easily be avoided if every child were valued the same in all families. Elterngeld, child benefits and child support advances must under no circumstances be offset against Hartz IV benefit payments. Or why not introduce a parenting salary independent of previous income, instead of the elitist Elterngeld? There could also be variants in which someone is only eligible for partial payments, or where payments are divided between parents for the duration of entitlement. Is there any reasonable argument against a universal taxable lump sum for child-raising, instead of tax-free allowance for dependent children? High-income families would be left with less of this sum after tax than low-income families.

Guaranteeing the individual social security of all family members via public systems would imply that the bottom-most safety net would represent a minimum, without limitations or sanctions, protecting them from slipping into poverty. Based on this, every person would be individually insured against the risks of life – accidents, sickness, unemployment, need for care – and this security would rest on social solidarity. Only then could economic dependencies within the family be overcome: the community of dependence (Bedarfsgemeinschaft), the co-insurance of dependent family members (Familienmitversicherung) and ‘spouse income splitting’ (Ehegattensplitting) either represent government tools of discipline or remnants of the erstwhile single-breadwinner wage model, acting as modern shackles, especially for women. Correspondingly, pension entitlement would have to take into account, to a much greater extent than today, the care work a person has performed throughout their life. As a result, the question of who assumes these tasks for a certain period of time so as to take the load off their partner’s back would have far less drastic consequences for their further path in life.

But individual money transfers alone are no solution. Family can only be re-imagined if the political vanishing point is and continues to be the public. Children must be able to develop themselves without their parents having breakdowns during the tormenting search for a place in a daycare centre. Likewise, free all-day care must entail more than just overcrowded depots for children. The care for a family member must not depend on one’s bank account. We demand well-resourced facilities and places in which our children and loved ones have access to the things everybody needs: education, play, mobility, health services, recreation and housing. As long as the question of how we can guarantee this for everybody without barriers remains unanswered, many families will continue to be overwhelmed.

More time is required to utilize, shape and contribute to this public, and not just to manage our families, but actually enjoy them. Struggles for a collective shortening of working hours represent a crucial hinge between feminist and class issues. Once we manage to rein in gainful work collectively, instead of waging futile battles individually, we can finally have a serious debate about egalitarian responsibility for children, the sick, and the cooking. Moreover, we also ought to address fundamentally different working hours models, especially for fathers. Of course, the shortening of working hours represents a liberating step for people without a high income only if it does not come at the cost of less income or less scope for self-development.

Reproductive Labour – Better Together: The Russian women’s rights campaigners of the early October Revolution already knew that nuclear-family households are inefficient and tie women to the home. Should we seek to create the material conditions in which everyday family life is no longer an exclusively private challenge, we will require communal nodes in which domestic and reproductive labour can take place: urban gardens, children’s houses in which adults are only present for safety, afternoon story-reading sessions with sprightly adoptive grandparents, care stations in which families are supported in caring for elderly or sick relatives, safe shelters for people experiencing violence, walk-in centers and/or mobile teams for dealing with conflict, and more high-quality communal canteens. All this already exists – either in disparate, precarious and embryonic form, or as an expensive service for those able to afford it. In order for fundamental social human needs to be satisfied – not only inside one’s own home – all these things would have to become entirely normal among neighbors. Of course, private shopping trips, cooking and story-reading will not disappear, as everyone needs a retreat from time to time. But is it really necessary to have a washing machine in every single household? This is not just a question of ecology.

Demystification of the Nuclear Family: Proceeding from manifest aspirations and internal family crises, another starting point may be to relieve family members of expectations: it is not your fault when it does not work out. The era of the nuclear family is nearing its end, anyway. It is the rule, not the exception, that this family form fails again and again (Tazi-Preve 2017). Experiences of failure require an degree of resonance, however, in order for what many know but are unable to articulate to be expressed – namely, that exhaustion and crises within the family are rarely due to personal failure, and that the images of a successful mother and an equally successful and present father are extremely difficult to square with the daily challenges of an excessive workload, relatives in need of care, a lack of child daycare slots, demanding school requirements, quality time with one’s partner, one’s own fitness, etc. Moreover, permanent self-optimization comes at a price.

The good news is: the nuclear family as the dominant form of living together and sharing a life is far from natural. It is the historical product of capitalist industrialization and bourgeois modernity, which also means: there are alternatives. However, it is up to us to demand and advance them.

No Longer a Question of Descent: Although same-sex marriage does reinforce the ideal of the monogamous couple relationship, with or without children, it nevertheless marks a milestone in overcoming the biological, heteronormative understanding of the family: whether or not children are loved and taken good care of is not determined by biological parenthood. Emphasizing this is instrumental in accommodating the realities of LGBT and patchwork families. Both are becoming increasingly common, the former thanks to the victories won for same-sex and queer relationships, the latter due to an increasing number of couples separating. This raises the more fundamental question of what it takes for children to be able to grow up freely and to develop stable relationships, irrespective of whose biological child they are. We may also ask why the idealized nuclear family so often fails in providing such conditions.

Form Family Gangs! Co-Parenting and Families of Choice: Even though patchwork and LGBT families have become a ubiquitous social reality, for many parents they ultimately amount to responsibility without rights. If, for instance, a child is born into a lesbian marriage, only the biological mother is recognized as the mother. Her partner must be approved for adoption after undergoing government scrutiny. Whoever does not believe in the nuclear family from the outset or whose family has expanded owing to special circumstances is excluded. How come children can only have two people as legal parents? In a novel by feminist science fiction author Marge Piercy, each child has three ‘mothers’ from day one – with motherhood denoting a function and responsibility, not gender. The members of this society are aware that although it may not always need an entire village to raise a child, it certainly takes more than two people to do so.

Indeed, why should only romantic couple-relationships be allowed to assume responsibility for one another and for children? What is the convincing argument against recognizing other forms of commitment to one another? As a child, you cannot choose your family, but as an adult you can. If the dominant model of the nuclear family is to be juxtaposed with appealing alternatives, marriage equality will have to be expanded by the option to form families of choice. This means a form of union or partnership that rests on mutual commitment – irrespective of being related biologically, with or without children – which could be many things, such as two sisters living in the same house and looking after one another, or a man and a lesbian couple having a baby together, and all three wanting to share legal parenthood. A written agreement would have to be made with regard to specific obligations and commitments, including visiting rights and the right to information in case of hospitalization, adoption, custody, maintenance claims, inheritance, etc. Children’s rights would have to be spelled out in binding form. Sounds too complicated? Well, a proven conflict culture and reliable arrangements do help when several people commit themselves to a life with each other. But the same is true for any significant relationship, and represents a daily challenge for many families.

Instead of the overloaded nuclear family, networks or partnerships of amicable relatives or family-like friends could be forged. In Piercy’s world, every person has a core group of intimately trusted individuals. This need not remain a utopia if we start creating the corresponding social and legal conditions today, and if we collectively reflect on our contradictory longing for family and dare to challenge traditional and seemingly natural forms of living together in order to develop radically new relationship models – in short, if we do not misunderstand the family as a purely private matter. After all, all of our relationships based on love, care or friendship are both personal and political. •


  • Haug, Frigga, 2017: “Hoffnung auf Familie,” in: Das Argument 324, 480-505.
  • Haug, Frigga, and Kornelia Hauser, 1985: “Probleme mit weiblicher Identität,” in: K. Hauser, Subjekt Frau, Argument Special Edition 117, Berlin.
  • Tazi-Preve, Mariam 2017: Das Versagen der Kleinfamilie. Kapitalismus, Liebe und der Staat, Opladen.

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[Anne Steckner is a political scientist. She works for the Die Linke (Left Party) Executive Committee’s Department of Political Education.]