The inherent stress of having families under capitalism allows them to become isolated and violent institutions.
I f there is a name for the feeling when you’re waiting for the floor to drop out from beneath you, when you’re lying awake at night wondering whether you’ve done enough today, when you’re walking home from work and you wonder if you should buy groceries this week or pay rent on time, that word is capitalism.
Under a capitalist system, there is no safety net. There is no innate support system. There is no benefit to the capitalist mission of competition by supporting one another. The capitalist reality is that not everyone can afford to meet their basic needs and where basic needs can be afforded, emotional intelligence cannot.
Capitalism makes no room for emotional intelligence because the entire concept of capitalism comes from an inherent subscription to social Darwinism — that is, only the strongest (and the most willing to exploit and hoard the most money) survive, while everyone else is left to suffer in desperation. Hegemonic capitalist ideology de-prioritizes mental health, mindfulness and conscious communication as necessary resources so they’re ultimately reserved for the richest and the whitest, forcing healthy relationships to the fringes. With healthy relationships coming at great personal expense, abuse and toxicity are permitted to run rampant — unchecked.
There is no benefit to the capitalist mission of competition by supporting one another.
My family was not unlike many others when it came to the toxicity of my upbringing. One of my earliest and clearest childhood memories is of my mother hammering my father’s skull with the receiver part of the cream-colored corded phone that hung in our kitchen years after it stopped working. In my memory it seems like it was only a few days later that my parents were fighting, my mother in the driver’s seat of her 10-year-old minivan, and my father standing in the grass with the passenger’s side door ajar, my younger sister and me in the backseat — when my mother decided it made the most sense to end the disagreement by flooring the minivan into reverse, knocking my father to the ground with that door and breaking so hard that the door shut.
I don’t remember if my mother offered any kind of explanation for the events that transpired that day, but I grew up being told my father was an abuser and that my mother’s reactions were a normal response to the stresses our family endured, solely as a result of my father’s ineptitude.
My father with his compulsive gambling, alcoholism, and long history of addiction had left my mother isolated for much of their marriage. Throughout my childhood and into adulthood, my father has found comfort in being absentee.
Typical of what capitalism demands of a man via gender roles, he’s always understood his role as going to work, earning an income, and giving it freely to his family as a stand-in for actually showing up. When his one business didn’t meet his expectations of living, he sought to gamble ferociously, hoping to win big and transcend the class of the working man. After losing one business to his compulsive gambling, he was able to get sober in his divorce and become a partner in a well-known Italian grocery store. While having never been to one of my swim meets, being late to my actual birth, and seldom having been home when I went to bed, my father has never not provided on the financial end of things.
But even though he was able to fulfill that ultimate goal of capitalism, there were issues roiling.
It only took my mother six years to realize my father wasn’t what she had bargained for, and five more after that for her to divorce him. My father’s inactive role in the day-to-day functions of our family inevitably left him uninvolved in any of the decision making and childrearing process before and after their divorce. It’s not to place the blame of our particular brand of familial toxicity squarely on my father, but had he been around, things may have gone a little differently. My father’s absenteeism empowered my mother as the sole disciplinarian and her preferred method of discipline was physical, verbal, financial, and ultimately spiritual abuse.
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My first punch to the mouth came no more than a month after my father had left our house. The beating worsened in the days, weeks, and years after that, and my self-esteem, or lack thereof — so shattered by puberty and abuse — only served as further justification for why I deserved it. I remember sobbing on my bed, thinking back to the many times I bore witness to my mother doing to the same things to my father, desperate to find a reason for why my mother wanted to hurt us so bad and so often. I blamed him, and I blamed myself. I figured that — because I was told this — if my father had made different decisions then my mother wouldn’t be so stressed out.
And for most of my childhood that’s how I justified the abuse. I felt that if my mother had access to more resources to be both a working mother and a present parent, that the abuse wouldn’t have happened. I began to see myself as a burden on my mother’s finances and on her well-being because, again, that’s what I was told. Unfortunately, this wasn’t inaccurate.
My mother had a 15-year gap in her resume from marriage and parenting, so it wasn’t easy for her to get back out there to earn a living for her family the way she had hoped. Of this notable pattern in the women’s workforce, Julie Torrant writes:
“This role [as a full-time parent] has structurally blocked women from full and equal participation in the wage-labor force. It has, in other words, made women ‘bad’ competitors in the labor-market. At a time when a ‘family-wage’ was the norm (that is, when the norm was that the husband would be the breadwinner and his wage would support the entire family and thus women did not ‘have to’ compete on the market to sell their labor), a system of social welfare was put in place that worked to (at least) alleviate the hardship this norm placed on women who did not have access to such a male wage.”
Dealing with the debt of divorce, my mother had negative funds to raise us and desperately needed a career change if she had any hope of independently providing. She applied for welfare, but the cost of education plunged her further into debt. When she went back to school, she stopped parenting altogether. The only time I saw her was when she came home to lock herself in her bedroom, where she did homework and came out only to beat me for knocking on the door asking about dinner.
Tasked with the decision between parenting and breadwinning, my mother decided to go absentee and chose neglect — an impossible sacrifice many single mothers in America are forced to make.
But sourcing the causes for my mother’s toxicity does nothing for the weight of trauma on my shoulders. I know my mother, like my father, an addict, would likely still be an abuser regardless of her life’s circumstances. But I also know that capitalism gave her all the tools.
Tasked with the decision between parenting and breadwinning, my mother decided to go absentee.
Teetering on a cliff of survival or not, the inherent stress of having a family under capitalism allows families to become isolated and violent institutions. In February 2015’s Socialist Review, Susan Rosenthal’s indictment of the capitalist family says exactly what I’ve been trying to say for the last 1,200 words:
“Today’s perpetrators are yesterday’s victims. While only a small minority of child victims become adult perpetrators, studies of those who do perpetrate reveal that almost all were traumatised as children. Capitalism cannot acknowledge that most perpetrators are former victims because it cannot admit that families transmit trauma from one generation to the next.”
Both my parents came from blue-collar immigrant families in which the mother was left at home with the children and the father was rarely seen. Both my parents came from families that didn’t meet their needs and were able to rationalize their neglect as just.
The wounded child in my parents never had a chance to heal, and so they went on to wound their children.