Governing Parents: Early Childhood, Intensive Mothering and Disciplinary Power in Switzerland

von Dr. des. Laura Preissler

Inspired by Michel Foucault and his work on power in modern states, which gave rise to the concept of ‘governmentality’, this thesis explores, first, how the Swiss state, through state-funded experts like the mothers’ and fathers’ advisors (MVBs), sets out to monitor and guide childrearing practices in early childhood, and second, how parents of small children govern themselves.

In recent years, early childhood has become an important focus of Swiss health and family policy and the subject of several parliamentary initiatives aimed at expanding early childhood programmes in order to protect children’s wellbeing and rights. Here, a child’s experiences during its first years of life are deemed ‘seminal’ for its future health, as well as academic and social success. The Swiss UNESCO Commission’s 2019 report on early childhood, for example, renders early childhood education and care an investment by the state in a nation’s future and claims that children benefiting from these programmes will be healthier, achieve a higher level of education and engage in fewer criminal activities.

The ‘outcomes’ of early childhood experiences are a concern for Swiss government institutions, whose policies are marked by taking a preventive approach to child welfare, in the sense that they centre on preventing ‘negative’ influences on children before they even arise, or addressing them before they can cause long-term damage to their health and development. Thus, young children, but also – and maybe more importantly – their parents, become the target of preventive expert monitoring and guidance.

In the case of Switzerland, the government provides expert guidance through the mothers’ and fathers’ counselling (the MVB) – a nationwide, state-funded early childhood service. Parents’ use of the MVB is intended to be health promoting and risk preventing, while advisors seek to build long-term, cooperative and trustful relationships with parents. I examine both the MVB’s mission as an institution and the counselling practices and concerns of individual advisors, as well as their (power) relationships with parents in detail, which also elucidates the limits of experts’ capacity to govern parents.

Additionally, parents’ accounts of raising their children are explored in the context of ‘maternal ambivalence’, a deeply gendered phenomenon produced by conflicting emotions, needs and demands. I argue that notions of ‘good’ mothering, which are highly influenced by the intensive mothering ideology, shape mothers’ experiences of ambivalence, such as an increased governing of conflicting emotions towards their children.

Parents’ accounts of the experience of becoming parents and rearing their children shed light on parents’ self-work intended to manage negative emotions, which is explored through Foucault’s notion of technologies of self.

In this thesis, I connect prominent concepts in Parenting Culture Studies with Foucault’s notion of disciplinary power in order to explore the practices which are seen by state-affiliated experts as being appropriate to govern parents, and to gain a deeper understanding of the concerns that guide parents’ (self)governance. I investigate the (often gendered) links between intensive modes of childrearing and disciplinary power relations which have remained understudied by empirical research.