Becoming a parent is a doozy for anyone. And it plays out in specific ways for folks who have made their life about progressive social change. Consciously or not, most of us have fallen prey to one of the biggest movement lies around: the belief that parenting makes it hard to be an effective activist.
Living with this belief, I’ve been waging an inner battle that pits my social change work against my family building, feeling like I can’t effectively do both. That’s why I – and a dozen activist mamas and a baba – joined a monthly sharing circle led by Mimi Ho and Rebecca Aced-Molina. In this circle we parents were invited to try on a radical idea: what if your role as a parent is making you more effective in social change, not less?
For a month I embraced this mantra. Now, I can wholeheartedly attest that I am absolutely more effective as a warrior for social change through being a mom. The level of long-term strategic thinking and compassion building that comes from mothering is severely undervalued in our world, as well as in most of our social change efforts. While mothering isn’t the only way to develop these movement skills, here’s how becoming a mommy has made me a more effective social justice warrior.
Priorities. If I thought 25 hours in a day was the Holy Grail before kids, 30 hours wouldn’t begin to cover it after kids. Ultimately, if nothing came off my plate, something would break: my health, my marriage, and my job. To keep sane, the only thing to do was to shave down dramatically on my commitments – on the work side as well as the family side. After several unsuccessful vacations, I’m now totally committed to Keep It Simple for holidays, parties, and the like. I am adamant about keeping my workweek to 40 hours. I rarely do meetings in the evenings and weekends without taking comp time in the regular workweek. The result is what the Social Transformation Project calls strategic disciplined work, rather than busyness. Every day I learn to shape my life around goals and priorities, saying no when I lack the capacity to be truly present for either work or child. I am lucky to be at a work place that views this as modeling good work planning, rather than a lack of commitment.
Negotiation. I believe the racial justice movement is coming out of a narrow view of self-interest as defined solely by most impacted communities. What I am seeing now is racial justice leadership around what is better for everyone – led by impacted communities. It’s what Movement Strategy Center calls a “movement pivot” we are making from marginalized thinking to powerfulness grounded in people, community, and history. In the most basic sense, it means seeing 99% of folks as allies and finding ways to engage them in working for a larger vision that includes us all.
Finding this win-win perspective lies at the heart of negotiation. My daughter, who is in her two’s, is my biggest teacher. Often, when I make a request she doesn’t want to go along with, I feel like she has to lose for me to win, which makes for escalating battles. Now I’m trying a new approach, framing my requests using her self-interests, connecting to her goals and aspirations. When she won’t leave the park I ask, “Do you want to close the park gate by yourself?” Instantly Mila comes to the gate, remembering how she insisted on opening it when we came in and avoiding the anger that would have resulted from “I’m going to count to 5; if you don’t come now, you can’t watch videos.” These are small moments but I’m confident that I’m getting better at breaking out of confrontational dynamics, seeing what another person finds meaningful, and making win-win propositions.
Honoring Life. The best warriors love life and avoid inflicting pain needlessly. As I am pregnant again now, I am reminded how close we mothers can be to the beating heart that everything comes from and returns to. Somehow war, Trayvon Martin, and all the horrors inflicted on children and communities seem even more tragic, while my emotion turns from anger to profound sadness. While I don’t judge the use of violence for self-defense, I am more determined than ever to wage peace in my home and in the world. And I have deeper compassion for those who need to protect themselves and their families by any means necessary. The mama bear in me can relate to that.
The Long View. Soon after I learned I was pregnant again, a radical minister told me, “Go and build that nation.” Oftentimes I forget that raising children is nation building: political and human evolution work.
Parenting is the long term, multi-generational conduit of ancestral memory and culture, of fulfilling dreams and struggles begun millennia ago. When I look at the generations of my family I can see clearly that the arc of history truly does bend towards justice.
My maternal great grandmother had bound feet and my paternal grandmother was the one surviving child of 13 in agrarian China. My maternal grandmother was college educated and taught in a Chinese school in San Francisco’s Chinatown and mothered five children. My mother was a part of the Third World Strike and became a doctor after having two children.
I have yet to complete my journey and have so many choices that my foremothers didn’t. Mila is a magnetic, joyful, and creative Blasian child. We are so blessed to live in an area where grannies of all colors greet her, give her snacks, and call her “smart,” “cute,” and “beautiful.” While many things, including income inequality and climate change, have gotten worse, many other things have gotten better. I can rest in that faith, knowing that all parts of my life add up to one unified political project. My contribution is a very small but truly precious part of the great turning. This can take some of the pressure off when I’m dealing with short-term losses and frustrations.
There is nothing like the long view to maintain our inspiration and keep our eyes on the prize.
This post is the second in the Let’s Talk series “Movement Lies We Tell Ourselves.”