Parenting and Activism
Notes from a discussion at Lady&Trans*fest, Sunday 30th March 2014
This meeting took place upstairs in the WSM room in Seomra Spraoi, which was once the kindergarten space. Present were a group of parents, guardians, prospective parents, allies and some children. Shonagh and Marianne facilitated on behalf of RAG.
The meeting began with a round of names and the question, “what do you hope to get from this discussion?” Parents were interested in how to involve themselves and their children, how to maintain their activism in the face of obstacles, and to build connections. Allies were interested in exploring how to make spaces and events more welcoming and inclusive for parents and children, how to support them, and to hear different approaches and perspectives. A couple of people had attended thinking the meeting was on something else, however they stayed, and made valuable contributions!
The rest of the meeting was structured as a facilitated discussion tackling three questions:
1) What has/could becoming a parent brought/bring to your activism?
2) What barriers does/could parenthood present to activism?
3) What would you like to change or see happen? What would inclusive spaces look like?
My notes take the form of a picture on my phone of some whiteboard scribblings! In this report I'll do my best to reform a narrative around these points and try to do the excellent discussion some justice.
The very experience of becoming a parent is a politicising event for many. As a woman, being thrust into the broken healthcare system to birth and being exposed to the abuses within it shocks many into developing their feminist analysis, and practical skills to negotiate their safety while engaging with this system. Likewise, becoming a single parent, or being forced to engage with and negotiate the welfare system, or being exposed to the prejudices in society can be intensely politicising. Queer people become suddenly far more radical and visible by virtue of now existing as queer parents. We are now more subject to societal scrutiny and judgement and the exhausting process of defence/ justification/ existence. As parents we have to become involved with societal systems that we may never have had to think about before and to make choices for ourselves and our children, including healthcare and schooling, and the avoidance of the church. We may find ourselves suddenly making links with other parents in similar circumstances, or creating support networks and groups – such as queer parents groups, local support networks and birth activism. For many, parenthood is a focusing event in their activist life; shifting the focus from the global, the external, to the personal, the body, and our daily lives, our communities.
However it can be noted that, especially in our communities, becoming a parent means becoming invisible. There is the feeling that when activists become parents, they gradually just conform and disappear, leaving activism to the young and the childless. Some manage to engage in campaigns only on “days off” - when the children are being minded elsewhere – this compartmentalisation of family life, while sometimes necessary, is exhausting and unsustainable if it is the expected norm. This separation and disappearance is not the norm in other countries, and certainly not in communities where anarchism took hold and became a viable system. All members of the community have to be valued and involved in order for it to be self sustaining. Activists need to become aware of their own prejudices regarding children and by extension their parents, and to take responsibility to ensure that the spaces they are creating are accessible. More on this later.
Barriers to involvement in activism include times and locations of meetings, the lack of childcare, or tokenistic childcare. Having a child or a baby at a meeting can be looked upon as too distracting for people who are not used to having children around. It is hard to come to events when you know that you will be the only one with a kid there. In some circles, mothers might even feel too uncomfortable to breastfeed. In Ireland, the social aspect of activism means that sometimes the real politics, planning and link-building happens in the pub afterwards, thus excluding kids and their parents. It is also just hard as a parent to get to meetings on time, or to commit to a group knowing that family concerns will come first. Being a working parent, or a working single parent compounds these problems. Time often seems too scarce to be involved in anything.
It was noted that these are self-perpetuating problems; the lack of children and parents around means that children and parents are forgotten about and not provided for, then they are not around. In our absence, there can be a feeling of other people speaking for us, missing our vital experience and perspectives.
There are other serious concerns which parents experience with regard to endangering themselves and their families. Parents may be less likely to put themselves in situations of physical peril, or to risk arrest than they were when they were childless. While children may enjoy some aspects of street protest, poster making and even leafleting, society can be quick to pass judgement on parents for “imposing their beliefs”, and we can't always be certain that our children are safe from police violence. Children are often excluded from squatted spaces due sometimes to the inadequacy of the spaces, but also through parents' fears about inviting police and social services' involvement.
As activists, by our very nature we disagree with the societal institutions and norms that are in place, we feel driven to change things, we want to do things differently and to create alternatives, to challenge injustices. Our children are part of this, they cannot be excluded. We have to keep them safe, but we can't pretend they don't exist or shelve them into childcare while we talk about or work to change the world, because then we are changing nothing. And we shouldn't have to disappear with them to keep them safe. We wish to be authentic for our children; to model engaged lives. Society will always judge us for this, as it judges and attempts to control women from the moment they become pregnant. Solidarity is needed from the rest of the activist community. Parents should feel reassured that their communities will defend their right to be parents, no matter how engaged as activists they are. There are creative ways that communities may be called upon to do this – from legal defense funds to more novel ideas – for example a conceptual religion with a statute was mentioned as a way to protect families from state involvement!
By facilitating children and their parents, we are facilitating the organic growth of our communities, we are retaining people with years of valuable expertise, we are nurturing the activists of the future, we are continuing, rather than always starting over at adolescence, ending with exclusion. Activists starting out in their teens and twenties are excited at the discovery of activist spaces, they are excited at the existence of community outside of the sometimes dysfunctional family or local communities they have seen before. They may be excited to have escaped from the sight of parents and families that they view as conservative forces. They may be uncomfortable around children and their parents. To which we say, “get over it”. Just as it is your responsibility to ensure that your events and venues are accessible to people of all abilities, genders and backgrounds, it is also your responsibility to ensure they are accessible to people of all ages and parental status.
What does this look like in practice? As with everything, it just requires a little planning and forethought. Social spaces should be generally safe for children to be present – think about hand rails, drains, dangerous areas etc. There should be a quiet all-ages area with interesting games, books (children's literature exists!), building toys and art equipment.
Even where childcare is provided for meetings, expect and accept that some children will prefer or need to be with their parents at meetings. We can still have productive meetings with small disruptions. The birth activist meetings that I attend always have babies and children present. They get handed around, fed, picked up where necessary, saved from hot drinks and sharp corners, cooed at occasionally and taken out often. And the meetings continue.
Children and parents can be invited to participate in social/community spaces by organising specific events for children – be these family film screenings, all-ages gigs or whatever child-focused events you come up with. One attendee at the meeting related his experience where his art space organised an all-day kids' party once a month. Bringing their children, parents built friendships and political links together. On party days some would share the childcare, and the others were free to go and participate in direct action together!
When planning events, thought should be given to the location and the time of the event, and whether parents will be excluded by virtue of these. Outdoor events where possible are much more fun for children. Have one person responsible for coordinating childcare/activities over a long event, that can be a go-to person, and organise a rota where necessary. Consider the sleeping arrangements of kids and parents if there is an event over a few days – e.g. kid houses, family camping spaces, shared childcare. Some of my most frustrating weekends away as a parent at activist events have involved having to leave the evening festivities early to sit in a tent or a room with a sleeping child.
Any childcare is better than none at all, but there are other ways that parents and children can be involved in events. When RAG organised a weekend feminist gathering in 2008 we had an all-ages timetable of workshops and activities running alongside the other workshops. This worked really well and the all-ages activities were well attended and appreciated by all; with children, physicists and architects all trying to figure out the finer points of paper bag kite-making together!
When planning workshops, ask yourself whether this can be an all ages (or nearly all ages) workshop, if so, make it so, and advertise it as such. If it could be, but you would need a little extra help/ adjustment, then do that. If we care about a topic enough to workshop ideas for each other, then surely we can teach the children about it too – if only for 15 minutes of the time. They can also be relied upon for the most honest workshop critiques! Plan and advertise children's/all-ages workshops as far in advance as you would for any other, to allow parents to plan to attend.
Make an effort to engage with the children who populate your spaces and meetings, ask their parents what they need, what you can do to help. Play with the kids, you might like it! I attended a Birth Gathering at a lovely old farm in England a couple of years ago at which, by the nature of the event, there were many children. There was one man who cared for the kids all weekend, with other people helping out. There was a beautiful relaxed kids space, and the children were just helped to explore and play. By the end of the weekend they had created an incredible fortress city of hay bales, with its own agreed constitution and civilisation, learning from each other and including everyone from the youngest to the oldest. It was beautiful, as just as the parents came to the weekend to learn and create, so did the children. Just, sometimes, we learn and create in different ways.
There were other issues discussed in the meeting that I haven't touched upon; chats were had and connections were made. There is a feeling that the parents are hiding, that we need to find each other, to come back. Then maybe those conversations that we need to have as parents together can happen too – about the work and the responsibility of raising children, the struggles we encounter. Parents and kids groups were proposed, and even a family festival! We ended with vegan chocolate brownies for all, and happy mothers' day wishes. Afterwards, we brought a bullet-point list of advice downstairs to be pinned up on the wall of Seomra Spraoi on what can be done to make events more kid/parent friendly. We are hoping that this advice, and some of the thoughts outlined in this meeting report will be taken on board by political and activist groups and spaces.
What can be done to make an event more kid/parent friendly?
- Engage with the children around you
- Plan all-ages workshops
- Consider the time/place your meeting is on
- Outdoor events
- It is your responsibility to ensure that your event is inclusive for people of all different abilities/genders/ages/parental status etc.
- Is your meeting on a topic kids need to be excluded from? If not, do you need to make some extra provisions to involve them?
- Publicise kid-friendly/inclusive events in advance so parents can plan
- Have kid-friendly zones/spaces
- Ask parents what they need