As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I started digging through bookshelves, reading lists, cardboard boxes, anywhere I might find a book about motherhood or parenting or birth that included my experience. I have been digging for 18 months now. As a young person with radical politics, who has made alternative lifestyle choices, who came of age in the punk scene as an artist and an organizer, whose path to motherhood and immediately single-motherhood was ‘bumpy’ at best: when I performed the ritualistic anxious reading of What to Expect When You’re Expecting I couldn’t help feeling like they were talking about someone else. Someone with a husband and a house and a steady job and a 401K, someone who probably has a lawn and a reliable car that was made after 1983. Someone who is supposed to have kids.
Where was the book for mothers with non-traditional family structures? Where was the book for mothers who ride bikes and hang out at punk houses, who grow gardens and organize and spend their spare time seam ripping Goodwill dresses? What about mothers who still want to fuck shit up, who want to raise our kids and stay in the movement? Stay in the community? Stay who we are?
As equally as I couldn’t locate myself within the narrative of “motherhood” that’s most affirmed in our society, I also couldn’t locate myself as a mother in the scene I’d come of age in. I’d fallen into a crack between the worlds.
A few weeks ago I found the book I’ve been looking for. One of my oldest friends, Jonathan – who does not have kids himself- asked if I wanted to be part of a book club to read Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities (Published 2012 by PM Press, compiled and edited by Victoria Law and China Martens).
It’s a collection of short essays, stories & lists, written by parents of varying identities who are part of radical movements & communities. Reading, I felt how one does when your experience is affirmed – Oh, it’s not just me – that’s a real thing. In a very candid voice, the essays convey the mixed experiences of becoming a parent as a member of a radical community – the unique challenges and misunderstandings, specific concerns and difficulties, the ways they asked for and received support, built structures of mutual aid, and kept on living their lives and doing their work. The crack between the worlds all-but closed in my mind.
In the convening of our book club we focused our conversation primarily on how we could better support the parents & children in our community. The book itself provided a lot of concrete ideas for supporting families, and we brainstormed some specific adaptations for our place, time, and needs – a kid corner at our local community space, baby proofing at punk houses, non-parents offering regular childcare help, parents taking turns having sleepovers giving each other a night off.
One thing I hear from non-parents is, Wow, I had no idea. I never would have thought of that – I don’t have kids. It is the nature of humans that empathy only extends so far beyond what we have experienced ourselves. And so I share this list – it is incomplete, but it is a list of ideas affirmed both by the stories in Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, and stories told in conversations between the parents in my life.
Concrete ways you can support families in your community:
- Affirm, affirm, affirm – Anyone who falls outside the mainstream narrative of what parents should be will have their parenting questioned and criticized with a regularity that parents closer to the center won’t experience. For myself, as a single mom, there are huge swaths of my parenting that no one even sees (like on the nights I only sleep 4 hours because my kid is getting a tooth, or how I have read the same bedtime story 31 days in a row with enthusiasm and creativity). Affirm the parents around you: I see how hard you are working. You’re doing a great job with your child. We are glad you are part of our community. I think it’s so cool that you do _________.
- Build relationships with the kids around you. We want our children to be welcomed as valued members of the community, just like the rest of us. Not comfortable with kids yet? Engage with them just like you would anyone else: What’s your name? What are you interested in? What games do you like to play? Be who you are. When you have a good relationship with a kid in your community, you are more able to step in and support parents in organic ways – like taking a rambunctious toddler for a walk outside to look at birds, or playing with a child at a potluck so their parent can sit and eat.
- Baby & toddler-proof your house. We promise we still want to come hang out with you, but if your floor is too filthy to put our baby down or we have to spend the whole visit keeping our kid from choking on bike parts or pulling rickety bookshelves over on themselves, we’re probably going to start declining invitations. If baby-proofing the whole house is too much work (which it may well be), just choose one room. Don’t know how? Ask for tips. Keeping it tidy all the time won’t work? Just sweep before the next house show! We appreciate even small gestures.
- Organize childcare. Any event or meeting where it is not appropriate to have children in the room needs to have childcare. If you can’t organize childcare, or your event is intentionally intergenerational, an organizer should make an announcement at the beginning of the meeting that is something like this: Children are welcome here, and we are fine with their noise and movement. Better yet, integrate children into the event – give them a job to do, plan workshops in a way that will engage children as well, make space for their voices and ideas to be heard.
- Ask questions. We want to talk about being parents, we want you to be interested in our lives – especially the mundane details that can feel so harrowingly isolating, like exactly how many times my baby woke up between 1:00 and 5:00 last night, or how long it took me to scrub the oatmeal off the wall, or why I think his bedtime routine isn’t taking hold. Make sure you ask if it’s wanted before you offer advice.
- Make concrete offers of support. While it’s great to hear, Hey, if you ever need any help just let me know! I’m down! open-ended offers still leave the burden of asking on the parent. Asking for help is guilt-inducing and often we won’t do it without having a “good” reason. It’s even better to hear, Hey, next Thursday night I’m free. Can I come hang out with your kid while you go out and do whatever you want? Because the answer is yes.
- Read. Read Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, or find another rad book about supporting parents. Organize a book club or a workshop or a community discussion. Ask parents how they feel and what they need. Just like anything else, educate yourself.
All my love and solidarity to the parents and families doing the improbable work of raising healthy beings in this crazy world, and to all the folks who hold us up and share the labor.