When my daughter was around a year old, I took her with me one evening to a peace movement meeting. Never one with much patience for quietly sitting still (can’t imagine where she got that from), she wiggled and wriggled and made all the quiet and not so quiet noises that little ones make. We got a couple of looks from people. I ended up trying – and failing – to slip away silently, reflecting with some sorrow on the seeming incompatibility of parenting and social justice work. It wasn’t just this episode, but that night epitomized the complexity of trying to be dedicated to so many things.
A few days later, I encountered an older-than-me activist friend and I told her about my dilemma. “What am I supposed to do?” I mourned, “I feel like I can’t be everywhere I am supposed to be. There’s so much to do.”
I can still see us standing there on the sidewalk, me in my angst and her with her kind smile and thoughtful energy. “It’s okay,” she said, “take care of your daughter. Do what you need to do. There will always be work to be done.”
While it counts as a tragic fact that the need for social justice organizing may never end, what she said is true. It brought me necessary peace and new clarity about pacing myself for the long haul.
It’s like this – now that I’ve been a parent for 15 years, I can assert with confidence that good parenting is an inherently important, albeit ever-challenging, task. Dedicating our time and love and energy to raising the next generation matters. These are the people – even if it’s hard to see it while they’re in diapers – who will guide the steps of our world long after we are gone.
Our humanity begins at home. It’s the crucible from which we find our place in the world, whether we are 3 or 23 or 53 or 93. Creating a home that fosters love and kindness and justice and mercy is a gift to the world. It is a moral good to do that work and no one should feel guilty about it.
At the same time, It’s a continual invitation to see beyond the boundaries of one’s own family. You remember the whole “it takes a village to raise a child” concept? It’s true. And we are all a part of that village for other people’s children (and everyone who is breathing on this earth is someone’s child).
Parenting is an intimate lesson in our interconnectedness. It is an immersion course. And while the intensity of daily routines, especially with young children, may consume every waking moment, it is possible to view that work as both intrinsically morally justified and as unique preparation for an ongoing lifetime of loving the world and the people in it.
You don’t have to do all of the work at once. The fact is you probably can’t. That you are concerned about this problem reflects the depth of your commitment to both your family and the cause of a better world. That helps to keep you from sinking into the pernicious view where the only thing that matters is you and yours.
But please let go of the guilt and frustration about what you can’t do in this moment. Just put it down. You’ve got enough to carry without it.
And by all means, when it seems the right thing to do, carry your kids to meetings and protests and lobbying days. Let us as a movement cultivate connections and community among social justice-oriented parents and between parents of young children and the other generations around them.
We as that movement have the obligation to create kid-friendly spaces and to nurture both the young children in our midst and the families that care for them. That is a part of how we offer concrete care for those around us.
What I am saying is not limited to biological and adoptive parents, for there are many ways that people care for others. A lot of parenting gets done by people who are not the actual mother and father of any given child – and that is a huge blessing. We also care for parents and grandparents and others who at any given time may need some extra help.
That too is necessary. It is vital to our very humanity as well as the needs of the moment. It should be seen as a part of the work for a better world, not as a distraction from it. The methods connect on every level to the ends we seek.
These days when we get home after school, my daughter sets herself up at the kitchen table and disappears into hours of homework. Since I’m now the mom of a disciplined and independent-minded high school student, I have a little more time to be involved in social justice work. I’m glad of it.
But some things don’t change. When my daughter, having a hard week in the way that can happen with GEOMETRY-HOMEWORK-IS-IMPOSSIBLE-I-DON’T-KNOW-HOW-TO-DO-IT (yeah, that’s a quote) wanted me to stay home last night instead of attend a community event that was on my calendar, I had no trouble making the choice. Balancing obligations can still be tricky. I continue to regularly examine my own priorities and their effects on the people close to me, on my broader community, and on my commitment to justice in the world.
But I long ago put down that parental guilt (well, at least that part of it) to claim the challenging and satisfying role of social justice parent. I invite others to do the same.