Having a baby changes your life, and that’s true for activists, too. In my microsphere of feminist and progressive activism, I’ve long been uncomfortable with the way children and specifically having children is viewed.
Having kids can be seen as a burden, an impediment to career advancement, a selfish move that hurts the environment, or a means by which women without children are forced to do more work for the people who get to go home early. I’ve heard feminists who don’t have children say all of these things, and I died a little each time. (To be clear, I’ve also encountered feminists who accommodate caregiving and inspire the best of me as a mom and an activist.)
A feminism that directs women to outsmart the reality of caregiving is probably superficial, market-oriented feminism at its worst. By all means, women and all people should be free to live their lives without being accused of having a maternal instinct to tend. Women who don’t have kids are doing right by themselves and don’t need scrutiny or second-guessing or third-party guilt trips. But to conflate the choice of some women not to have kids as an imperative for all women not to have kids or dependents of any kind, if they want to get ahead in the adult world — why, that’s crap.
Children are part of the universe. They are people with needs. Until we accept the presence of people with needs as part of the public and not just private sphere — be they children, adults with disabilities, or seniors in need of help — equality for women is going nowhere. Whether a woman will have children or not, others will use her presumed reproductive capacity and their opinion of her fitness for it to make decisions on her behalf.
It was tough for me to have a baby, and to adjust. I have always been what my husband calls a “gunner.” Prior to having a child I have, at times, run myself ragged chasing my dream of equality. Once I hit a limit to the point that a friend allowed me to sit on the phone stupefied, unable to speak, only able to cry, because I was working so hard (and without pay), completely disconnected from “life.”
More often it was healthy and fun, where instead of watching TV I liked to go to activist meetings and throw protests (I mean, it is more interesting)! In my last incarnation before getting married and having a baby all domestic-like, I was doing work-related things most weeknights and weekends. It was my community and my passion, and mostly, I was having a good time.
Once I had a baby, the activist labor of planning actions/meeting with activists, going to panel discussions and meet ups, and the endless cycle of board and committee meetings most every evening screeched to a halt. And, in the quiet of a burbling baby who needed to be rocked to sleep and would wake up again 10 minutes later, I began to internalize how removed some feminist quarters I occupied were from the reality of so many women’s lives.
It took more time still for me to realize that some of the most profound activist work I can do is not “activism.” It is not shouting the right thing into the bullhorn, or rounding up the permit and building the engagement ladder, or deepening my understanding of privilege and pushing my own boundaries of what it means to accept and love your neighbor. I do not denigrate these things — I do them.
The most profound activist legacy I leave behind may well be my parenting, and if that winds up being true, I see it as no lesser than the accomplishments of starting an organization, speaking truth to power, and forcing change in the public sphere. Giving my daughter a sense of love and justice, and encouraging her questioning and willingness to participate in collective activism, matters.
Parenting can be activism. Parenting can be a more profound contribution of activism than the things people associate with activism. It’s not anti-feminist to believe that. Frankly, the anti-feminist problem may sit in the slice of feminist spaces that don’t explicitly accommodate people with children, that don’t encourage their participation by explicitly welcoming families in actions and meeting spaces, and that don’t explicitly lift up the importance of the caregiving work that so many women do as a site for collective liberation in the the struggle toward equality.