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Despite rhetoric about mutual aid and creating new worlds, social justice movements across the US and Canada often neglect the needs of caregivers and children. This has had the effect of excluding crucial organizers and reducing our ability to raise the next generation to be a part of our movements.
Over the past six years, I have interviewed more than 20 mothers who explicitly identify as anarchists about the support (or lack thereof) they’ve received from their peers and movements. These mothers varied in terms of age, race, ethnicity, class, partnership status, and sexual identity. Many had been politically active before motherhood. Some found that continued involvement was not possible and that their peers were unwilling to support the challenges they faced as new mothers. Many who have stayed actively involved were able to do so largely because of community support.
Although my interviews focused on anarchist mothers, their concerns and experiences can be extended to mothers across social justice movements. Many movements—and the individuals within them—continue to gender parenting as women’s work and devalue its importance. The work of childrearing continues to be devalued, leading to an absence of community support that disproportionately impacts mothers who are already marginalized in larger society, i.e. mothers who are low-income, single, undocumented, gender non-conforming, and/or of color.
Many issues arise when discussing both caregiving and consideration for caregivers in social justice movements. One concern that mothers expressed again and again was the need for safe childcare so that they could fully engage in the tasks and discussions at hand.
Lack of consideration around children and caregiving often manifests as a lack of childcare at events and conferences. “We’ve witnessed the failure on the part of too many conference organizers (from the most recent US Social Forum where there was a lack of planning, to Left Forum where there was no childcare at all) to think about the needs of parents and children until the last minute,” note members of Kidz’ City, an anarcha-feminist childcare collective in Baltimore. “Neglecting to think about it until the need presents itself is perpetuating the systematic neglect of the needs of parents and children.”
When childcare is provided, it is often not given the same serious attention as other event logistics. Organizers often fail to consider that places acceptable for able-bodied adults are unsuitable—if not unsafe—for babies and small children.
“I find that movement spaces tend to be unfriendly to mobile children (in that they are dirty and often dangerous), and that folks, when booking spaces for events/trainings, don’t think about how the space/environment impacts me and my child even if I have given them advance notice that I will be there with an infant,” states Autumn, an anarchist mother and consensus process trainer. “As a facilitator, I have had a number of experiences like this, where I will tell folks, ‘Okay, I will be bringing my son and someone to do childcare,’ and they don’t think through where the baby needs to be.”
Autumn recalled one instance in which she, her partner, and her baby traveled to another city so that Autumn could facilitate a two-day training. “When we got there, we found that we were staying in a room with one twin bed and one mattress on the floor. No pillows. No towels in the bathroom. No food in the kitchen. We were hungry and uncomfortable.”
The training space was changed to someone’s home which didn’t have a safe space for a baby to move in, in addition to being run down. “I would say in this situation that my needs, and my child’s needs, were definitely NOT met, though the intention of the group was to be welcoming,” says Autumn. “I emailed them about it after and got an apology,” she adds.
Even when the childcare space is not dirty or unsafe, it is often inadequate in other ways. Another mother noted, “People think a childcare space is just going to be a room with crayons and the child is going to spend the whole day in there.”
Parents, caregivers, and children often have ideas about including families in ways that do not place the brunt of the responsibility on the parents themselves. “I think the continued effort on the national scene of offering childcare spaces and family-friendly events does a lot. If folks know that these resources are available, they may be more likely to attend. I like when it’s announced in meetings or gatherings that babies and baby noises are not only okay, but welcome,” suggests Connie. “I realize it can make it a little stressful, but to not exclude parents is a big deal to many of us.”
Even when organizers attempt to include families, those with special needs often remain neglected. Elizabeth notes that people shy away from trying to accommodate her older son, who has autism. “I think people are scared when they hear special needs or autism and [think] they won’t be able to handle it. Or they don’t look [for resources]. For conferences that happen on campuses, just call the education department. There’s got to be someone who’s a special education major. This could be like lab time for this person!”
Gretchen, a mother of two, recognizes that including families involves engaging children in the issues: “We organize a lot of events for ourselves as adults, but we hardly ever organize events for kids... Just like we do presentations, workshops, events, [we should] have something for kids. It doesn’t have to be exclusively for kids...like there was this puppet troupe in Montreal who were doing an adaptation of the Paris Commune...they could have done the same thing as a way to tell the story for kids.”
For Gretchen, engaging children and youth at events simply requires only a little more thinking and preparation. “I can think of lots of speakers who could really engage young people,” she says. “They could do a presentation that has a ten- to fifteen-year-old sitting on their edge of their seat thinking, ‘Wow, this is an amazing talk. I like this.’ Like slideshows, short films, whatever. That kind of stuff, I feel, is missing. We value that so much in our adult life...but then there’s no organized radical series of events [for kids].”
Some radical events have made a point to include children’s activities. The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair includes a Kids’ Program in addition to its adult workshops. That inspired China, an anarchist mother of an adult daughter, to approach the organizers of the 2006 Mid-Atlantic Radical Bookfair in Baltimore about offering childcare. She initially met with resistance but by the end of the meeting, the organizers agreed to allow her to set up childcare. Kidz’ Corner included activities reflecting some of the social justice themes of the bookfair, such as radical storytime and a children’s march.
In 2009, China, along with two childless anarcha-feminists, organized Kidz’ City, the children’s program for Baltimore’s City from Below conference. These efforts grew into Kidz’ City, a radical childcare collective.
The Allied Media Conference also has a Kids’ Track for the children of attendees. In addition, the 2009 conference program included a list of ways that attendees could make the conference child-friendly. “I think every event that purports to be kid-friendly should have a similar educational document about exactly what that means,” says Autumn.
Many mothers observed the absence of other parents and children in their political projects. “I am interested in raising a continuum baby. I want to strap the baby on and carry him with me as many places as possible and combat the notion that children belong in separate spaces,” Autumn states. “I felt from early on that part of the transformation I wanted to work towards, part of that work, was including my children in all parts of my life, not repeating this same cultural mistake (I think) of keeping children in separate spaces until they are adults, then unleashing them upon the world with the expectation that they can be responsible adults.”
Over time, children who have been included in political events are inspired to create their own activities at other events.
By age seven, my daughter Siu Loong was already a veteran of radical childcare (including the Kids’ Track and Kidz’ City). Before attending a conference last fall, I warned her that, because childcare had been left until the last minute, it might be boring. Indignant, Siu Loong (then age nine) exclaimed, “This childcare isn’t going to be boring!”
She then drew up a schedule for the weekend. While some activities did not happen (anarchist kickball replaced zine making and reading times), others (such as doll-making and visiting the community library) did. Had my daughter not experienced child-inclusive programming at previous events, she would not have had the skills and know-how to take on the task of creating activities for herself and the other children who attended.
“It would be great to have more political organizing that revolved around ‘families’ as a population/demographic,” Autumn declares. “If radical organizers forced themselves to acknowledge that most of the people they wish to organize are members of families, they would have to rethink everything: how events are organized, how campaigns are run, who is brought to the table, etc.”
Vikki Law is a mother, writer, and photographer. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women and the co-editor of Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind (PM Press 2012).