Redefining Balance in Parenting and Activism: A Guide for Social Justice Families
As an educator and activist working with changemakers on the frontlines and in movements for change, a parent of two children, and partnered with, Chris Crass, also an activist, I know first hand that social justice parenting is challenging and rewarding work.
As white parents and caregivers, living in a world of chaos and crisis, as queer antiracist families, as community-based homes, raising children to believe in the inherit rights of all people, to value the Earth and to build and embody love — we are holding the challenging responsibility of raising children, building alternative cultures, nourishing and nurturing our own souls, and embodying our values in our activism. It’s often too much to hold or at least to hold it all well.
I’ve found in my spiritual life and activism that balance, as we apply it, is a concept of patriarchy and white supremacy. For example, the image of a clean home, with well-cooked dinners on the table every night at the same time, kids playing in the yard nicely, while you take some time to wind down from the day with a novel, just isn’t usually a reality, no matter what kind of work you are involved in. Now add late night meetings, community protests, door knocking and organizing and things are really imbalanced. In order to show up as antiracists, parents, community members, and humans, we must take care of ourselves and our kids, however, what that looks like is often very different than capitalism would have us believe.
I believe that when we let go of the idea of balance as an individual milestone, we allow more room to connect with and rely on each other. Isn’t this directly counter to white supremacy’s intention to divide us from each other and keep us in guilt, doubt and shame? Let’s approach our activism and our parenting as holding and showing up for each other.
Let’s hold the tension of not knowing all the answers, of using what we have accessible and reimagining a different way of embodying social justice in our families and changemaking work. I’ve asked a range of white social justice caregivers, parents and families, in the antiracist community, to share their insights on balance and for their best strategies and practices.
I’ll open with a ritual, which has been one of the best practices for grounding my own parenting and work:
Grounding ritual (usually 5–10 minutes)
Light a candle. Perhaps at a space of intention of an altar.
Read a poem or pull a tarot card (there are quite a few anti-oppression decks, such as the Collective Tarot and the Slow Holler Tarot Deck).
Acknowledge an ancestor or hold a comrade in your mind/heart and give thanks
Close your eyes
State internally, I am enough, I have everything I need
And then breathe again
Strategies and Practices from Social Justice Parents and Caregivers:
Anice Schervish Chenault: I try to let myself off the hook when community meetings conflict with dinner or bedtime, I take advantage of opportunities to be involved that are family friendly and rely on my partner and me being a team — we are better together — for our family and our community.
Laura Close: I have counseled and known too many individuals who were ultimately harmed by their parents’ methods of political activism and commune choices in the 60s and 70s, such that in significant ways they felt abandoned in their experience of childhood. So, for me the answer is children first during the formative first decade, which means that all decisions are through the lens of their well-being. It fosters creativity on my part, and challenges me to accept both the organic enormity of the need they have towards me and also my imperfections in social justice movements; I experience that challenge as spiritual.
Marc Mascarenhas-Swan: The balance that I strive for is for my kids to see that you can be engaged politically and present for them. This for me means that they know that I am first and foremost there for them. That the attachment is deep enough, so that when I have to be away doing things, there isn’t a sense of loss. Crucially that they get to see that people they love can make change happen, that they can have a role in this change, there is a place for them.
Adults who were raised by socialists that seem most disillusioned to me are those whose parents were absent (in the trenches) or were armchair activists, complaining but not doing.
Some concrete things I consider helpful are to: 1. align myself with political community that regards the integration of youth and elders as a political priority, 2. Intentionally build chosen family that are models for activism and community care that my kids can be inspired by other than me/us and, 3. build reciprocity of intentional politicized community — as parents or uncles, aunties elders, we care for one another’s kids, and our kids are in the care of people who value the non parenting activist work that we do. I know that parenting my values is an intentional expression of feminism, socialism, and mutual aid.
Rahula Janowski: Sometimes you can’t hold it all, which sucks. But it’s real.
So, here’s how I approach this when I’m doing well with this stuff: My life is a set of circles within one another, kind of like a bulls eye, and the circles in the center have to be well cared for before the next circle out gets attention. The center circle is my self; the next circle is my family, then my paid work, and then my community work. The center circle has to be functioning well first and foremost, for the rest to work.
For example, if I’m skipping work so much for community work that I’m not bringing in the money I need, then I need to pull it in. If I’m running myself ragged, I need to come back to the center and take better care of myself. The real needs of my kid always take priority over my paid work or my community work. When I’m really working this, I actually have an increased capacity, because when I’m taking good care of myself, I can do lots more and am more happy and resilient.
It’s hard to get to a spot of feeling like it’s okay to step back from things and honestly that’s something that I think is a shortcoming of the overall movement approach. People who can be 24/7 in the work get looked at as the model, rather than the anomaly.
Rebecca Frederick: As a working class single mother of three, I believe that I can only truly find balance in collective work, where we are holding one another, rather than holding it all on our own. These are some important lessons I’ve learned as a SURJ organizer and parent.
First, I find community in working for collective liberation (that begins with Black liberation), and it feeds my soul in hard times. Secondly, I give my children options around attending meetings and demonstrations. I focus on making sure everything I participate in is multigenerational and when the kids don’t want to join, I respect that.
Thirdly, I allow myself to step away when I need to. I have had the honor of being part of a really amazing community in the last couple of years, while also going through some tough times at home. When it all became too much, I was honest with my peers and colleagues and stepped back when I needed too. Recognizing that sometimes when we push ourselves too far, we actually bring a level of toxicity to the work that is problematic and sometimes the best thing for the movement is to remove yourself and admit that you don’t have the capacity and that’s ok.
Fourthly (this might be the most important), no one person can do it all and I remind myself that what I bring is more than good enough. We live in this society that says if you aren’t doing it all, while wearing a blindfold, with one arm tied behind your back and a couple of kids hanging off you, then you aren’t doing enough. It’s an act of resistance to show up as you are.
Meredith Martin Moats: I try to center all my decisions in thinking about the long haul. Nothing begins or ends with me and I owe it to those who came before, and those who I am raising, and those who come after to not burn out and give up. I feel really strongly about putting kids at the center because, if I am so lucky, they’ll be living in community long after I am gone and they need a solid core to be loving people fighting for what is right. I don’t want them to wonder why I spent so much time working for other people and didn’t have time for them. So I think simple downtime and presence is essential. Just BEING with kids with no agenda and doing simple things like looking at leaves or clouds or whatever is a core strategy. Of course, I learn a lot about me in those moments, too.
At the same time, I have to balance this with work and making sure we have enough money coming in for our family. This balance is never easy and is seldom a balance. But I think it helps to talk with kids about work and finances and to never make that part of life invisible from children. So, I guess, speaking honestly about this helps give kids a sense of what adulthood really looks like. That’s not the same thing as burdening them with adult problems. There is some nuance there.
Another strategy I am trying to work on is to be vocal and help folks who don’t have caregiving responsibilities understand at least part of what it means to be present in community, including with and for caregivers. It’s almost impossible to understand caregiving until you’ve done it. The amount of time simple tasks can take, the fatigue you can sometimes feel, and the deep fire you have about building up a better world for the babies. I think we HAVE to make our work accessible to caregivers. But they operate on different timetables than, say, single college kids.
If a caregiver is working class or poor, which many are, time is so, so hard to come by. So I try and advocate for rethinking about time and what it means to move at the speed of caregiving. If we come to think that caring for babies or caring for the sick or helping someone die is a diversion from our work, then we have clearly lost our way. This IS a central part of the work. Without that love we’re nothing.
Social justice is about creating a world where all people can show up as they are more fully. The work we do now, is about creating a better world for the planet and for the next generation and generations after that. Children, parents, and caregivers are essential to creating and crafting that world.
As white antiracists working to build a different world it’s vital to consider:
What are the ways that systems of oppression are showing up in our bodies, minds and spirits and how does that inform how we view our parenting and activism? Are we moving from a place that is rooted in the radical imagination and centering the most vulnerable populations, or has white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy seeped into our thinking, doing and being?
Resilience and resistance happens when we look towards the toolboxes of our communities, learn from our children’s perfect ability to be present, its cultivated in our relationship to the natural world, it’s found in our breath, in ritual and in the imagination where the world we are working to create has already arrived.
We will be imperfect but we must show up.
Inhale. Exhale. Forgive and love yourself in the imbalance of it all — it’s one of the first steps towards dismantling
This article is part of, the Zine: Families Taking Action For Racial Justice from Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Families. Get it HERE.