In his memoir “In the Shadow of a Saint,” Ken Wiwa, the son of executed Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, observed that “All of us have a choice in the world, to make our children safe in the world or to make the world safe for our children.”
In our experience as parents socialized in dominant white middle class communities who are now raising four young daughters, the social pressures to choose the former are weighty, insidious, and unrelenting. With the arrival of children, school options dominate decisions about where to live. Having a frenetic schedule packed with music lessons and sports, playdates, birthday parties and nightly bedtime routines becomes a badge of honor.
Domestic labor arrives to clean the house so parents have quality time with their children. Excess income goes into college savings accounts and experience-rich family vacations. Deferential to neoliberal economic and political forces that encourage privatization and individualism, folks of privilege like us turn inward and focus predominantly on our own work and family as we go about blissfully ‘making our children safe for the world.’
Covid-19’s arrival intensifies these tendencies to privatize and weave a tighter cocoon around our children. While sheltering-in-place, the enormous demands of teaching our kids to read, write and do math have been added to the daily list of to-dos. Endless internet searches fill our free time, designed to find virtual learning opportunities in art, music, science and languages that maintain a packed children’s calendar - in part to give us breathing room for our own work. Parental conversations and children’s books focus on how we can safely shepherd our children’s emotional development through the anxiety of this time. We overstock the pantry and linen closet to make sure our kids will have enough if supply chains run thin.
The coronavirus, however, has exposed the deep and unsustainable harm of this turn inwards, because making our children safe for the world is making the world less safe and comfortable for other children. Our educational and consumer choices have propelled growing economic inequality and climate change that creates conditions of vulnerability to pandemics. We have prioritized unbounded work schedules and crammed child calendars that have exhausted our ability to participate in civic and neighborly efforts such as voting, community dialogue, and protest, all of which are critical to maintaining the kind of equitable social fabric that can stand up against a threat like the coronavirus.
We shelter-in-place sustained by salaries that allow for continued work in the security of our homes, while the precarious and risky labor of a disposable working class ensures our nutritional sustenance, water, electricity and trash collection. Individualism and privatization have taught us to simultaneously overlook the promise and discount the peril of our very real interconnection across socially-constructed boundaries of race, class and gender.
But this moment of forced slowing down, unplugging and deprogramming also offers a space for us to reexamine our priorities and explore how to balance the tension between caring for our children and organizing for a better world. Might this pandemic be the awakening we need to recognize that the vulnerability many people experience is due, at least in part, to a system of racialized capitalism that we constantly reproduce, even though most of us would never condone overt acts of personally-mediated racism or economic greed? Can we make the conscious choice to dismantle the smooth flow of business as usual and build something different?
As educators and organizers with the Social Medicine Consortium, we hear our North American colleagues organizing campaigns for under-equipped hospitals and our Ugandan comrades vocalizing concern that their neighbors are more likely to die from food insecurity caused by lockdowns than from the virus.
These and other alarming observations such as the disturbing racial disparities in the Covid-19 pandemic stir a sense of urgency to show-up in public spaces now, whether through advocacy calls, writing op-eds, fundraising, participating in mutual aid networks, tuning in to social justice webinars with thought leaders, or reaching out to provide emotional support to struggling colleagues, family, neighbors, and friends.
In this moment of pandemic, many of us now see afresh the grim realities of our social fault lines, realities that communities of color have long noticed. We are moved to respond, but we still have responsibilities to nurture, accompany and care for our children. Our kids are anxious, cranky, playful, curious, and need our presence. They want to play Go Fish, share ideas for their next artistic creation, pine for lunch, fight over Legos and urge us to cuddle. Our children absorb the routine disruption, face masks, anxious parents and social isolation and wonder out loud, “will this virus kill me or my sister?”
This is an awful lot to hold, and it feels untenable at times like these to try and tend to both our public and private lives - to give both our children and our social and political commitments the attention they deserve. How might we hold space to make both our children and our world safe for everyone?
To answer this question, we might first study and learn from social justice forebears who offer much experience in holding that space. Black women in particular, as US civil rights leader Ella Baker’s biography demonstrates, have strong traditions of merging commitment to their children with political activity - not allowing domestic roles to preclude them from participating and shaping community life.
As part of efforts to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline construction in 2016, Indigenous communities operated a fully functioning anti-colonial school for youth to facilitate family participation. Working class families have long found ways to work demanding jobs, raise families, and show up out of hours to work for political and social change, as seen during the United Farm Worker and the Black Panther movements of the 1960s and the Working Families party of today.
We can take these lessons and examples as food for critical self-reflection and dialogue in order to “reimagine family in all its diverse forms as a place of resistance,” as bell hooks encourages us to do. And as we reimagine, we can live more fully into the feminist wisdom that the personal is indeed political. Rather than pretend that we can or should fortify barriers between the two, we can embrace the mingling of our public and private lives to nurture and expand both. For example, we can work to bring wisdom that’s gleaned from parenting to social justice spaces, and allow the wisdom of social movements into our families.
Young children are powerful teachers who constantly remind us to pay careful attention to intricacy and detail, to take care with the words we choose and remain ever questioning. They also give us ample opportunity to reexamine and heal our own wounds when we see them showing up in our behavior. Movement wisdom can teach children the power of collective voice, how to build networks of mutual aid, and how to develop the personal and relational sustenance that’s needed in the long haul of working for justice.
And pragmatically, the move to integrate our public and private lives may finally push us to give adequate attention and resources to making movement spaces truly hospitable to parents with young children, to folks caring for elders, to those who are differently abled, and to families of every sort.
While we seek a greater integration of our political and personal lives, we must also be honest about the challenges that time and capacity create - an enduring tension in our lives as parents, and in the lives of most people involved in movement work. There is only so much time in a day. But rather than seeking clear and neat solutions to resolve these tensions, perhaps we ought to voice them as points of discomfort? Perhaps we can collectivize our struggle to hold it all and start leaning on one another more, rather than seeking to solve everything within the confines of our nuclear family units.
To that end, recent waves of activism amidst the pandemic demonstrate the creativity and possibility of collective action even in times of physical distancing. Many of these models may be viable for parents to use when they must be with their children at home. As Covid-19’s disproportionately strong intrusion into neighborhoods scarred by racism, poverty, and incarceration shows, the world we have constructed and continue to reproduce causes a great deal of unnecessary hurt. We now have an opportunity to reject the individualism and privatization that is so alluring when parenting young children, and instead prioritize the possibilities of social interconnection.
We can use this time to support the construction of liberatory structures, relationships, and accountability practices in our networks. Rather than choose between our children or the world, we can nurture spaces and create conditions in which all children can thrive.