Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I Would Rather Father a Revolution

The following is an alternate version of the article that is in the November 24th edition of The Manitoban. It's a tad too heavy handed and dry, but it's somewhat helpful in further expanding on my arguments for why activism and parenting are at odds.

Being a parent is a very demanding job. It involves huge sacrifices and requires a willingness to give up most of your own life for the sake of another person. Parents have to constantly fret about what impact their decisions will have on the well-being of their children. For a parent with politically radical ideas and whose life is based around radical activism, the task is made even more difficult. Because of the inherent contradictions between my values as an activist and the values of good parenting, I have decided to be childfree.

The most important thing to keep in mind while thinking about parenthood is that having a child is a choice. Thanks to the pill and other birth-control technologies, no one has to bear children if they choose not to. Simply because the dominant culture emphasizes parenthood and because it is a “biological imperative” to have children, doesn't mean that not having children is somehow wrong or immoral. Having children and not having children are equally valid lifestyle choices.

I think that a good parent is someone who puts the needs of their child before the needs of all others, including their own. On the other hand, I think that being a good activist means that you privilege the greater good above the needs of any individual or group of individuals. Logically speaking, it would then be impossible to be both the best parent possible and the best activist possible at the same time. At best, concessions could be made towards one identity or the other, depending on the circumstances. In the end, you would either be compromising your parenting or your activism. Since my aim is to be the best activist I can possibly be, I have to choose not to be a parent.

A related tension that would potentially arise when trying to be both a radical activist and a parent would be between being completely devoted to living your ideals and being completely devoted to being a good parent. I find it difficult to imagine that I could achieve both. An example of a situation where this tension would arise would be selecting a school for my hypothetical child. It would be the right choice to enrol my kid at the nearest inner-city school. This way, racial segregation between visible minorities and whites would be lessened and my child would have a full understanding of the implications of inner-city ghettos for the poor. However, because they would be white and relatively privileged, they would probably experience hostility from their fellow students. They would also receive a poorer education than they would at different school in a more affluent area. Because I would love my child and would not want to sacrifice their well-being for a principle, I would probably put them in the school that best serves their interests. I would put the needs of my child before the needs of the racially and economically marginalized. As I have already stated, this should be antithetical to the values of any good activist.

Learning about the horrors of the world (colonialism, genocide, poverty, etc.) is a thoroughly traumatic experience. Because I was raised in a white middle-class household, I was guarded from the naked truths of the world until I was an adult. By that time, I had built up enough emotional maturity to deal with reality and turn my anger and despair into something constructive (IE The Plan). If I were to have a child, it would inevitably be exposed to the worst of human nature, just by overhearing conversations of adults around it who are concerned with making the world a better place. I think it is likely that if the curtain was pulled back a few years earlier, that I might be institutionalized today. It would be hard to justify choosing to bring an innocent child into that environment knowing the near inevitable result. This is not to mention the other problems, such as being made a pariah by their peers for having strange thoughts about systemic oppression or veganism. Is it even possible to raise a child in a radical environment that doesn't grow up to be both self-loathing and hateful of everyone else for assisting in the daily atrocities committed by human beings against each other and the planet? I'm not sure it is.

So what would being childfree and trying to help all children look like? Besides endeavouring to end capitalism and replace it with a more humanitarian economic system, there are many practical things you can do. For example, I volunteer at the Winnipeg Remand Centre with a program called 'Get The Story Out'. It involves bringing children's books to the inmates and having them read out loud into a voice recorder. I then send the book and a CD with the inmate's voice on it to their child. My hope is that by doing this, I'm in some small way fostering the connection between those children and their fathers and that that in turn may end the cycle of incarceration for that family. Some other options for volunteer work include helping out with an after school homework program like the one at the Spence Neighbourhood Association, or supervising in an inner-city school lunch room.

All this having been said, I know some great parents who are also great activists, and my intention is not to disparage the choices that they have made. I also don't mean to omit the many other great reasons for not having children such as saving money, having free time, protecting the environment, simply not wanting any, etc. Living life childfree and living with children are profoundly different lifestyles and I encourage everyone to consider their options carefully.


  1. thank you for yet another amazing critique. you always teach me something new about myself and the world and how i should be an activist like yourself in order to repent my oppressive ways. thank you great teacher! you are the best model activist i could ever imagine! what would i do without you and your brilliant ideas?
    i just wanted to tell you that you have convinced me of my ill ways and i have thus decided to put my child up for adoption because she is getting in the way of my activism.
    but, i am confused about one thing teacher. about those prisoners. it seems that maybe you should tell those prisoners to quit recording stories for their children. i mean, it seems pretty political, but also very parental. this nearly exploded my mind, cause i thought these two things could not be done together? please give me guidance on this issue oh great one. i seek your wisdom.

  2. It might help if you toned down your tendency to universalise your ethical “discoveries”. Do you believe that what you’ve decided the course to being the best activist you can be is The Truth? Or just one way among many? Isn’t raising critical children another way to contribute to a better future?

    I can’t bear to fisk your post but perhaps someone else will come along with more specific critiques, because there’s problematic shit in there.

  3. I'm not saying that I've discovered capital T Truth. That's why I titled the article "The Only Way to Be, For Me". I'm not making prescriptions. I'm explaining the rationale for my position.

  4. Well, i don't really agree that you have to choose between being an activist or a parent. I often look up to those who run the same risks as myself and have children, because they are putting more at stake. Sure you have to make sacrifices to do both but it's hard to be an activist plus a: student, business owner, homeless ect. We ALL make sacrifices, to be a pure activist would be an fulfilling life in my opinion. A lot of the best activists i know have kids and partly its because they have kids that they have a more concrete reason to want to change things for the future because that future has a face. I think having parents at rallies and demonstrations always shows a stronger community presence than a bunch of young kids alone. The casual observer sees elders and parents and they would probably be more likely to think an issue is valid.

    The innercity ghettos part was a bit strange, no one likes to hear from someone of more privilege that their home/community is sub-par let alone to have it compared to a word with close connections to the holocaust. I can see how people would maybe think you were highlighting how divided you are from the people who do live in those conditions. I would have said something about the "obviously different conditions" of those neighbourhoods and my own. It depends what your goal is though, people do live in terrible conditions and take it for their lot in life. Bringing that to light isn't negative but stating you would want your children in their schools as some sort of training about how poor people live, but you also would rather they get a "good education" at a better school. Sure that can sound pompous and seems to have offended some people.

    But I suppose it depends what your goal is. If you're trying to tell/show people how you think things should be done, or how you do it then the tone of the article seems on. Now I know you don't want to tell people what to do so you should reconsider your tone here. Maybe posing the question of "How do you find a balance?" to parents and non-parents would have fostered a more positive discussion and still have allowed you to state your opinion. People like humility. Asking your readers for feedback instead of being so controversial that they feel they HAVE to respond is maybe a better tactic. Think of it as peacefully demonstrating vs. smashing windows... HAHA! Also MORE CHILDREN IN THE BLACK BLOC!

  5. I agree with a lot of what you said about the value of being a parent or having parents as part of a movement.

    Point of clarification: When I was talking about inner-city schools, I wasn't proposing some kind of twisted social experiment or a way to teach my kid about poverty for the sake of teaching them about poverty. I live downtown in what most would consider an inner-city ghetto area. The closest elementary school to me would be Sister MacNamara, which is located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city. The choice would potentially be between continuing to live downtown (where I think it is easiest to be an activist/not own a car) while sending my child to school at Sister Mac or uprooting and giving my child a better education in a more affluent/white neighbourhood.

    I don't mean to offend, but the education a kid receives at a school like Sister Mac is obviously poorer than the education that a kid receives at a school in Tuxedo or River Heights. Jacquie has worked in inner-city schools and she tells me that the teacher is merely there for crowd control, and any teaching that gets done is a bonus.

    The term ghetto has two meanings: 1. The Jewish ghettos of Germany, Poland, etc. during the holocaust. 2. A ghetto is now described as an overcrowded urban area often associated with a specific ethnic or racial population; especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure. Ghetto in the second sense is a widely accepted term used in Sociology and I don't regret using it.

    Your last paragraph is dead on. I'm still working on being a good writer. Obviously there are problems with the clarity of the message and tone in the above post. Humility is something I definitely need to keep in mind while writing.

    Thanks for the constructive feedback!