Pint Sized Subversive

I became a father last summer when my daughter Fern was born. As little as she is, Fern is already an amazing teacher. The most precious things I’m learning aren’t about babies or being a parent, but about what it means to be human and what is important about life. While I’m still too new a parent to feel qualified to write much and this is a little disorganized, here are my initial impressions.

The best part of spending time with Fern is watching her joyfully unrestrained face when she hears music, sees my face, or looks up in the sky. Seeing the happy and loving way Fern relates to the people and animals around us underscores how the world we live in as adults — organized around stress, ownership, competition, scarcity, consumerism and shame — is imposed on us by cultural, political and economic systems. These qualities aren’t natural or inherent to humans as animals — we’re born way better than the world we grow up in and eventually inhabit. Radicals and the counter-culture are struggling to defeat these oppressive systems and create new structures aimed at supporting the underlying humanity I see in Fern, that prioritize the search for pleasure, engagement and love. Spending time with Fern makes it easier to imagine a future where we’ll all be more present and full of wonder and joy.

Another striking thing is the way people treat you when you walk around carrying a cute infant. From the grizzled hardware store workers, to the homeless guy spare changing, to people in line at the grocery store — people’s faces light up with happiness when they see Fern. Absolute strangers who would normally scowl or ignore me walk right up and want to talk. They are kind and even loving.

I keep thinking, “why can’t strangers on the street treat each other like this all the time?” Spending time with Fern offers a window into the kind of world I want to help build — a world organized around human interaction, caring and community — not the mainstream world which is so ground down by corporations and the state with all their inequality, violence and misery that people avoid each other.

Watching how hard my partner Kristi works nursing Fern is humbling. Soon after Fern arrived, I started seeing all the adults I met in a different light — imagining each of us as a tiny baby being nurtured day and night by someone. Realizing how much energy and love went into each one of us, I started having floods of compassion for other people — complete strangers. Without trying to repeat a cliché, Fern helps me see everyone around me as valuable members of a huge family.

So far we’ve raised Fern without a car because we live in an area where we can get by without one. Because she is still too little to go on a bicycle, I’ve mostly been walking for the last 9 months. Moving slowly on foot gives me a lot of time to notice the world around me, what’s going on with Fern, and what’s going on with myself.

But moving slowly so you have time to notice things is increasingly rare these days. The capitalist / industrial machine is constantly speeding everything up and overwhelming all of us with sensory overload. As assembly lines and computers move faster and faster, the speed and inattention bleeds over to everything about how we live our lives

Fast transportation is symbolic of this shift, but also propels it. Raising Fern without a car makes life slower and more complex. We’ve redefined both what is possible and what is desirable. When the modern world makes so many things possible, it is up to us to figure out whether we want all that speed and power, or whether those kinds of freedoms are really cages.

Caring for a baby means a lot more hanging around than I’m used to and not being able to get as much done as I could without a kid, or having to get it done more slowly because I only have one hand free. Because of how I was raised, I’ve always felt a constant internal psychological pressure to be productive. By contrast, Fern is just about being. She doesn’t feel that she has to justify her right to exist. She just gradually grows up. Spending time with Fern helps me kill the boss in my head and realize that I’m no different from her, or the cat, or a rock floating in space. We all exist and are legitimate because we exist. None of us have to prove anything to anyone.

At the same time, mainstream society sees babies not as tiny subversives bringing anti-capitalist inspiration to their parents, but as a huge market for consumerism. It is amazing to see all the plastic bullshit that suddenly seems necessary to raise a baby in a modern industrial context.

A question from the moment Fern was born is how my participation in radical projects is going to shift now that I’m a parent. It has been a huge struggle because the radical scene eats so much time, while Fern needs someone with her round the clock. When it’s my turn, Fern takes all my attention so I can’t multi-task and get a little Slingshot work done on the side. My single parent friends have to cram what’s left of their own lives into naps and after bedtime, when they probably need to sleep themselves. With 2 parents, you can switch off childcare, but that creates its own problems.

A big reason I’ve been able to maintain my involvement with Slingshot as much as I have is because Kristi has done more than her share of childcare. This has freed me to stay more involved than I would have otherwise, although I’m still far more pressed for time than I was pre-parenthood. This gender-division feels patriarchal, out-dated and embarrassing. I didn’t think we would fall into these roles and I don’t like it. Part of it results from breastfeeding, which makes equal distribution of childcare difficult no matter how much two parents might want more equality. We hope this will change as Fern gets older. But beyond that, it is amazing how strong our patriarchal socialization is because each of us seems to desire different amounts of time with Fern, that just so happens to mirror traditional roles.

Kristi has a very hard time letting me or anyone else take care of Fern, which is apparently pretty common for new moms. I want to spend time with Fern, but I don’t want to be with her as much as Kristi does.

While we were making this Slingshot, I was sitting in a meeting that was dragging on too long and I suddenly realized how much I missed Fern. I’ve found that my emotional energy in radical contexts has shifted. On the one hand, I fiercely want to stay active in radical projects to be part of the struggle to destroy capitalism and build a new world out of its ashes for myself, the natural world, and other people. Fern makes me even more committed. When we’re walking and I see the road crowded with cars thoughtlessly spewing carbon, I feel pissed off wondering if she’ll get to enjoy the forests I’ve loved. And parenting is isolating — maintaining involvement in radical projects is one of the few times I get out these days.

And yet I feel less patient with the inefficiency and frustration that accompanies radical projects. I’ve tried to figure out ways to dial back my involvement, pass tasks to others in the groups I’m in, and concentrate on maintaining my favorite projects so I can spend more time with Fern, but it has been tough to balance. I’m constantly feeling torn so that no matter what I decide to do, it feels like the wrong thing. When I spend a whole day working on Slingshot, I miss Fern and feel bad that my partner has to do all the work. But when I decide to step back from radical work, I feel like I’m giving up who I am and folding just because I’m a parent.

I hope someday Fern will be able to participate in some of these projects or at least play in the corner while they are happening so it won’t feel like it is such a choice between being with her and being engaged with radical projects.

Most radical projects I’ve been part of have very few parents in them, and numerous people who used to work on Slingshot stopped coming around so much when they became parents. At Occupy Oakland, many of us were proud that there was a Kids’ Village, but if you hung around you realized that most of the parents were concentrated there, not distributed evenly in the other committees. Many parents have written critiques of how radical groups make participation by parents difficult, and sometimes parents set up childcare or other structures to try to improve the situation. This is important work.

Despite all of this, I love Fern and I feel happier than I’ve ever felt before having her in my life. Getting to hold such a strong emotion day in and day out is intense and transformative. I can’t tell yet how this may inform my activism, my writing, or the way I live my life but I’m trying to observe and learn while enjoying it.