Breastfeeding at the Barricades

When I sat in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) at the hospital and nursed my daughter for the first time, I knew in a visceral way that my life was forever changed. I felt it in my bones (not to mention my uterus and my nipples).

So much about discussing parenting quickly becomes cliché. And so many of the clichés are true. I have never been as in love with or committed to anyone as I am to my daughter. I have never been as tired as I was in the first three months of her life. Being her mother has made me look at the world in a whole new way.

My parents thought they could change the world by changing their lifestyle, and so they dropped out and went “back to the land.” I thought the world needed to be changed through direct confrontation and intervention, and so I left the land and went “back to the city” where I remain, and I hope the world is changing but it’s hard to tell how much and whether any of it is for the better.

I still believe the world needs confrontation and intervention to change, but I also think a bit of lifestyle change, such as how we raise our kids, is part of that picture too. I keep returning to the idea that we parents can change the world. I keep thinking about the ways a capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, state-based culture impacts and shapes our children— how children raised in this culture grow into adults who perpetuate these structures and systems. I keep thinking about how to break that cycle.

I am hesitant to talk about how I think our parenting strategies impact our world, because the idea that our problems stem from our approach to raising our kids can look like placing the blame for all of our woes upon the already overburdened shoulders of parents, rather than the psychologists and other “experts” who use their status to pressure parents into unnatural and detached parenting methods. But so much of who we are as people can be tracked to our early childhood experiences, so it seems worth considering the idea that how society approaches parenting can shape society.

Western culture, the dominant culture of the United States in particular, fetishizes individuality and self reliance to such an extreme that we expect children to be self-sufficient before they learn to talk. Mainstream parenting values self-reliance over support, compassion, and interdependence. As parents we are endlessly cautioned not to “spoil” our babies by meeting their needs, because then they might always expect their need to be met! By responding to our children’s needs as though they are frivolous wants, we teach them an inability to distinguish between needs and wants, and we lose the ability to distinguish the difference ourselves. Mainstream parenting philosophy says that a baby’s desire to be held and comforted is manipulative, when a compassionate approach tells you that it is a valid need. Our children learn how to relate to the world by the way that we treat them, and when we are disrespectful, dismissive, cruel and indifferent to our children as a way to make them strong, they grow into disrespectful, cruel and indifferent adults. I am convinced that if compassion were strongly valued in parenting, it would gradually become more valued in our society at large.

I have always loved the concept of building the new world as we destroy the old world. Creating as we destroy, shaping as we tear down. This has shaped my concept of radical parenting. That on the one hand, I need to continue to confront the evil dominant world, to add my thinking and my energy and my strength to the struggle to overthrow capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the state. On the other hand, I want to raise my child as much as possible as though the world I wish to live in already exists. I want to raise a child who can reject and fight against these systems of dominance and oppression, yet who can also function in the world. I want to be an excellent parent.

Excellent parenting looks different to different people. To me it is about putting my daughter’s well-being ahead of my own conveniences. It means not blaming her when parenting is hard. It means taking care of myself. More concretely, it means consistently treating her with respect, supporting her efforts at self-determination, and keeping her safe. It means learning how to raise a girl-assigned child in a patriarchal culture who has a strong self esteem and can kick ass. It means modeling principled choices and behavior. It means doing research and thinking critically about how to parent and picking and choosing the tools and techniques that are right for us. It means recognizing my child’s need for love and comfort as being as important than her need for food. Does it mean more?

I have high hopes, yet realistic expectations. My daughter might or might not be a revolutionary, but I am determined that she have the capacity!

What the anarchist utopia looks like will be determined by the people who live in it. I think it will include respect and reverence for all people and creatures. It will emphasize collectivity and interdependence over rugged individualism, and respect for autonomy won’t be at the expense of mutual aid and free association. In the anarchist utopia I’m hoping for, everyone will expect all of their needs to be met, and scream like hell when they aren’t. In the anarchist utopia, people will be gentle with each other regardless of age— or any other factor.

Building the new world in the shell of the old involves living as much as possible as though the anarchist utopia was already here, incorporating as much of the values and systems and methods of our ideal world into our actual world. This is why I live collectively, for instance, and use collective decision making where I can. And I continually explore how to apply this approach to my parenting in ways which are also excellent parenting.

I won’t say that approaching parenting this way is going to make the revolution, but it is one of the necessary components for radical social change, and who better to begin this approach than the (broadly defined) anarchist/radical community? It’s worth doing because the process of exploring these ideas is constantly challenging and deepening my political analysis and commitment. And it’s worth doing because it is a damn good way to raise a child, and parenting is worth doing well.

Thanks to the radical parents and parent allies who offered input, suggestions and support. Rahula Janowski can be reached at