One of the more pleasant aspects of the growing anti-gentrification movements has been the increasing presence of children at organising meetings and direct actions. Not only has this posed new challenges in providing mutual acts of childcare, the presence of children has also required a reconfiguration of space to accommodate them. There have also been a spate of births amongst people who’ve been in organising circles familiar to those of us who make the OT itself (including new parents amongst the collective!) The OT spoke to some of these new parents, to attempt to draw out how this had affected their political activity and the impact on their political outlook more generally.
OT Has there been a significant shift in your experience of political space due to becoming parents? How have your priorities shifted? Have they shifted?
Rob My kid is only 8 weeks old. I had very naïvely assumed I’d be able to just rock up to political actions (and, even more optimistically, football matches) within a week, though it turns out quick trips along Streatham High Rd were initially well beyond us. The impact on your sleep is exhausting. No matter how much I was warned, the sleep thing knocks you for six. I’ve barely read a chapter of the sci-fi novel I was reading.
We hope to [attend our first protest together in a few days], which will be interesting. I do feel quite disconnected from active politics. My wife’s long-impending labour onwards seemed to coincide with an incredible upsurge in housing activism, and to be very honest I’m a little bit pissed off about the timing!
Alasdair We’re five months in now and there’s been a massive shift in both of our political involvement. Most obviously we’re both knackered a lot of the time which makes anything else hard. Between work and housework and looking after the baby I just don’t have time to go to lots of meetings these days. Things at the weekend are possible, but evenings are just right out so far. [the baby] is pretty active and she’s not one to just lie down and sleep in a crib or pram very often so we can bring her to events, and we do try to get her out the house a lot, but you’ve always got at least half an eye on her not anything else.
Whenever accessibility for parents is thought about by radical groups the go-to seems to be whether there’s childcare or not, but for us (at the moment anyway, it may be different when she’s older) that’s not really the point. She doesn’t like being left with others that much so just offering a crèche isn’t much help, and in fact for most of the meetings I’d be at they’re so small that wouldn’t make any sense or be at all feasible. So thinking about how to make activism more accessible is pretty tricky, in fact.
Alex We’re about 10 months in now. It’s all a bit of a blur and also the most beautiful thing. We had some problems around the birth, Thea was induced 5 weeks early and was then in special care for a couple of weeks because of her weight (under 4 pounds). This was really traumatic and has meant everything else has taken a step back. We feel very fragile, I think. Politically, this obviously affects any kind of participation in protests or actions, which in turn presents some questions over the limits and potentials of anti-capitalist practices for different kinds of daily situations.
At the other end of the wage-relation, there is the daily toll of care work that takes precedence over all else, including marked and purposeful resistance against the system that exerts and reproduces this pressure. We have naturally become highly sensitive to the politics of social reproduction through this process. This is all very clear now – the way capitalism ties you in knots through its othering of social reproduction to the sphere of unpaid work. This has been very difficult. We feel very consumed in our own struggle, which has naturally distanced us from collective projects and resistance. Maintaining involvement in the production of the OT has been really important in counteracting these patterns of isolation.
Regarding political shifts in thinking. The experience of more or less living in the hospital together with Thea has perhaps sharpened our view of the NHS. After we found out about the problems with the pregnancy, we were desperate. There were all these people gathering together on our behalf. We realised, however naïvely, that this is just not something that happens very often.
Nat On one hand, since having a baby I find everything in our world concerns the immediate; is she safe? the day by day; counting sleep, week by week, what’s her weight gain? Adjusting to sleep deprivation whilst developing a subconscious 24/7 awareness, it’s exhausting, exhilarating, all-consuming. The priority is simply being together to experience this, to cope. This doesn’t leave much practical time to be involved in political activities and in a materialistic sense the experience can push you in an opposite direction. I found myself buying things that you hear will make things easier; marketing companies feed off inexperience and the guilt that you might not be looking after your baby properly.
On the other hand, I don’t feel like I’ve ever had so much time to reflect on how we live, what’s important and what we need to keep our girl safe and happy. Without going to work every day and being forced to think about something which is ever more insignificant and useless, it’s quite clear that capitalism takes us away from our family and forces us to commit a ridiculous proportion of our time elsewhere – to projects that have no beneficial effects whatsoever on our well being.
At the baby clinic I meet mums on their ‘final days’ before having to go back to work. I have never met so many people spanning class, profession, race, who all openly confess that they simply don’t give a shit about their job anymore. We laugh over the days when we stayed late to finish projects. Now it’s just about what minimal commitment you can get away with. Our ambitions, desires, priorities have changed.
As we are coming up to having a year with Thea, I will go back to work and hand her over to a nursery so I can spend my hours selling one sort of valueless product or another. The cost is just shy of my daily salary. Not only do I feel I am being forced to leave Thea, I am going to have to stop breastfeeding, and leave her just as separation anxiety is kicking in, making it a truly distressing situation for us both. We’re paying to miss out on her growing up, putting her into a system where consensus not criticality is the norm.
OT It’d be interesting to hear anything about an approach to parenting that perhaps doesn’t reproduce heteronormativity, gender binary, nuclear family values. I don’t know if any of you have taken a tack that would be more unfamiliar to some people. That’d be very interesting, as would an approach that looks at notions of discipline and hierarchy in a family.
Rob We were given a few pink felt blankets which we tend to use in the pram. This convinces 99% of people the baby is a girl, some of whom are clearly affronted to find out it’s a boy and think we’re being extreme, as if we were, I dunno, forcing a 10 year old boy to go to school in a neon pink tutu. Whilst this isn’t a problem for us, merely providing mildly amusing anecdote material, it does strike me how embedded heteronormativity etc. is, and what an uphill struggle it remains.
In some ways I have developed a bit of an idiosyncratic ‘conservative Marxist’ view of the/my family. A few weeks ago we had to dash over to Belfast for my granny-in-law’s funeral. I was struck by what a big deal it was. A family matriarch mourned by a huge family, life-long neighbours, Sinn Fein politicians, old-skool IRA men. My own extended family’s English funerals have been like trips to Argos in comparison.
Alisdair When Zoe got pregnant we were living in a flat with several friends, and we considered staying there, at least for a while, which would have been a fairly non-traditional setup. In the end though, we moved into a place just us, so although we’re not married, we’ve got a pretty heteronormative nuclear household :(. We’ll be adopting a more anti-hierarchical and anti-disciplinarian approach to raising our child than most people, but for a five month old that doesn’t really mean a lot yet, so I don’t know if we can say much.
Alex We live together in a flat with Thea and no one else. Because of all the instability in Nat’s pregnancy, we decided it would reduce stress if we stuck about where we have lived for nearly ten years, got our own flat, and paid all our money on rent until we were broke. Then work out what to do when the time comes to go!
Discipline and hierarchy? Alex goes to work and Nat cares for Thea. It’s there whether we like it or not! This creates all sorts of conflicts, obviously, but thanks to feminism we’re at least aware that the working man has assumed the role of an arse-hole patriarch and should be reminded of that on a daily basis.
Nat Limited as this is, if Alex’s job would have allowed it, we could have substituted some of my maternity leave for Alex to take more paternity leave. A few people I know have taken 9 months and given 3 months to the dad. This is an idea in the absence of any other choices. Sadly pink and blue clothing dominate baby supplies, but we are happy for people to think she is a boy. I have got rid of piles of pink presents.
OT I know some of you have struggled with your own well being since you’ve had children. I’d be very encouraging of anything said about this, if people feel safe and able to express these things, and think them relevant to a political publication.
Rob My wife has bipolar disorder and spent the pregnancy and post-natal period under the watchful, slightly interfering gaze of mental health professionals. The biggest issue was their insistence she spend 5 days in hospital after the birth to make sure she rests (lack of sleep triggers episodes), where she was so constantly disturbed she (and I) got virtually no sleep.
Nat The anxiety associated with the level of care is exhausting. As Thea was a premature baby in special care for some time, we need to be really attentive to her. I never knew caring about someone so much would be so exhausting! Despite this, I have never felt so proud of myself and Alex of what we have made and the fact she smiles at us makes all my worries dissipate.
Alex General despair and bewilderment as usual, except now Thea smiling provides a dialectical complement to the way things are heading. *weeps*
OT Notions of urgency, perhaps best encapsulated in the demand “No Future, Utopia Now” have been pervasive amongst organising circles for some time. The reproduction of a new generation would seem to come into conflict with this, seeming to very strongly state that there will be a future (“won’t somebody think of the children?!”). I think we all acknowledge that the nature of climate science these days makes looking 60-70 years into the future a very scary proposition. Is that relevant to now?
Rob The poor babe is completely fucked. In the short-medium term we’ve got rent increases and constant house moves in the private rental sector. I fear for how unsettled and how poor this will make his upbringing. In the longer term, his life in the employment market will likely be even worse than mine, which was already worse than my parents! And then beyond that he could well be caught up in an existential battle for life against mutated nature… Less so now he’s here in my arms giving me heart-flutteringly beautiful gummy smiles, but during the pregnancy I did have some very serious “what are we doing??!!” rages. These babies need communism.
Alisdair This is a really interesting point I think. The Out of the Woods collective are looking specifically at the use of what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism”, the “won’t someone think of the children?”, and how that operates to uphold white heteronormative family values, both on the right, obviously, but also in the discourse of much mainstream liberal and leftist environmentalism. We prefer to view things in terms of regeneration rather than reproduction. Generally, there’s a conflict between an imagined future and the present, and political action on behalf of future children can often be at the expense of current real ones. In terms of climate change, we need to realise that it isn’t 60-70 years away, it’s right now, and seriously right now for increasing numbers of people. We need communism for the sake of our children, but also for our own sake. Despite the urgency of environmental action, though, that’s always been true.
One could view “no future” as a call that, unlike past generations (or the last couple anyway), I can’t just wait for productivity growth to give my child a better future than my own. If we want a better future we have to create it now, not idealistically, but through material collective action today.
Alex #nofuture is a fairly accurate summary of the present, so we try and temper it by playing peekaboo with Thea and dancing and laughing and throwing Thea around. Not sure if this is to do with having Thea or not, but I feel a more heightened despair at how capital turns nature into things. I look at Thea – a product of nature – and she has a very honest view on the world. This makes me feel all the weird changes in my being, the strange fixtures of my psychosomatic shape, which I didn’t take much notice of before. As mentioned previously, babies need communism so this kind of damage can be limited to a minimum.