A member of Seattle Solidarity Network shares some steps she thinks organizations could take to encourage involvement from their members with children.
Eight days after my daughter was born, I sent this message to the organizing committee members of the Seattle Solidarity Network:
“I wanted to let you all know that I need to take a few week hiatus from coming to SeaSol meetings…. Baby is doing well, we just need to clear the decks while I recover and while we figure out this whole nursing thing. Thanks for understanding, and we’ll see you in a few weeks! (I’d estimate three.)”
Four months later, I had still not returned to SeaSol meetings more than a handful of times. I was an I.W.W. member and had been organizing with SeaSol since our first fight in 2008. I was the only female-identified person to consistently attend SeaSol meetings for our entire first year and for several more years for the IWW branch in Seattle. Both groups planned to pay for childcare, and I was committed to continuing my activism after giving birth, but somehow I was not managing to make it happen. What was the problem?
What follows are some reflections on becoming a mom while trying to continue work as a class warrior. Because my daughter is only six months old now, I can only base my reflections on these first months of parenthood. While I will mostly present ideas about how to make our organizing “baby friendly,” I’m sure there are many more topics to come about becoming “kid friendly” (e.g. I hope to reach “Teen humiliated by activist mom”). The following suggestions are also influenced by the fact that while my partner is on baby duty from 10am to 4pm, I am on duty from 4pm to 10pm every day. This system of “watches” is how we both manage to keep our sanity and our part-time jobs, but it also means that I am responsible for the bulk of childcare during prime meeting times.
This advice is for other individuals who would like to help support new parents in organizations such as SeaSol and the IWW, as well as newly expecting parents who might appreciate some suggestions to help smooth the transition from activist to parent + activist.
Step One: Childcare in meetings. Childcare is obviously an important part of helping any organization become parent- and baby-friendly. However, I’m not a believer in the “build it and they will come” style of organization building. If you start offering childcare in meetings, I wouldn’t expect moms, dads, babies and kids to just appear out of the woodwork. In SeaSol and the Seattle IWW branch we started providing childcare after four very active members of both organizations became parents within weeks of each other. That is, we based our actions on a current, felt need in the organizations rather than a hypothetical future need. (If anyone does the opposite and finds out that parent activists do come out of the woodwork, please let me know. That would be great!)
We also decided to do advance fundraising in order to pay for childcare. While several members (often women) volunteered to do the childcare for free, we didn’t want to lose out on the possibility of having those people participate in the meetings. We need everyone we can to do the organizing work of SeaSol and the IWW, so we decided it would be better to have the childcare done by someone who would not otherwise be involved with our organizations.
This is all well and good, but unfortunately, childcare isn’t really what I needed to come back to organizing. I’ve come to believe there’s a difference between being truly baby-friendly in meetings and simply providing childcare (however important that is). What I needed as a new mom was not just someone to hand the baby off to so that I could participate in meetings in a “normal” way. What I needed and still need is support for my new normal, which involves being in an extremely dependent and time-consuming nutritional and emotional relationship with a tiny human. Steps Two through Six are about supporting this new normal.
Step Two: Help with meals. It’s really hard finding time to cook any kind of meal, let alone a healthy one, while taking care of an infant. I mean, impossibly hard. Add to that the fact that our meetings are right at dinner time and you have me between a rock (hungry baby) and a hard place (hungry mama).
One of the best things helpers can do for new parents is to have food waiting for them at meetings. This would probably work best as a shift system where interested individuals could sign up to bring a dinner for one or two hungry mamas or papas per meeting. Shifts would not be as logistically challenging as providing food for everyone at the meeting, but I guarantee it would make it far more likely that your new mamas could attend meetings. (The breastfeeding ones are extra hungry, too!) We have not tried this in SeaSol, but we do have a monthly potluck meeting with food provided, and I am much more likely to attend those meetings.
Step Three: Help with rides or packing. I have a car but am still daunted by all the logistical challenges of getting out of the house with a baby. This includes everything from making sure she is fed and changed to visiting with her in the car seat so she doesn’t scream her head off on the way to the meeting. I also sometimes bring a giant exercise ball to meetings for bouncing her to sleep, a baby carrier, and so much other stuff that I feel like a pack mule trying to make my way into meetings. Helpers can offer rides and/or offer to show up early to help the parents gather things together. I’ve been lucky enough to have a fabulous SeaSol organizer helping me out with these sorts of pre-meeting preparations.
Step Four: Have supplies on hand at meetings. Parents and helpers can keep supplies on hand to help reduce the burden of packing before meetings. These care packages should contain extra diapers in several sizes, wipes, a couple of toys, and a few changes of clothing. There should also be snacks for emergency parent feeding as well. A very motivated helper could even show up at the parents’ house to help them pack such a bag.
Step Five: Volunteer to do childcare for events other than meetings. Meetings aren’t the only events that new parents want to attend. Often the help I most need is just an extra pair of hands, or someone to sit beside me and entertain the baby during an event. My baby never wants to be banished off to some “kid room” with just herself and a non-parental adult – she wants to be where the action is! A helper can simply offer to sit by a parent and entertain their kid for a little while, if needed.
Step Six: Don’t push it. It’s an understatement to say that new parents are “adjusting” to their new role. For me, especially for the first several months, it felt like my new life was a Picasso painting of my old life – there were many recognizable elements, but they were all mashed up and weird looking. I’m now figuring out how to weave activities I value back into my life, but there’s no going “back to normal.” I’m not going to be able to participate in exactly the same way I did before I became a mom. For example, I used to facilitate meetings regularly. Now, I will absolutely abandon that duty for a crying baby with no qualms whatsoever. But I can contribute in other ways that are meaningful and useful for the organization, such as writing, graphic design, and other activities that I can do during nap times or off duty. This is all to say – don’t feel too disappointed if your new parents can’t contribute to your organizing in their old way – hopefully they can find new ways that suit their new schedules and responsibilities.
In the first months of motherhood, I was too discombobulated to think of any of these suggestions. As a potential helper, you may find that new parents are too overwhelmed to think of these things or ask you for them. But if you offer, they will sometimes take you up on it. I can guarantee you it’s worth the effort. I might be biased, but I think during a tense moment in a meeting, there’s hardly anything better than having a baby go, “Fffppppttt!”