Negotiating Mothering and Activism
with Courage and Hopefulness
The Nazis are Marching and My Daughter Wants to Protest
I struggle even to begin this narrative. Do I say, “I am a mother and an activist” or “I am an activist and a mother”? “Activist mother” sounds breezy and glib; “motherly activist” sounds matronly — worse! With some embarrassment, I acknowledge that both of these titles are somewhat true —- I was/am the “activist mother” dragging my children to protests and demonstrations, loading the diaper bag with snacks in case the speeches were boring. And this “motherly activist” does indeed pass out cookies to the younger activists and encourage them to “button up” as we stand on frigid street corners. Must I, even in my opening sentences, prioritize, rank order or sequence two of my life’s most powerful identities? I decide, for lack of a better reason, to begin with my activism because it pre-dates my parenting, not because it is separate or more important than being a mother.
I am a long-time activist, standing on corners with placards, demonstrating in Washington, in front of our local federal building, at busy intersections, being interviewed on television and radio, writing editorials. I live a public life as an activist, often coming into work and hearing, “I saw you on T.V. last night.” Many times I cannot accurately discern the speaker’s unspoken second sentence. Might it be: “Wow, I’m impressed to see you standing up for your beliefs that way” or “It’s so embarrassing to have one of our colleagues making a spectacle of herself”? Sometimes, I ask (trying to seem casual), “Oh, what did I say?” hoping that the answer to that question will guide the rest of the discussion.
I am also the mother of two daughters, Dalia and Leora, whom I love deeply and unconditionally. In proposing this chapter, my daughter Dalia named my mothering stance “ferocious tenderness,” a generous and appreciative expression of my passionate zeal and energy in supporting them and keeping them safe, happy and connected to me and what they love.
These are not, however, simply two of my (many) identities. They are two powerful ways in which I define myself, spend my time and energy, struggle and grow. In this chapter, I attempt to explore the following questions: How do these two roles connect? What are the ways in which my mothering has been informed by my activism? Misinformed? How has my activism been shaped by my experiences as a mother? Am I a better activist or a different activist because I am a mother? Have my political understandings and commitments strengthened my parenting? What have been the points of convergence, struggle and confusion in these two roles?
I begin my story conscious of its one-sidedness and partial nature. My daughters have chosen not to write this account with me, and so I am both “free” to say what I want, and hyper-aware of the limitations and biases of my storytelling. I can imagine their voices saying, “Oh, come on, not really” or challenging my perceptions, but I am left alone to hold myself to a standard of honesty and self-revelatory disclosure. I want, of course, to sound like a “good mother”, although Lerner (1998) helps us to see the bankruptcy of that phrase. I also want to present myself as a committed peace and justice activist, in it “for the long haul.” But most of all, I want to interrogate the struggles involved in each of these roles and, more importantly, in their combination.
Writing this chapter is a daunting task, but not that different from the struggles about which I write; there are ironic parallels between writing a balanced narrative and struggling to live a balanced life of parenting and political action. Just as I feel I can neither give up being a mother nor an activist, I feel compelled to muddle through my stories, trusting that the reader will feel, if not compassion, at least sympathy for this tension and negotiation.
My children have been at many political protests in their lives, beginning when they were far too young to voice their agreement or dissent with the action or my decision to have them there with me. Many images and memories spring to mind as I begin to write:
Dalia at age two in a stroller at the anti-Apartheid march in Cleveland in front of the South African Embassy.
Leora at eight weeks being carried by her father in a Snuggli at a vigil to mourn the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in Lebanon. This moment was captured as a half-page photo in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, my activism and my parenting public for all to see.
Dalia and Leora marching with a large contingent from Grand Forks, North Dakota to the local air force base to protest the addition of B-1 bombers to the weaponry there.
Leora at age nine, standing on a street corner in 40 below zero weather in North Dakota, dressed in a one-piece snowsuit, protesting the invasion of Iraq in 1991.
Dalia standing at a busy intersection with me, passing out leaflets as a member of “Women in Black,” protesting the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in Israel/Palestine. When a passenger screamed at her, she came to me and asked, “Mama, do you know what I’m doing?”. “Of course I do,” I responded, “why?” “Because,” said Dalia, “that man just screamed at me, ‘Does your mother know what you’re doing? ‘So I thought I’d ask you.”
Marches to Washington, D.C., for gay rights, for women’s rights, for peace and justice, for Central America, against different wars and invasions; long bus rides, lots of chanting and singing, tired feet, sunburned faces, a huge collection of political T-shirts.
I also have memories of my daughters trying to make sense of their (and my) political involvement. Once, on a family vacation to Washington, D.C., Dalia couldn’t understand why we were there if there was no protest. When I told her we were there as tourists, she refused to look at the Vietnam War Memorial because it was too upsetting and she spit at the White House fence, making me worry about our safety.
Leora’s earliest memories of her activism include standing on frozen street corners being yelled at by the drivers of passing cars; later, when she imitated those who had yelled at her, her nine-year-old version came out as “Get a job! Move to Russia! Get eaten by a snowdrift!” (an interesting compilation of things she thought she had heard).
Usually, it felt wonderful to have my children be a part of my political life, my commitments to public protest and demonstration. It was a shared experience, time together, a way for me to teach them what I believed and to help them take their own small steps towards civic engagement and an understanding of the politics and power of protest. There were also moments of both pride and embarrassment, such as the time my daughters explained to the departmental secretary that they couldn’t buy the candy being sold as a fundraiser for her child’s school because “That’s Nestlé’s candy, and they kill babies.”
But there have also been events that have challenged my comfort and my confidence in this combination of activist mothering. In the summer of 1993, the Nazi Party announced that they would hold a march and rally in Auburn, New York (a town near Syracuse where I live). The march was scheduled for Yom Kippur (the most sacred of Jewish holidays), and the route was to be from the Auburn Town Hall to Harriet Tubman Square (a landmark to the famous African American abolitionist who once lived in Auburn). For weeks, a small group of us met to decide on an appropriate response to this demonstration of hatred and prejudice. There were many who favored doing nothing, arguing that silence and lack of attention was the correct response. Leaders in the Jewish community and the Black community were among those counseling the wisdom of ignoring the Nazi’s behavior. Although this logic, like the old phrase, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” was appealing, it became clear that the considerable advance media coverage would result in a well-attended event, if only by onlookers. The group decided, after many meetings, to assemble as a “visible presence” wearing black t-shirts adorned with symbols of those exterminated during the holocaust: yellow stars, green triangles, pink triangles, and so on, and holding signs that said, simply, “No!.” Another group of people appointed themselves as “peacekeepers” and committed to positioning themselves between the Nazis and the protesters, maintaining the peace and keeping things from becoming violent.
The period of planning for the march was a tense time for me. As a Jewish woman, I was very distressed by the images and the anticipation of a confrontation with Nazis and swastikas. I felt particularly vulnerable and frightened. But my feelings were even more intense because Dalia, then 14, decided that she wanted to be part of the demonstration.
As a mother/activist, I was so proud that I had raised a daughter who was willing to take a stand, who went to 30 hours of meetings as well as to a ten-hour nonviolence training over two weekends. Before the march, I asked her, “Dalia, why do you want to do this?” She told me that she thought it was important to take a stand against people who represented hatred and prejudice. She said, “History has shown us that ignoring that kind of thing just doesn’t work to make it go away.” “But aren’t you scared?” I pressed. “Yes, of course,” she responded, “but what’s that got to do with it?”
But – and — still— as a mother/activist, I was terrified by the possible ramifications of allowing my precious child to participate in an event during which she might be seriously hurt. Was that responsible parenting? Was I somehow abdicating my parental duties in the name of activism? Should I forbid her to go? Should I stay home myself rather than risk my child’s safety? I wrestled with this question through many sleepless nights, images of swastikas and bloodied heads haunting my dreaming and my waking. I was somewhat reassured by the other activists who made personal commitments to look after Dalia during the march and go to jail with her if she was rounded up separately from us and taken to a different holding facility. But other friends challenged my parenting, telling me, “I’d never let my child go into harm’s way like that.” “Aren’t you scared?’” they asked, assuming that my affirmative answer would mean that I would veto Dalia’s participation.
Meanwhile, my younger daughter. Leora, was not slated to go to the protest. We had decided that she would spend the day attending synagogue with Robin, a friend of the family. This decision also made me worried and guilty. The Jewish High Holy Days are typically a time of deep reflection and contemplation, a time for family togetherness, elaborate meals and celebratory interactions. I was sending my daughter off to do those things with someone else, while I went to Auburn to lead chanting and singing in the face of the marching Nazis. What kind of priorities were those?
In the end, the march itself turned out to be singularly anti-climactic. The Nazis were few in number and left after a brief confrontation during which a small group of protesters (not our group), pelted them with nuts and bolts. But I learned important lessons from both my daughters. From Dalia, I learned yet another lesson in what courage looks like. Her steadfast commitment to this action, her deep understanding of the importance of taking a stand, and her refusal to be silenced were both mirrors of my own feelings and a purer, more distilled version as well.
From Leora, I learned another important lesson. Because Leora, at 11, worried a lot about the people she loved, we had not shared every details with her. Riding in the car two days before the march, I said to Leora, “I just want to tell you what’s happening on Saturday: Papa, Dalia and I are going to Auburn to march and you are going to spend the day with Robin.” Leora immediately began to cry. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Because I’m scared,” she responded. “What are you scared of? I persisted. “I’m scared you’ll get hurt,” she replied.
I reassured Leora as well as I could that we were committed to nonviolence, that we would take every precaution and that we would leave if the march became violent or frightening. Leora began to cry again. “Now what?” I asked. She looked at me plaintively. “Why are they doing this?” I took a deep breath. My experience has always been that when children ask a question, they want a real answer. They don’t want research or statistics, or an article to read, they want an immediate, understandable answer. Perhaps, this has always been the truest test of my own understanding of political issues: can I explain them to my child? “Well,” I ventured, “I think that the Nazis are confused people who think that only White people should live, and that anyone who is Black or Jewish or gay or lesbian or disabled or an immigrant shouldn’t be allowed to live.” She looked at me, paused for a moment, and then, shaking her head, offered, “Picky, aren’t they!”
Leora’s characterization of race hatred and a politics of violence and exclusion as “picky” is both laughable and yet completely on target. Knowing that my child saw the ridiculousness of such a practice of exclusion and hateful categorization made me pleased by her deep understanding and values, even as I felt distressed that I was making my daughter anxious and worried.
Because this particular story had a “happy ending” — no one was hurt or injured, and positive lessons about activism, voice, the power of numbers and the importance of taking a stand were visible — it is easy to think that my mothering has always been enhanced by my activism. It would be satisfying to tell only stories about the ways in which my children’s involvement in my politics enhanced their lives and deepened their commitments to social justice.
OUR BARBIES, OURSELVES
But, in fairness, in retrospect, I believe there have been times and ways in which my strongly held beliefs and commitments have made my daughters’ lives more difficult and more challenging as well. My tendency towards dogmatism was colored by political righteousness, making it a daunting force. I acknowledge that, perhaps, my fierce insistence on specific political stances sometimes interfered with my ability to be a responsive, relaxed mother. Take, for example, the Barbie episode.
As a strong feminist, my constructions of what it means to be a woman center on power, voice, visibility and equality. I wanted my daughters to be smart, powerful, self-confident and committed to making a difference. I never bought them little make-up kits, dress-up high heels or purses. I was pleased when Dalia requested an F-clamp for her workbench on her seventh birthday and when she eschewed dresses and things pink. I thought this meant that I was doing a great job as a feminist mother. My visions of liberated womanhood definitely did not include having my daughters play with Barbie Dolls. Dalia didn’t have any Barbies, and, conveniently, she never asked for any. But, at her fourth birthday party, one of her friends gave her with a Barbie Doll and several outfits. I hadn’t thought to write “No Barbies” on the invitations as some of my friends now write “No war toys” on their son’s party invitations. It seemed impossibly impolite to snatch the present out of her hand, but I was pleased that she seemed fairly disinterested.
Two weeks after her birthday, I entered her bedroom and found her on the floor with her Barbie doll. “What are you doing?” I asked. (Mother asking a stupid question). “I’m dressing and undressing my Barbie,” she answered. Then, because I have been singularly unable to maintain a respectful silence around Barbies, I said, “Well that looks pretty boring.” She looked up at me, her blue eyes steely and clear, and responded, “Mama, not being sexist doesn’t mean I can’t play with girls’ toys, not being sexist means I can play with anything I want to.” I quietly shut the bedroom door and left.
Although this story is very funny, it continues to give me pause. What is the line between integrity and principled behavior — and rigid dogmatism? My daughters have continually forced me to interrogate that difference. Clearly Dalia understood better than I did what it means to resist sex-role stereotyping! Did my fierce insistence on what is now derisively labeled “political correctness” keep them from a fuller range of experiences? Did I make my daughters outsiders to mainstream culture by my insistence on constant vigilance and attentiveness to principles? I wonder now whether my activism, my beliefs, my politics made me unable to “lighten up” when this might have been appropriate. More directly, did I learn something from this experience so that I reacted differently to my second daughter’s interest in owning and playing with Barbies?
I would like to say “Of course,” but this isn’t exactly the case. I did a little better when Leora spent endless hours playing Barbies with her friend Erica. I did, however, try to convince her to let Barbie have a “profession,” but found out that even owning “Doctor Barbie: a doctor by day, a glamorous date by night” didn’t insure the discourse I hoped for. I was a bit reassured to enter the girls’ room one day to find them playing “Pirate Barbie” and pushing various Barbie and Ken dolls off the top bunk — making them “walk the plank.” Still, I was uncomfortable. Only now, in my fifties, have I come to realize that I can be proud of my kayaking muscles and also enjoy the luxury of a pedicure, a lesson learned too late for my daughters’ comfort.
And then there was Halloween. I have always been uncomfortable with this particular holiday: the focus on scaring people, the seeming greediness of children demanding candy, and the connections between Halloween and the Pogroms of Eastern Europe have made me less than an eager participant. For some years, I was able to convince my daughters that this holiday wasn’t for us, and that while they could pass out the candy, they didn’t have to go out trick-or-treating themselves. When we moved to Syracuse, however, (they were 9 and 12), Halloween was everywhere and so I relented and allowed them to go trick-or-treating for the first time.
The girls went out on their candy haul in the neighborhood and then went to a friend’s house to sort and trade. They returned home and again, spread out their candy on the floor for me to see. Leora, who at nine was trying to figure out how to “be political” like her parents and older sister, announced proudly: “I traded all my Nestle’s candy!” Dalia, not apparently trying to one-up her sister said, “You traded? I just gave away all my Nestle’s candy. I didn’t think I should profit in any way from Nestles.” Leora was crestfallen; her look bespoke the feelings that she would never get it right in this political family.
At the time, I was proud of my daughter’s insights about boycotts, the power of the purse and personal politics. Now I wonder: Couldn’t I have just let them eat the chocolate? But lest I present an image of children’s lives ruined by their mother’s activist stances, there are also many ways in which I know that my children understand and demonstrate their own deeply held politics: Leora recently returned from six months in Chile studying the relationship between the arts and activism and the role of resistance in the Chilean struggle for independence. Dalia is a writer and artist whose understanding of community building is manifested in all that she does and in her keen ability to connect to everyone. Although they were impatient with my insistence on cooperative games and not competitive ones, Dalia now shares those same cooperative games with the children with whom she works. And Leora has decided that she wants to become a bilingual teacher, demonstrating deep perceptiveness about the ways in which language and education change people’s lives. One could argue that they learned their activism, their self-confidence and their power both because of me and in spite of me. Only now do they share some of their stories of their own resistance to my dogmatism: they did find places to experiment with “being girly” and to play with Babies out of my sight. They each have a strong senses of personal agency, and they reassure me that they aren’t sorry I was off leading marches and picketing. Dalia said, “Mama, you made cookies and went to protests. You showed us that women could do lots of things.” They have both spoken to me of their appreciation of my modeling of a woman whose life was larger than her own family, whose commitments went beyond traditional boundaries and assumptions. I am pretty sure that my activism didn’t ruin their lives, but still, there were those Barbies…..
UNDERSTANDING SOCIAL JUSTICE AS A MOTHER
The second half of the equation, how my activism has been strengthened or deepened by the experience of mothering, is less muddy for me. I am confident that becoming a parent, feeling that deep “mother-love” has significantly changed the ways in which I understand and commit to my social justice work. Although I always held an “anti-war” position, giving birth and mothering two babies made the sanctity of human life salient in dramatic ways. After I gave birth to Dalia, I had no words to explain what that love felt like. I was overwhelmed by feelings that were unlike any I had ever had before. Giving birth to a second daughter both strengthened those feelings and made it clear that one could, indeed, feel that loving and passionate about more than one person.
But birth isn’t the only experience that connected me to the sacredness of life. When Dalia was 15, she nearly died after getting a poisonous insect bite while we were traveling in Australia. She spent two weeks in a coma on full-life support with the prediction of very low odds for survival; it was a time of devastation and terror. But, through incredible medical care, a huge network of love and support and her own tenaciousness, she survived. This experience radically re-set my priorities: loud music, outrageous clothing, purple hair, messy rooms, piercings, tattoos and other features of adolescence that others rail against now seem largely irrelevant to me. I became deeply centered in the belief that breathing and life are essential …. and that everything else is negotiable. And I had a terrifying glimmer of what it might mean to lose a child.
How did the general experience of mothering and the specific experience of Dalia’s near death (and survival) affect my activism? This consciousness of mother love made me look at war differently. Suddenly, the killing was much more personal. Of course I had been opposed to war before, of course I realized that killing was devastation, of course I understood that parents grieved. But suddenly, those mothers holding their dying babies in their arms were like me, their babies like mine. Because I had almost lost Dalia, I could not imagine willfully making another mother suffer what to me would have been an unspeakable tragedy. Even more distressing to me has been the rhetoric about the Middle East: “Those people just don’t value human life the way we do.” “The Palestinian mothers want their children to be suicide bombers.” “They’re just not like us; we can’t understand their world view.” The audacity, the blatant racism and hypocrisy of that language now strikes me as even more reprehensible than before. When people say, “They just don’t value human life the way we do?” I ask, “And you know that how?” I tell them that I have to assume that that mother in Iraq holding her dead baby feels the same way about her baby as I do about mine. After the bombing of Afghanistan was begun (shortly after the World Trade Centers fell), I wrote a song expressing this feeling. The chorus of the song says, “It’s hard to believe that their hearts aren’t breaking. It’s hard to believe that their tears don’t flow. I may not be clear on the smallest of details, but a mother’s love I know.” One of the verses asks: “And now I see mothers in Afghanistan, holding the dying babies we have slain. And all I have left is the simplest of questions: Will their grieving heal our pain?”
Being devoted to my own children has made me even more committed to the world’s children. I am less and less able to separate my desires to keep my own children safe from a vow to make the world safe for all children. As I love my daughters with “ferocious tenderness,” my circle of love and caring grows to include the whole world.
I now answer my own questions. Yes, being a mother has made me a different activist, and, I would argue, a better one. My commitment to life, to peace and to social justice is grounded not only in a set of principles and beliefs, but in the very real bodies and lives of my daughters. There is nothing abstract about my activism. I relate much more directly with the struggles of people all over the world through my understanding of families, love and unwavering connection. The faces of the mothers as they survey their dead children and families are my face, their tears are my own, their broken hearts pound irregularly in my own chest. This is not to say that people who aren’t parents can’t be incredibly wonderful, powerful and persuasive activists, simply that I know that my activism feels different to me because I am a mother.
As to how my activism has impacted my parenting, this is something that I continue to reflect upon. It would be glib to assume that any issues my daughters have had, have now or will have are a result of my politics and focused personality, or the combination of the two. I do know that my daughters have never doubted either my love for them or my fierce commitment to making the world right. But if I had it to do over again, I would probably be just as determined and dogged in my insistence on equality, peace, human rights and social justice …. and less rattled by Barbie and Ken and my daughters’ desires to collect vast quantities of chocolate.