Published on October 21st, 2016 | by Ethan Somerman0
How Becoming a Parent Turned Me Into an Accidental Activist by ETHAN SOMERMAN
Having a baby turns some into baby-wearing, goo-goo saying, sleep training, playgroup setting, parent philosophizing, only what’s best for the baby and enjoy every moment mamas or papas. When my wife was pregnant, I tried to prepare for the imminent metamorphosis ahead. I imagined the transformation as something like going from a biting, hoppy beer to a watered down sugary cocktail. I’d get too sweet, kinda gross, and make dear friends vomit. Surely, a kumbaya earth mother would emerge as my spirit guide. Friends promised I’d get protective, emotional, and vulnerable. I’d get soft.
Becoming a parent did, indeed, change me; but not quite in the way I was told or expected. My spirit guides turned out to be some mixture of Henry Rollins and Audre Lorde. I became sharp, not soft. Becoming a parent catalyzed something deep within me that I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. This righteous raging, political letter writing, black lives matter fighting, social justice seeking, female-born gender-bender called dad evolved. I became an accidental activist.
See, I became a parent at an interesting time. My daughter was born on May 5th. About a month later, Brock Turner, who was convicted of rape with a recommended sentence of 6 years in prison, was only sentenced to 6 months by Judge Aaron Persky because he thought this man was not a danger to society. Six days later, the Orlando mass shooting happened at a gay club on Latin Night. By the end of June, the United Kingdom, motivated by xenophobia and isolationism, decided to leave the European Union. Two months after my baby was born Alton Sterling was wrongfully shot dead by police. The next day it was Philando Castile. All the while Trump became the Republican candidate for president, gaining power and popularity with his racist, islamophobic, bigoted, fear-inspired rhetoric. And you thought I might just sit down cradling my baby in my arms and sing lullabies to drown out the noise? I don’t think so.
This activist self didn’t arise out of nowhere, but it had long been in hibernation. I was an activist and organizer in my late teens and early twenties. I cared about things. I raged. I wanted to change the system. I could speak about injustices with an annoying vagueness but a sincere indignation. I organized people to demonstrate against things I felt were wrong in the world (George W. Bush, sweatshops, homophobia, the war in Iraq, and threats against the rights of women). I knew how to express opposition to the status quo and little else. Then I needed more income and stability. I got a dog, got a house, got married. My opposition got watered down. My red-hot fire cooled to neutral tones. If I am completely honest with myself, my fear of confrontation led to a fear of saying what I think, which led to a fear of thinking. I became quiet; unchallenged and unchallenging.
When I found out my wife was pregnant, I was prepared to focus my attention, my love, and my time on my family. I expected the other things in the world would matter less as my priorities shifted and focused on my wife and daughter. I was ready to devote every ounce of my being to raising a kind and good human being. It seemed I was primed for the softening agent of parenting.
I expected things to get small. They didn’t. I don’t want to go down a path of feel-good fuzzies saying that having a child changed my life and made me a better person. That’s only somewhat true and somewhat false. My world got bigger. My responsibility as a human on this earth got bigger. This has been a complicated evolution. I feel more compassion and more anger. As I read the horrifying news of late I have felt body-rippling anger at an intensity that has been shocking to my system. As a queer person, the news of the Orlando mass shooting still makes me quake with rage. But, I have also felt a deep desire to be better: perpetuate less hate, offer more love. Not the feel good, rosy kind of love, but the kind of love that is a force to be grappled with. The kind that demands you to rearrange your thoughts and make room where you thought you had none. I am attempting to build a fierce compassion so powerful that an active, revolutionary love springs forth. The compassion and anger are two sides of the same coin. I am learning to live with the double edged experience of opening my heart and gritting my teeth.
The balance of cradling my baby while attempting to be a force for societal change has been a tricky one. It means I couldn’t go to the vigil for Alton Sterling and Philando Castille because it conflicts with my little one’s bedtime. It means I rushed to City Hall on my lunch break to meet my wife and baby to protest Trump’s visit to my city. It means while I chanted “This is what democracy looks like” that I simultaneously pushed through the crowd to get to a shady spot to make sure my baby didn’t get a sunburn at her first protest. It means I played phone tag with the police chief of my town to talk about the movement for black lives and Campaign Zero because I am trying to schedule my activism around my baby’s erratic nap schedule and my job. It means I have been a little distracted. Maintenance of the mundane and the changing of the world overlap at every moment.
However, being a parent has served to distract just as much as it has served to focus. I have a witness to everything I do. I have held her while I read articles about how to fight white supremacy, signed petitions for gun control, wrote letters to my local representatives, even wrote this very article. She has watched me stay informed and seen me react with sadness, anger, and despair to recent events. Though she is still an infant, I am acutely aware of her gaze. I am her parent and therefore her first teacher. She watches and feels my reactions. She watches how I respond to those feelings. In witnessing, she will learn.
When the news of the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling became too much, I bowed my head over my baby with tears streaming down my face and whispered over and over to her: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I felt sorrow because I didn’t feel ready to teach her. I felt unprepared and insufficient. I am still mired in my own shit. I am a recovering racist who hasn’t figured out how to best fight systems of oppression in our society, let alone worked through the complexity of the inherited paradigm of white privilege that tinges my own point of view. I am uncomfortable with being genderqueer and struggle with the reality that my own identity demands that I outwardly challenge customary views of gender expression and sexuality. I don’t feel like a good teacher. I have too much to learn. I have too many points of weakness and struggle.
However, I must remember that my own best teachers were not people who had completed their journey of learning to then didactically convey lessons in the form of irrefutable arguments. The best teachers I’ve had stood side-by-side with me through a process of inquiry, struggle, and experimentation so that thoughts and theories could evolve. Errors were aplenty and considered a natural part of the process. My own process towards improvement could be the best thing I have to teach my daughter. I am not inherently a good human. But, I try and work hard at improving. I am still learning how to recognize my own involuntary biases based on race, gender, class, religion, ability, sexuality, and size. I am still learning how to fight oppression in the systems around us. I am still learning how to be kind to this world.
My daughter has provided a strong motivator for this kind of work. I want her world to be better. When I started out doing activist work, I primarily felt clarity about what I was against. I still feel that vein of opposition but I also know what I’m for. I’m for her. Her world, her life, her freedom, the freedom of others in her world.
Activism has become part of how I parent. There are dozens of parent philosophies and approaches out there, all designed to clarify values and bring purpose to parenting. I don’t adhere to any particular one and I’m not suggesting activist parenting should become one of the options. But, being an activist has clarified my role as a parent. Part of my purpose is to teach my daughter to be aware, open, reflective, and brave. When she sees me react with sadness, fear, or anger to the news I hope she learns that it is ok to feel for the struggle of others. When she sees me working to overcome my own internalized racism, homophobia, and other paradigms of oppression I hope she learns how to become self-reflective in ways that are liberating to herself and her perception of others. When she sees me determining ways to affect change I hope she learns to not mourn in silence, but to reflect and take action.
I’d love to think that I can make the world better for my daughter. But, I know the world will still be messy. I don’t wish for her a perfect world, for I know that is a wasted wish. I wish for her the ability to acknowledge wrong and lovingly work to right it. I wish for her the skill to fight with her mind and her words, to challenge assumptions and express her convictions. I wish for her a good (nonviolent) swing in the good fight. I want to raise a force for good. I want to raise a lightbearer, a changemaker. May we both learn to be ferocious with our love.