by Eleanor Goldfield
It started as a way to rebel against the archaic expectations of my gender – to be a brood mare for the patriarchy, for capitalism.
Well actually, that analysis came later. It really started out as part of my blanket rebellion to all convention. In my teens and into my early 20s, I very much identified (if only subconsciously) with Marlon Brando's line in the 1953 film The Wild One where he's asked “What are you rebelling against?” His reply: “Whatd'ya got?”
Over time I fine-tuned my rebellions and took the advice of a high school teacher who suggested that I “pick my fights.” With regards to motherhood, I aligned my perspective with that of philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and her writings on the femininity of suffering, which included of course child-bearing. I deeply resented the notion that the best contribution I or any woman could make to the world would come from the birth canal. Indeed, I still do. All those who think they're being complimentary by saying “you're the kind of person who should have kids,” you're not. Indeed, I have yet to hear anyone say that to my male partner.
Once I had nestled into de Beauvoir, I packed on ecological concerns. I thankfully never veered into eco-fascist territory where I argued that the best thing humans can do is just die and certainly never procreate. As Peter Joseph asserts, the idea that we don't have enough resources for people is like saying you don't have enough inches to build a house. Scarcity is a commodified concept, one that helps drive the capitalist death machine and triggers the worst in humans. Now we as humans do need to significantly adjust and cut our levels of consumption. We can't just reusable tote our way out of this mess. Still, that reasoning is vastly different than suggesting that humans can never do any good and should therefore be eradicated. Rather, my concerns were, and are still, based on quality of life in the age of climate chaos. And this was the answer I would most often give to people when they'd ask why I don't want kids - a question that to me, is not only sexist (again, show me how many men are asked that question), but also backwards.
A decision with such deep implications for so many, not least of all the child, shouldn't be a foregone conclusion. Just because I believe in someone's right to have a child doesn't mean I think that decision should be taken lightly. Yet, for many in the world, including the U.S., that decision can never be autonomously made due to lack of resources and rights over their own reproductive health. But for those of us who have the privilege of choice, the question really should be 'why do you want a kid?'
I decided that if I couldn't ever answer that question legitimately, then I wouldn't have a child.
And so, here I am, answering that question.
To be clear, this is my answer and not in any way a one-size-fits-all blueprint. I can't answer this question for you anymore than you could've answered it for me (and many have tried over the years, smh). Instead, my goal here is to share some thoughts, a few snapshots of my journey with folks who may have grappled with these questions before, or still do, and who may enjoy a meander through the paradigm bends, the curves and drifts – the becoming rather than being that is life.
The first shift happened when I overcame the insistence that my child be guaranteed a better life than me. Upon further reflection, I realized that this is some bullshit – for many reasons. First off, I'm pretty pleased with my life, but I don't know whether it's 'better' than my mother's. In some ways, it's clearly not. She grew up in the idyllic wonderland of 1950s Sweden. I grew up mostly in Charlotte, NC in the 80s and 90s – which wasn't awful - but Charlotte's never been accused of being an idyllic wonderland. Still, she's been through some shit that I haven't been through, and I've been through some shit that she hasn't. My father, likewise, has been through a lot of shit that I haven't – and huge props to him for breaking a cycle of abuse without passing that on to me.
And yet, once out of that womb, I made decisions with my life that opened me up to pain, trauma, danger, sorrow, anger and then some. And some of those same decisions opened me up to more joy than I could've imagined. I haven't and I don't live a very cocooned or even particularly orderly life, but I wouldn't trade it for any of the safe and boring paths I could've taken. And I wouldn't trade it for not being alive. Sure, I regret some decisions I've made, and others that I didn't make. But either way, those have largely been my decisions, not my parents'.
No parent can protect their child from everything, and for what it's worth, I think my parents did a damn fine job striking that elusive balance between protection and immersion. I know my mom's lost some sleep over the things I've told her about (and would likely lose more over the things I haven't told her about). But whether this adds up to better or worse is a wrong-headed, flimsily value-based and binary way of thinking about things.
Life is a spectrum – with all that joy, pain, beauty and horror spread out across it. I can and I will do my utmost to highlight the beautiful and the joyful, but I feel it's also my job as a parent to help contextualize and be a support for the inevitable discoveries of the horrific and the painful. Understanding that these discoveries are unavoidable isn't just for having kids – it's for our own sake too. To try and entirely block a vast spectrum of experience from your own life would not only likely be a frustrating failure but would necessitate severe isolation and/or a vehement apathy towards the rest of the world. No empathy, no love, no trust. Because hell, those things open you up to pain! So, you'd ultimately end up blocking off nearly the entire spectrum of life in the hopes of avoiding suffering. At which point, you might as well just sit as the stoics suggested, and wait to die. And that doesn't sound like much of a way to live.
One of, if not the key factor in my nomadic answer has been my time in and with frontline communities. There is perhaps no place where the best of humanity is shown than in the face of the worst that humans are capable of. Witnessing the wisdom and power of parents on the frontlines has helped me formulate my answer in seeing theirs: life as a response to death, resolve as a response to oppression. And I'm not saying this as some kind of trauma porn, oh the nobility of suffering trope. I'm saying it as someone who with PTSD does not glorify the violence of the state or the pain and suffering it causes. Rather I pedestal and magnify those who stand in the shadow of a looming empire and not only fight – but build, and live, love, and create. These are my mentors, my comrades, my teachers, my hope.
There is a future beyond worry. There is so much hope seeding from the beautiful and joyful moments that I have been lucky enough to see and be a part of – and it is radical and militant organizing that has made this beauty and joy possible. It is the foundation for new worlds – the liberation and justice that humanity is capable of.
It is also a recognition of the cyclical nature of our world – a realization that we are indeed a part of these ecosystems, that we are a part of this reproduction, “the work of remaking life with each year and generation,” as Jedediah Purdy notes in his book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene . To condemn all human reproduction is to condemn our place in the natural world. It is to ironically continue to live within the paradigm that humans are apart from nature, or that we should be – that we are other. And with that paradigm, we will never build a better world. This is yet another lesson that I learned to feel on the frontlines.
Without these experiences, I doubt I would ever have made the choice to become a mother. When I asked a good friend of mine recently about his choice to have a child, he laughed and said, “I haven't given up on this world! Otherwise why would I do what I do?! Why fight and build if you think it's all a wash?” Again, it's not about a guarantee that things will be better, but the conviction that you will fight for them to be. My dismissal of children based on the idea of a shit heap future really translates into a defeatist attitude about all that I do. And while I'm certainly no optimist (I have no belief that things will just miraculously get better), I have, and will always have, hope – and trust in those in this fight with me.
Because sure, life isn't always radical sunsets and bad ass talks around a campfire. The more you stretch that spectrum of humanity – the more you step into the fire, the more glaring abysses you'll stare into, to quote another favorite philosopher (Nietzsche). And to be sure, I still fall into pits of despair – to quote a favorite movie (Princess Bride). I too can tuck my mind into a claustrophobic pocket of dystopia and sulk. But I find my way out – as all those who fight and build do. I find my way back to that jagged and raw hope – that kind of hope that, as Klee Benally put it, burns cop cars. It's messy. It's real. It's emergent. It's multitudes. Like having a kid.
There are many paths, many potholes and sheer drops. And neither the good nor the bad of these paths are a foregone conclusion. There's no utopian destination, and in fact, utopia literally translates from ancient Greek to “no place.” History can easily dispel the quest for utopia, the quest for perfection. There is nothing natural or real about a frictionless world.
Indeed, dismissing perfection is what many parents might say is a base necessity for having kids. And to borrow from Dënesųłiné mother and organizer Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, I would also say it's the same for birthing worlds. It's gonna be messy – it's gonna be painful. You're gonna fuck up and you're gonna despair. But you'll also weave wonder into the world. You'll hold in your arms and wrap round your soul an affirmation for love, for life.
As I said earlier, we can never guarantee a better future for ourselves or our loved ones - but in a structurally collective way, we can build one. I cannot be guaranteed that my child will be happier than me, but I can guarantee that they will grow up seeing the joy and beauty we humans are capable of. I can guarantee that they will have a place in my arms to struggle through painful discoveries and traumatic pitfalls. And I can guarantee that they will have a community around them that will will not only echo these offerings, but guide them through direct action, on many a just and beautiful path. Shit will go down, we'll go down, and rise up together.
It is through this walking, waking and doing – activism, organizing, etc – in which we plant seeds to literally grow the future that we want to see. And here I can grow a human, and I can start building that future within myself. Deciding to become pregnant for me is a powerful exclamation of joy and beauty. It is a recognition of those futures that I believe are possible – that I will never stop fighting for or working to build. It is a cherished offering with and from my own body of the life I believe in – for myself, for my community - outside of the confines of destruction and capitalism.
It is not the quest for perfection but rather the demand for the possible. All around us and throughout history we see that humans are capable of doing better than the system that confines us. So the idea that these very same humans can scale over and build beautiful interconnected webs of radical justice and liberation is hardly utopian. It is in fact a rather logical conclusion based on empirical evidence.
This is an expression of our potential - the politics of possibilities. It is a refusal of fear of cynicism. It is an embrace of hope. It is an embrace of trust in the community around me that will help raise this child (y'all know who you are, get ready!). It is the embrace of dreams and a renewed promise to build worlds that are just and emergent.
And to circle back to one of my first loves de Beauvoir, having a child represents an emergent path in my life, not a dead end. It represents not all I can offer this world, but one of many offerings. My art, my organizing, my writing will not cease to be. Indeed, then I would cease to be! Motherhood will not be a trap door that'll shut on my life and propel me into a mundane world of snack packs and play dates. I'm not having a child because I'm looking to center the world around them, but because I want to share the world with them. I know of people who have done otherwise – who have been swallowed by the children they've birthed, and that to me is terrifying – for both parent and child.
That distinction for me is vital not only from a parenting perspective but from the perspective of a community member and creative radical. Of course there are certain things I won't do anymore but they were really things I wasn't doing anyway. It's probably been 10 years since I stayed up all night doing drugs and drinking. Just writing that made me shudder. That really doesn't sound fun anymore – and I'm glad it did then so that it doesn't now. Hangovers in your 30s are just – just ow. Nowadays, I'm much more of a have some friends over, put on a record and drink some wine kinda person – activities that have at times involved their kids, and now will include mine (mostly passed out on the couch).
I still fully intend on touring, playing shows, traveling, exploring – and showing up with and for comrades. Some of that will just be done with a kid strapped to me. It'll be different but it'll be doable. And ultimately well worth it. Again, I don't wanna hide my kid from the world and I don't wanna shut the world out from myself either. I wanna keep learning as they do. I want them to share what they find as I share with them what I've found and keep finding. I can't do that from a place of stagnation, a place where I give up who I am.
Just as I've changed since my teens and 20s, I'll change through this journey as well. But that doesn't mean I'll stop being me, that my identity will go from multifaceted to a singular “mother.” Rather “mother” will be a proud and profound addition to all that I am, all that I do.
Here's to this journey, the becoming that is never a destination. To life – my own, and that growing within me. To the world around us that carries on, to all those who carry so much, who have taught me so much, and to whom I can really owe the gratitude of a changed mind, a changed life, and a new life.