I recently visited a friend who last year became a mom for the first time. At the time of her pregnancy, she was working for an organization committed to gender equity. Certain responses to her pregnancy – to her entering the community of mothers – have saddened me. I’m not sure what has been more saddening – the responses or the fact that I was not surprised when I heard about them. I’ve posted about this before – about how we activists sometimes struggle to be the change we are seeking. I’m writing this post to remind myself and others to look in the mirror and self-scrutinize. Do I want us to aspire to be perfect? No. No one is perfect. But I do want us to be more of who we truly are. Because for me the starting point is that the human spirit is – we are – intrinsically creative, compassionate, collaborative. Let us be more inspired – in spirit – in our actions and in all our relations.
And let us recognize that life (and therefore activism) is full of contradictions and dilemmas. Often, however, we don’t like to talk about them openly and in our silences we end up suffocating our spirited selves, moving further away from – rather than closer to -who/how we want to be in this world.
Here are a few of the responses my friend received to becoming a mother:
- Upon telling her employer that she was pregnant, certain aspects of her contract all of sudden became complicated and not what she thought was originally agreed.
- One colleague told her to get in touch when she feels like coming out of slavery (in reference to the fact that my friend is not in paid employment – is, as the label goes ‘a stay-at-home mom’) and into the realms of empowerment.
- Fellow feminist friends, including those who have children, are not interested in hearing about her experience of motherhood – which, of course, is a huge part of her life at the moment.
Since leaving her employer, she has frequently been sought out to give solace to those who have stayed. Mothers or not, many of her colleagues are worn out from the politics which involve pettiness, bullying, power struggles. We’ve all seen it, I’m sure. Sometimes we’ve been victims of it and sometimes (I hold my hand up) we’ve been aggressors.
I find myself repeatedly coming back to the complexity of the situation – rooted in the fact that we are trying to change the cultures we are in, at the same time that those cultures heavily influence our behaviors. I am perfectly aware that I’m stating the obvious. So what is it that I could possibly hope for in making such a statement of the obvious? I guess I’m just wanting to go with what’s alive within me and it is this niggle that what’s really critical is awareness. And not just awareness of ‘We’re not living the change.’ That in and of itself doesn’t really get us anywhere. As I reflect on the stories my friend has told me, I think about entanglements.
For example, a woman is in a workplace and the culture is aggressive. The work the organization does is important for social change and this person wants to be there and contribute. She’s thinking of leaving the organization because of the culture and is upset to have to make the choice. She is frustrated that she feels she cannot speak up, voice her concerns because she fears the consequences. What if the culture is so dirty it results in her losing her job? And this is not just a matter of principle. It is also one of practicalities. Her income is important to her family, the job is easy to travel to and has employee benefits that really help her family financially. She feels trapped within a web of systems that seem to limit her choice and her power when it comes to employment. The issue of the aggressive workplace culture is entangled with finances, healthcare, transportation etc.
That’s one set of entanglements – the practicalities of speaking up to challenge workplace conditions. This kind of entanglement is totally non-unique to our woman in the workplace. Millions of people in workplaces around the world are in similar situations.
Another set of entanglements that stands out to me is our limited capacity as activists to talk about the contradictions that plague us in life (and activism) and how we all struggle with navigating them. Instead, we too often try and be black and white about it all. For example, the mother who chooses to work during her child’s early years then openly looks down, judges the mother who is staying at home. And perhaps, vis-versa. Both might consider themselves feminists. Each, outwardly, can be smug and self-righteous. Yet, each, inwardly is struggling to create what feels like a balanced healthy life. Each is struggling to understand what’s right for them as an individual, what is right for their child, and what is right for their family as a whole. I get the impression we aren’t so good at talking openly about such struggles. Instead we choose to take up a firm stance and stick by it – believing, it seems, that to do so is empowering.
This has got me wondering about how we – activists – get sucked into prevalent cultural conventions that make us ashamed to show our vulnerabilities – which include confusion over what is ‘right’, the fear that we are getting it wrong, the sense that there must be another way that is more empowering for more people, and the desire to raise a hand and say “Hey, can we pause for a minute to reflect and talk with one other about how life really works?”
And I’m asking myself: ‘What does it mean if we, who are trying to drive and create positive social change, are unable to hold spaces for ourselves to grapple with life’s challenging entanglements openly and honestly? What does it mean for the change we are trying to create? What does it mean for how we relate to the people we are trying to support and influence (be they the people standing up for rights or the people who are trampling on them) if we ourselves struggle with navigating the contradictions, tensions, complexities?’
Ahh, I know, know – but we already do so much talking when what we need is action. Thing is, we don’t necessarily have to talk with each other more, we just have to talk with each other differently.