Mothering to Change the World

by Laura Collins

Laura and her daughter

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in late November 2016, my mom and I were discussing the presidential election results while seated on her couch in Frankfort, Indiana. My then three-year-old daughter was perched on the edge of the couch between the two of us and quietly using a red crayon to color a page in her coloring book. I’d started to become teary-eyed and impassioned talking about the results, emotions I’d tried to avoid displaying in front of my little one during that nightmarish election cycle. I’d been guided by my own desperate urge to shield her from not only my own torment over the potential consequences of the election, but from the issues at hand that were dividing our country, like sexism, racism, and homophobia. The goal of a mama, I thought, should be to always protect. Protect your child at all costs. Let your child experience the innocence we associate with childhood for as long as you can.

There was a pause in the conversation. I pulled my phone out to record my daughter scribble-coloring to lighten the mood. Soon after hitting record, my daughter looked up at me, still coloring, to ask, “Mama, did the bad guy win?” I paused for a moment then shook my head yes. She thought deeply then furrowed her brow.“Why did the bad guy win?” I shrugged. Protect, protect, protect. Her face turned from a look of confusion to that of determination. She stated matter of factly, “We have to defeat him.”

A few weeks later at a community event in our town of Bloomington, Indiana, a Black mama of three young children recounted a racist incident that had happened to her the week prior. She’d been walking down the street when a truck raced by, its occupants throwing items and spewing racial slurs at her. Things were already getting worse for people who looked like her, she said. I thought about her three babies. Protect, protect, protect. Suddenly, I was struck by the absolute truth of it: The protection I was hoping to create for my white child was critically different from the protection this Black mother was forced to attempt to create for her own children. This mother had to prepare her children for racism , something I, as a white mother, didn’t have to think about. By thinking in terms of protecting my child from truths about issues that divide us, I was unwittingly contributing to the problem. When, in trying to preserve our children’s innocence, we white parents decide to shield our kids’ from the real-life experiences other children are taught to deal with , we’re saying that issues like racism, homophobia, and sexism aren’t their problem . We’re teaching them that eradicating these issues from our society isn’t their duty.

When my three-year-old daughter said, “We have to defeat him,” she was showing me that she’s ready to hear some things I wasn’t ready to talk with her about. In the time since, my husband and I have made it a point to talk with her about current issues as they arise. We give historical context. We watch TV shows with an eye towards diversity, and when these shows dive into issues of identity, we pause and discuss. Now that she’s eight, she’s started making connections on her own. I hear her advocating for her rights, for her friends’ rights, for the rights of TV characters (while watching Abbott Elementary she said, “Mom, how can they not afford to buy carpets for the classrooms? This is racism!”), and I’m glad I chose to prepare my child to be an ally, because that’s much more important than preserving her innocence.

This Mother’s Day, let’s recognize the mothers, fathers, aunties, grandparents, and guardians who are raising the next generation not within a bubble of innocence but in a way that prepares them to come together and build on the good trouble we and others before us have worked to create. If we do our job, they’ll be even better at it than we were. And that’s really the crux of this parenting thing, right? That’s our legacy to make. Let’s keep coming together in good faith to learn from one another with eyes and hearts wide open. We have no way to control what’s happened in the past, but we all bear the responsibility for helping to write the next chapter of history. We can make it a good one.

Laura Collins is a state organizer with Family Values @ Work

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Family Values @ Work

27 state coalitions working to win for Paid Sick Days, Paid Leave and other policies that value families at work in your city, county and state, then nation.