Punk Parenthood for the Sleep Deprived 5: Before I Go Insane

Oct 16, 2014
“The only drawback,” Lesley told me, squinting in the sun as we stood in the middle of the street party, “is that now we have way too much Tupperware.”Lesley's partner KT wheeled their twin infants past us in a two-seater stroller, trying to convince them to fall asleep. I had my own toddler son strapped into a bike seat between myself and my handlebars. He was distracted enough by the happy mayhem of the neighborhood party to allow me to have a few minutes of conversation with Lesley while we waited for other friends to find us.

The Tupperware problem was the result of a “meal train” arrangement that a mutual friend set up for Lesley and KT after the twins were born. People from the women's far-reaching community of friends signed up to bring one dinner to the newly doubled family. One dinner for two adults is no big deal for most people. I signed up without a second thought. One vegetarian shepherd's pie packed into a transportable dish, dropped off on my way home from work on a weeknight, was an easy and quickly shrugged off good deed. But it meant a lot to the two moms who were able to forget about shopping for and preparing dinner. They had enough to worry about, working both in and out of the home, and managing the chaos that comes automatically with any new baby, never mind what comes with two.

The thing about helping someone who has a new kid (or kids) is that what it takes from you is absolutely disproportionate to what it gives to them. I remember, years ago, agreeing to hang out with a friend's five-month-old son for an hour while she did household chores. The hour passed quickly while I sat on the floor with him, handing him toys as he dropped them and reading silly books. Every time my friend passed by on her way to the next chore, she stuck her head into the room and said, “This is just so great. I can't tell you how great this is.”

I thought she was nuts. I was having fun. It didn't feel like a big deal at all. But now, almost two years into parenthood, I completely understand. I understand because I cried with relief when my mom came to my house to hold my newborn while I had a long hot shower one day during my first week of maternity leave. I understand because when I was in the throes of morning sickness with my second pregnancy, my best friend came over and cleaned out my fridge, organized my front hall closet, and tidied my living room. And I understand because these days my in-laws weed our garden and buy us almond milk from Costco without ever asking for anything in return. And when they go on vacation, we miss them all the time. When we thank these friends and family members profusely for their help, they wave us off like it's no big deal. Because it isn't. To them. To us it's a huge deal.

I was brought up in a family where self-sufficiency was prized, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It taught me to be independent and to expect a lot from myself. Even when I fell into the punk scene and started to do things like serve at Food Not Bombs and volunteer in the kitchen garden of a homeless shelter, I viewed those actions as something that it was my duty as a human to do because other people needed my help. I didn't need anything from others. I knew I was lucky. At the same time, I didn't know how to view myself any other way.

Parenthood forced me to see this relationship from the other side—as someone who needed the help. This wasn't easy to wrap my head around. After all, I was still lucky. I have a nice home, a supportive partner, lots of helpful family and friends who live close by. I was better off than so many people. Why did I even deserve help?

Because sometimes you just need it. And if it is offered it doesn't hurt to take it. Self-sufficiency is fantastic when its necessary, but taking someone's offer of a meal or a night's babysitting or a white noise machine shouldn't inspire waves of guilt. Kids are exhausting regardless of how stable anyone's world is, and that whole thing about it taking a village to raise a child isn't as trite as it sounds. Though perhaps a more accurate version would be “It takes a village to keep a parent from losing their marbles.”

There's this dumb sign I keep seeing in the various offices I visit for my job. It says something along the lines of “Your lack of preparation does not constitute an emergency on my part.” I find it wildly obnoxious. It makes me want to ask the person who posted it, “But what if it did?”

Now that I've made the shift from someone who never needed much help to someone who needed a whole bunch of it, I'm kind of suspicious of people who resent anyone who needs assistance. What if we did see other people's problems as our own problems? Wouldn't that make things better? Wouldn't that make us nicer people with happier colleagues and friends? Why is it so wrong to give someone the benefit of the doubt and just help them when they need help? And why feel guilty if you take help that is offered? It means people care about you and your wellbeing. You probably did something nice for them in the past. And if they think you're a person who deserves good things, you can probably just take their word for it.

The Punk Parenthood Questionnaire

Every column I ask a punk parent or parents the same questions about their experiences with their kids. I've been wanting my friends Shannon Mitchell and Allison Jack to participate for a while now, and I'm really happy they were able to do it this time.

I first met Shannon when we were both tabling at a zine fair in Toronto in the early 2000s. We hit it off pretty much instantly and forged a friendship that has remained strong for over a decade. Our bands played together in the early days and crashed at each other's houses when we were in each other's cities. We stayed up for hours talking about music. Now we meet up whenever we can, and spend a lot of time talking about our kids, in between speculation of a Sleater Kinney reunion. Shannon and her amazing wife Allison gave my son his first Ramones t-shirt.

Allison, a former radical cheerleader with involvement in the riot grrrl scene around Toronto, now works at a non-profit doing communications work. Shannon currently works at a non-profit agency that works with consumer survivors and she plays in the Toronto band SecretaryCity. Their daughter Sadie is in preschool.

Jennifer: How does your background in the punk/underground scene affect your parenting?

Allison:Are we punk? When we first talked about answering these questions, we felt a little odd about being positioned as punk parents. Shannon’s in a band still, and we’ve both been on and off involved in activism (Squad 416 represent!) and we do go to shows when we can and listen to music and read zines, and our values and beliefs definitely often run counter to the mainstream. But we have things like 9-to-5 jobs and our day-to-day lives don't feel all that counter-culture to me.

But the question says background, and we both definitely have that. I guess the fact that I went to see a band—Pixies—while I was in labor could be considered punk?

ShannonThe punk/underground scene, especially riot grrrl, gave me a lot of confidence and strength that guided me in a direction where I was able to heal from my challenging childhood. The thought of being a parent used to give me major anxiety, which made me react and say things like, "I never want to be a parent." It took eight years after meeting Allison to finally realize my resiliency would make me an excellent parent.

Being part of the punk/underground scene also taught me about the importance of community. We live in a co-op and Sadie attends a small arts-based daycare made up of families who work in the arts and not-for-profits like us. We are part of the queer community, and lots of our queer friends are having babies too (gaybies!). It’s great to be around a group of parents and be like, “I’m feeling really frustrated about the social construction of gender today” and have people get what you mean and be able to talk about it with other people who are also raising kids and dealing with similar stuff. We make conscious decisions and follow her lead.

We’re lucky to live in a city that has a ton of free events, festivals, and really interesting stuff happening all the time. Sometimes it feels like our lives haven’t really changed that much since having a kid. Of course, everything takes a bit more planning than it used to, as we're also responsible for making sure this other person is safe, properly fed and well-rested, and has weather-appropriate clothes to wear.

Allison: For me, parenting is very much about raising a person. We're raising our kid the way we think people should be. That probably sounds kind of obnoxious written out like that but I suppose that's what every parent is doing. We're queer, feminist, anti-oppressive, anti-violence, and we live our values. We make decisions with Sadie rather than for her, too—as much as possible with a three-year-old. If we’re struggling or getting frustrated, we try to step back and talk to her, “Here’s the problem, let’s talk together about what a solution to this could be.”

I do have this idea of someday starting up some kind of collectively-run, extracurricular group for perhaps school-age kids—like a Sunday school for social justice—where each week would focus on a different theme or issue. Some weeks might be discussion-based, others maybe about making something or some kind of activity. This might be entirely selfish, really—we just know so many rad people who are really smart and do awesome things, and I want my kid (and others) to learn from them, and learn from each other, and challenge each other.

Jennifer: What quality of yours do you most hope to pass on to your kid?

Shannon: Empathy and compassion. People often tell me these are my greatest qualities and so far, at three, she really seems to be mastering this. I also wish for her to have a creative element to turn to when she needs an outlet.

Allison: Sense of humor and curiosity. And it’d be pretty great if she enjoys crafting/sewing/DIY too!

Jennifer: Have you found solidarity within the punk community when it comes to parenting? Do you have different experiences in different groups of friends?

Shannon: I think so. I don't feel super connected to a punk/underground scene these days, to be honest. I only just started playing shows again, but so far people seem pretty relaxed when you ask to play early because of childcare or have your kid around when you arrive for load-in/sound check. My bandmates are awesome folks and are either parents and/or are super supportive to parental needs. Sadie loves to watch bands play. We take her out to see shows when there is an afternoon, all-ages show. There has been a spattering of all-ages events in the past year in spaces where I feel safe and welcome to bring Sadie. Occasionally, you'll get a look that I have perceived as, “Why did you bring your kid here?” Wavelength has been great for doing afternoon, all-ages shows. The Toronto Rock Camp for Girls showcases and fundraisers have been so special to take Sadie to. I often get all choked up watching her face light up at watching these young girls rock out.

Allison:A fair number of our friends are parents or are planning on having kids, though we have friends who are child-free or aren't sure. I'm sure I do tend to talk more about parenting stuff with friends who are also parents, but I do have lots of non-kid-related conversations no matter who I'm spending time with. I've found that there are more family-friendly events in the city than I would've thought—political events, for example, that are not necessarily kid-centric but are welcoming and safe spaces.

Jennifer:What music are you most excited that your kid is into?

Shannon: One of the first bands that Sadie got really into was the Thermals. We showed her the video for “A Pillar of Salt” and she immediately pointed at Kathy Foster and said, “Who is that?” She was instantly obsessed with her and insisted that we put Kathy Foster pictures up in her room. We often have dance parties in the living room that includes everything from the Frozen soundtrack and Tegan & Sara to Bikini Kill and the Ramones. Just yesterday she was pointing to and telling me the names of Carrie, Janet, and Corin of Sleater-Kinney. I am most excited for her to be part of her own music scene that inspires her, and for her to introduce us to new music too.

Jennifer:Describe the last time your kid made you laugh really hard.

Shannon: Sadie is absolutely hilarious! I see comedy in her future. She has me laughing several times a day. Lately, there have been a lot of misheard song lyrics. Last night she insisted on seeing a video with an Emily in it. I tried to think of a band with an Emily in it. The best I could come up with was Metric. So we showed her Combat Baby. After it was over, she started to sing "Come back bat baby, come back bat babbbbbbyyyyyyy." We tried to convince her that the proper lyric is “combat baby,” but she insisted her lyric made more sense because, as she put it, "What's a Combat Baby?"

Allison: I have a music one, too! I showed Sadie the video for “Umbrella” by Rihanna (yes, she does get some “screen time” and about ninety-five percent of what she watches is either music-related or something about dinosaurs) and she seemed pretty into it. Then all of a sudden she’s like, “That lady does not know what to do with that umbrella.”

Jennifer: Who should I interview next? Why?

Shannon and Allison: We can think of a few Toronto mamas who might be into it and have interesting insights: Alanna Kibbe, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk, Lauren Moses-Brettler. Outside of Toronto—hmm, it seems that lots of our feminist punk heroes don't have kids. Patti Smith would be amazing!