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Revolutionary Parenting
"Revolutionary Parenting"
by bell hooks
From Feminist Theory From Margin To Center, bell hooks, Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Background on the context in which this essay was written.

Date Reading Was Discussed: September 7, 1993
Present: Catherine C., Renée D., Jaime B., Colleen M., Mary Ellen B., Stephanie R., and Cathleen M.

Drawing on her experience growing up in a working class African American environment, bell hooks finds collective parenting to be a radical alternative for raising children. Although none of the women at this month's session are mothers, we were by and large receptive to approaches that circumvent the nuclear family socialization process.

As a microcosm of patriarchy, it serves as the primary training ground for hierarchical, authoritarian values. Long before the nuclear family's arrival, communal childcare for thousands of centuries was a fundamental element of human society. Throughout much of the world today, kin as well as kith continue to share parental responsibilities, as exemplified by the African saying, "It takes an entire village to raise a child."

One woman, however, argued that it is unrealistic to expect extended parenting to work in an industrialized world. The maw of capitalism has eviscerated community and family bonds. A lot of people no longer live with or near their families, neighbors are often strangers, and friends too busy to impose upon.

Childcare centers are clearly necessary, even though too many of them commodify the rearing of children. hooks advocates more small, affordable, public, tax-funded centers. In keeping with an ecofeminist ethic of inter-connectedness, community-based childcare centers have the potential to strengthen fragmented community ties.

Given a restrictive "family values" climate, a few women were reluctant to trust their own communities. For example, a growing number of lesbian mothers have had their children taken away from them and placed with heterosexual relatives. As one woman remarked, "I don't want the community involved if the community is homophobic."

While certainly not as harrowing, another woman mentioned an article written by a working class mother who took issue with the Big Brother/Big Sister organization, a mainstream variation of community parenting. She criticized the school guidance counselor for recommending that her children participate in the program, as if all working class families are disadvantaged and need help raising children. She wondered whether similar options are presented to upper and middle class parents.

In exploring collective parenting possibilities, class issues continually surface since low income families have fewer resources to pursue alternative strategies. A particularly insensitive incident was the Ms. Foundation's Take Our Daughters to Work campaign designed to introduce young girls to career opportunities.

How many domestic workers, for example, took their daughters to work in hopes that they might follow in their parents' footsteps? And what about migrant workers who often have to take their daughters to work? As hooks points out, childcare was not an issue until middle class (white) women needed it.

One woman questioned hooks' frequent use of the words "fathering" and "mothering," since these terms seem to perpetuate the idea of separate ways of parenting. Another woman responded that it is problematic to speak generically about parenting because it's still too widely perceived as the mother's responsibility. hooks warns:

"As long as women or society as a whole see the mother/child relationship as unique and special because the female carries the child in her body and gives birth, or makes this biological experience synonymous with women having a closer, more significant bond to children than the male parent, responsibility for child care and childrearing will continue to be primarily women's work."

Some of us felt hooks mistakenly combines childrearing with childbearing, as if both were examples of myths about mother/child bonds. While it is true that men are just as qualified to parent as women and that women are no more inherently nurturing than men, a woman's ability to give birth and to bond with her baby during pregnancy are indisputably unique and special.

We must honor our essential biological powers, not diminish them or distance ourselves from them. Additionally, we can't allow society to use this as an excuse to confine the rearing of children to women or for enabling men to avoid full, equal participation in the parenting process.

Both men and women today need consciousness raising to be non-sexist parents. hooks cites Elizabeth Janeway by saying that "the idea of an individual having sole responsibility for childrearing is the most unusual pattern of [human] parenting in the world." We especially empathize with the problems single mothers face. If society can find ways to help senior citizens or the handicapped, surely we can assist single parents.

One woman suggested special privileges such as discounts at movies to offset the cost of a sitter. Or front row parking at supermarkets to facilitate the management of kids and groceries. Another woman proposed single mothers band with other single mothers to set up households for sharing resources, camaraderie, and parenting. Someone else mentioned an innovative custody arrangement devised by a divorced friend. For stability, the children remain in the family home. The parents each reside elsewhere and then rotate weekly stays with the kids.

Alternatives are possible! Has patriarchy so programmed us for the nuclear family that we've forgotten our historical heritage of community parenting?

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