Parenting Is an Act of Faithful Community Building | Sojourners

Parenting Is an Act of Faithful Community Building

An image of a baby being held by their parent. Jordan Whitt via Unsplash.

I held my first child in my arms, an infant, as we watched the Trump administration separate children her age from their parents at the border. I built cardboard puppet theaters with her as we stayed safe at home while millions died from the COVID-19 pandemic because of social conditions that forced them into danger. We drew chalk labyrinths in the backyard while thousands more took to the streets to protest the violence of policing. Three weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization forced inequities upon pregnant people and those who might become pregnant, I (nevertheless, joyfully) learned I was pregnant again. In a few weeks, just as we enter the fourth year of the pandemic, I’m expecting and hoping to give birth to my second child.

What does it look like to parent children in line with the radical values of restorative justice and communal care in a world of injustice, where safety and community are not equally available to all? As the threats of fascism and climate change make parenting seem dangerous or even unethical to many people, what principles can guide us in the radical risk of making new life?

Parenting as an act of radical hospitality

I once saw a comment on Twitter that having a child was like welcoming a “randomly generated houseguest” — a comment that my husband and I often repeated in the context of my pregnancies. For us, the phrase encapsulated a parenting goal: We want to learn how to become hosts to such an unpredictable guest. Radical hospitality, opening our home to an unknown and unexpected new person, defines parenting for us.

Catholic theologians often talk about parenting in the context of opposition to contraception — a position I do not share — in terms of “openness to life.” But I think the connection between radical hospitality and parenting goes further than simply our desire to welcome children. The real challenge in parenting is maintaining our openness to the world, not just to life, even where it seems almost too much to bear. The vocation of radical hospitality requires us to see welcoming our own children as a paradigm for welcoming those in need in other ways. This was one reason we took part in a “Host Home Program” for unhoused youth when we also had a 1-year-old child at home.

I feel deeply and frequently that I fail at being open to the world. Pregnancy makes me want to turn inward, to focus on the life inside of me rather than bare my soul to the world in the vulnerability of compassion. Parenting requires such focus on our own children that it is easy to want to shield ourselves from any discomfort. But if you understand parenting to be a private affair focused on “protecting” your own child from the world, you may end up accepting policies meant to “protect” children from seeing poverty or suffering. Laws that cruelly keep unhoused people away from schools under the premise of keeping children “safe” are an example of how “protection” has become synonymous with discrimination and inhospitality. The hospitality with which we welcome our children must be a model for the hospitality with which we welcome strangers, too.

Parenting practices and intentional community formation

My commitment to abolition means I think a lot about how we can build supportive forms of community. How can we strengthen our abilities to make difficult decisions while preventing and addressing harm? Building community ties can be done from scratch, but it’s easier to draw on relationships that already exist.

Anti-fascist organizer and author Shane Burley names churches and faith communities as such essential spaces because they are both “institutional” and “intimate.” Surely families are another example of an institutional/intimate space; a pre-existing institution, with its own cultural norms and expectations, structured around our love for each other. Bringing our values intentionally to family life makes the family a primary place where we can practice building a different kind of community. The family is a space where we practice countercultural ways of being accountable to one another.

For me, parenting is where I find myself most often faced with choosing to live out the values of restorative justice. As writer, educator, and trainer, Mia Mingus writes about transformative justice, explaining that we practice accountability by practicing it in small things first, so that we are prepared to be accountable for larger harms.

This type of transformative justice shapes my own parenting practices: I maintain commitments to non-coercion and non-punitiveness — even when punishment is more gently rebranded, these days, as “consequences.” Restorative practices in parenting, such as those taught by restorative-justice practitioner Jennifer Viets, offer ways to unlearn punitive approaches. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that I always succeed. Frequently, my commitment to restorative practices is tested when I am just so tired of negotiating every decision with a 5-year-old. But that constant practice within the community of our family is where our values are tested and strengthened.

The community-building of parenting isn’t restricted to the immediate family. Recognizing the family as an intentional community means seeing all the ways that chosen family, and people who are not biological parents, are also essential to raising children. And one of the surprises I have learned since becoming a parent is the way parenting also opens up new ties to neighbors.

Last Halloween, my family went trick-or-treating in our neighborhood for the first time since my daughter began to attend the local school. As we walked through the neighborhood, we encountered friend after friend from her class. Suddenly, Halloween was no longer just a family experience where we just went home after trick-or-treating; it was a truly communal celebration, drawing us together with other parents. This is the sort of community-building that leads to real safety — as opposed to the sort of “protection” that laws banning encampments purport to offer. The intentional building of community with other families changes the world.

Parenting, uncertainty, and hoping for the future

Parenting is scary. During this pregnancy, I have desired to retreat from everything challenging in the world — to focus only on my hopes for my new child, and hide from the world that I’ll eventually have to share her with. I tell myself the lie that I can only “enjoy” my pregnancy or bask in the newborn glow if I can be free from facing the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty that comes from dealing with the death-dealing systems of our world.

But it is a lie, and a dangerous one at that. I recently read host Kelly Hayes describe something similar on the podcast Movement Memos: Privileged people in authoritarian countries have a tendency to become “internal émigrés,” ignoring the public sphere where harm and fascism are occurring in order to live their private lives. Becoming an internal émigré is a temptation for me when parenting. Choosing instead to not retreat, to continue to give a damn about other people, is a difficult, daily choice.

But the truth about parenting is that every child is born into a world of death-dealing systems, and every child makes us vulnerable to more fear and pain. Pregnant at Christmas, I thought about how Mary knew this when she bore Jesus under the empire, and a sword pierced her own heart also (Luke 2:35). Climate change and rising fascism make this a scary time to have a child, but my husband likes to paraphrase 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to remind me that every child is born “on the strength of the absurd.” Or, as author Lois McMaster Bujold has the character Cordelia Vorkosigan explain in one of my favorite science-fiction novels, one of the inevitable truths of becoming a parent is this: “By this act I bring one death into the world.”

Our children are part of the world; bearing children is always bearing them in some sense for the world. To become a parent is to make an existential commitment to a different way of living. Although it was not meant to apply directly to parenting, the leader of Black Lives Matter-LA, Melina Abdullah, offers an interesting insight about abolition that I think can be applied to parenting: We need to be accountable to a future we cannot see.

I struggle to face the enormity of that uncertainty, to remain present while also opening my heart to the world as I open it to a new child. I draw strength from knowing that I don’t do it alone, and that parenting is a communal act. As my favorite prayer in the Book of Common Prayer says, parents are to each other “counselor[s] in perplexity.” As we practice hospitality, intentional community, vulnerability, and, yes, the perplexity of parenting, we take part in the birth pangs of the new creation.

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