When I heard about Nelson Mandela’s death last week, my mind was flooded with memories. I remembered being about 8 years old, standing in a sea of adults gathered in my home during the 1986 Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Festival. I remembered seeing my father throw a South African apple in the fruit section of the supermarket, declaring that as long as the supermarket supported South African apartheid, he would not shop there. I remembered seeing Mandela at Queens Park in 1991 and exactly where I was sitting in my grade nine history class when I heard that apartheid had ended. I remembered sitting, as a teacher, with my grade one and two students in the gymnasium of Nelson Mandela Park P.S when Mandela danced into the gym for the school’s renaming.
The struggles of black South Africans and the life of Nelson Mandela was my first introduction to social justice, activism and most importantly the idea that we (all of us) belong to each other. My parents were the first people to teach me that my voice could be powerful and that my actions can make a difference. Mandela’s death and reflecting on my own development has caused me to question what kind of example, if any, I am setting for my own children.
Before I had kids, and I was an S.P.W.C (Superior Parent Without Child). I imagined taking my children to protests and marches and singing freedom songs instead of lullabies. Stop laughing. I really thought it would be like this. I wanted to raise baby activists. I thought their first words would be “solidarity forever!” I thought they would chant “What do we want? Justice. When do want it? Now!” with great enthusiasm and true understanding. In reality, it’s more like “What do we want? Snacks! When do we want them? Five minutes ago!”
I started strong with little Z. He was a chill little guy and we had ‘lots of time to just be together and talk. When he was a toddler Obama was elected. Little Z was obsessed with him. In his toddler-way, he knew why his winning the US election was so significant. In toddler-eeze we explained racism and change. I believed we were raising a baby activist.
With the arrival of our twin girls, my focus went from raising compassionate children who have a sense of justice for all and the ability to recognize their own struggles and the struggles of others, to my own struggle to get through the day! I became less concerned with what was in their heads and hearts and more concerned with the head count at the end of day when they were, God-willing, asleep!
I realize that most people don’t formally teach their children to be good, caring people, but they demonstrate goodness and talk about our place within our smaller and larger communities and how well, we belong to each other. I’m pretty sure that I mostly demonstrate frustration and in all honesty, I spend very little time actually talking to my kids. I spend a lot of time corralling, directing, redirecting, and yelling at my kids. Sure there’s a lot of playing, tickling, reading, but not much talking. Z had a different kind of mommy from the mommy the younger kids have.
Z still asks a lot of questions and shares ideas. His world is much bigger than his siblings so he has greater opportunity to be exposed to and learn from others. He also has unique identities in most situations. Our boy is often the only adopted child, the only child with two moms, the only dark skinned black child, the only gender fluid child, and the only capital Q, drama Queen! I think, although he couldn't say it yet, he knows that just being who he is, is a political act. He is always looking for acknowledgement that while who he is may be unique and can be hard, his individual identities are not unique to this world. Right now he’s as self-absorbed and sometimes unkind as any other 6 year old, but I feel (hope) he’ll grow to speak up and to seek answers. When he’s not focusing on styling his new faux hawk (Why on earth did I agree to it?!) or practicing his dance moves or planning for the school talent show in June, I think he is beginning to get what’s going on in the world.
As for the rest of our kiddos, I don’t know yet. Maybe the next time they are staging a protest at the kitchen table because I am not producing the right food at the right speed, I will explain to them that their collective anger and determination, although totally insignificant in comparison (ahem, Kanye), reminds me of the collective determination of black South Africans during the 50+ years of apartheid. Maybe this is a stretch. I trust they’ll figure it out eventually. For now, I stand on guard, by the snack cupboard, watching them grow and hopefully, incidentally, discover that we belong to each other. Who knows, maybe their big brother will teach them.