It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood (2015)

IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A MATERIAL WORLD

Every month, I get a magazine called American Baby. I do not subscribe. The mail carrier drops it off at our house every month regardless, each new cover featuring a different perfectly coiffed, perfectly dressed, and perfectly happy baby. The inside has articles about their perfectly color-coordinated, constantly exercising mothers. The magazine seems to exist just to make me feel inadequate.

When Seamus turned a year old, that month’s issue featured ideas for one-year birthday parties. The first thing that got me was the picture of a baby in a beautifully handcrafted birthday hat with her name on it ($25 on Etsy) in front of a big frosted cake. Should one-year-olds be eating cake? Probably not. I want my baby to hold on to his hard-won teeth for a while before they all rot out of his head.

“Every good kid’s party starts with a theme,” the magazine says, suggesting themes such as pennants, rainbows, and cardboard boxes. Each one involves intricate invitations, elaborate welcome signs, color-coordinated party accessories, and theme-appropriate games that would necessitate hours at Michaels, AC Moore, or the Dollar Store. More than one of the featured parties had a photo booth.

Who is all of this for? It can’t really be for the birthday girl or boy. I know my son is brilliant, but he would not remember his birthday party the next day (or even a few hours later). Even if we decided on an Arabian Nights theme and hired dozens of belly dancers, he still would not remember it.

These perfect parties support a multi-billion dollar industry in this country. Fueled by the mayhem of places like Chuck E. Cheese and Bounceland, the kids birthday party industrial complex is doing its part to keep our economy humming along.

We have gone to quite a few kids’ birthday parties with Rosena lately, and so I have a newfound appreciation/dread of the undertaking. One party was a pretty simple affair with snacks, some arts and crafts projects, and cupcakes with candles. Rosena brought a nice gift and took home a swag bag full of bubbles and baubles. The birthday girl sent her a thank-you card in the mail the next week, which was very sweet. And I thought, “Oh, these parties are about teaching manners and etiquette and appreciation. I love it.” I wanted Rosena to send a thank you letter for the thank you letter, but then decided that was a little much.

The next party kicked it up a notch with a Moon Bounce and a Star Wars cake featuring a Jabba the Hutt made out of ganache (it was way more delicious than you would think gray cake could be). We didn’t know any of the parents at this one, but we made conversation for a few hours while the kids bounced and slid. Another mom talked me into going into the Moon Bounce and in that moment everything made sense. It was glorious fun. “Okay, I get it,” I thought.

Then we attended a blowout bash with a Moon Bounce, a snow cone machine, a cotton candy maker, a professional face painter, a professional air brusher, pizza for everyone, an hour-long magic show, and a drop-in appearance by Tinker Bell. Rosena had a blast and she wore her face paint for the rest of the weekend.

Including renting the venue, the event must have cost the parents a couple grand. I have no right to judge how parents spend their money. Better they spend it on snow cone machine rentals and local magicians than handing it all over to FAO Schwartz or the American Girl Store, for instance.

At the American Girl Store, parents can arrange for their birthday girl and her friends to have a Deluxe Birthday Celebration, complete with a meal which includes a “signature pink-and-white cake and ice cream, special goody bags, and doll tiaras for each girl, a commemorative keepsake for the birthday girl, a fun table activity, and a craft—all in a private dining room. You can make her day even more memorable by adding a Doll Hair Salon service or party photo to the experience.” Here was the line that got me though: “Parties last 90 minutes.”

My husband and I wonder how to relate to all of these birthday parties as Rosena gets older. Do we buy girl and boy presents in bulk to save money? Do we RSVP “no” on principle? Do we make a point of leaving the “swag bag” behind? Do we organize the parents at our school against birthday parties?

The Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota actually has a website called “Birthdays Without Pressure” that is trying to tone down out-of-control kids’ parties by getting parents to talk to one another and approach birthdays differently. They say that the current approach helps create a broader culture of entitlement, envy, and thoughtless consumption. The website also has lots of ideas for how families can build a culture of celebration, appreciation, and fun without putting on the Ritz or breaking the bank.

For Rosena’s seventh birthday, we rented a room in our church, made the cake and most of the food, and invited her whole kindergarten class. It was a three-hour affair. Rosena’s birthday is right after Christmas, so we asked that no one bring gifts, and they mostly complied. There was no theme, no color palette, no party favors, and no swag bags. The kids bobbed for donuts and did three-legged races. I worried that we did not have enough activities, but it turns out that in January, kids are starved for physical activity and they just want to run around. Rosena had so much fun and she was a great host. It took some work and it did cost a little money, but it was worth it: Rosena still talks about how happy she was that so many kids came, how much fun she had, and how cool the cake was. Plus, no presents means no thank-you letters to write, which she appreciated.

Even this scaled-down approach was way more than I had as a kid. Our birthdays were simple family affairs with a homemade cake—often decorated with plastic horses or matchbox cars or whatever we were most enthusiastic about at the time. My sister’s third birthday cake was festooned with a garlic bulb, because for months she wanted to participate in dad’s morning ritual of eating sliced raw garlic with his cereal. “When you are three,” he would say, putting her off. She tried it when she turned three and that was the last time she had raw garlic for many, many years.

My birthday is in April, which means that as a kid I regularly shared a birthday with Good Friday or Easter. I remember lots of birthdays in the cavernous basement of the Community for Creative Nonviolence—a shelter for the homeless and a center for activism in Washington, DC—where my family, the Jonah House community, and an extended network of friends would hold a retreat every Holy Week. We shared the space with dozens of Catholic college students from the Midwest who were in town for an alternative Spring Break—homeless immersions and peace activism instead of Jell-O shots and sunburns. Someone would make a big cake for my birthday and I served cake to everyone, mumbling thanks as the college kids—all hungover from the liberation Passover Seder the night before—said happy birthday and took cake from me.

This is a vivid and strange memory. Another birthday was celebrated with a giant cookie shared with my mom, brother, sister, and friends on the plaza outside the Denver courthouse where our friends were on trial. More than one birthday was spent worrying about my dad trekking through the woods to get onto a military base for an action. I don’t recall a real birthday party until late in high school, and that one was all about peach schnapps and Jagermeister.

But what theme could a one-year-old like Seamus possibly want? He likes bananas and grapes and blueberries. He likes balls and musical instruments and being with his family. He likes taking baths and wriggling out of his diaper and dancing. Can that be a theme?

First birthday parties are not for the birthday boy or girl; they are for the parents for surviving the first year of the baby’s life. So maybe we will have a gin martini-themed party and have all the guests give us foot rubs.

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When we were kids, my brother and I would bring home friends from school and have to explain who all the people were hanging out at our house. Different people walked us to school each morning, for instance. The kids thought our dad was our granddad. All our clothes were secondhand. At one point this boy in my class said to me, “You must be really rich to not care what you look like.”

We were rich in love, rich in relationships, rich in history and culture. But when you are in junior high, all you want is to fit in. Nikita Purdy was who I wanted to be. She was petite, dark skinned, and very serious. She was a good student, but she also had a lot of sass, so no one called her a nerd. I marveled at the sheer variety of bright pattern sweaters she wore. How could one person have so many sweaters? I look back at pictures of myself from junior high and cringe. I was chubby, freckled, and always wore political T-shirts. In fifth grade I wore one about the Nestle boycott every other day. It was gross. Patrick’s favorite shirt had a cartoon of President George H. W. Bush on it, looking like a grimacing Frankenstein. The T-shirt read: “Son of Reaganstein: In His Most Chilling Role Ever (from the makers of Contragate zombies).” I also had a red T-shirt with a picture of Emma Goldman on the front with the quote “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” I loved that tee and wore it to shreds, but I didn’t venture onto a dance floor until late in high school. Patrick got into trouble once over his “Columbus didn’t discover America, he invaded it” shirt because one of the Native Americans depicted on the shirt was breastfeeding and a girl in his class complained to the teacher that there was a boob on the shirt.

All Nikita Purdy’s T-shirts also made a statement: “I am cool.” Maybe the one way I do rebel against my upbringing is that to this day I hate wearing T-shirts with slogans on them.

Later on, it dawned on us that the new clothes that some of our classmates wore on the first day of school meant that the bills didn’t get paid at the end of the month. We also realized that we weren’t the only kids in class with parents in jail. It occurred to us that maybe the only thing worse than sitting down to dinner each night with ten adults, was having no adults around.

Patrick’s parents did not have a lot of money either. They lived simply for the same reasons as my parents: to be in solidarity, to be war tax resisters, to live lightly on the Earth. But even as he and his older sister kept a tally of their deprivations, Patrick was also aware of the wealth of experience and opportunity his parents shared with them. When Joanne served on the War Resisters International Council, they traveled to India, Sweden, Germany and other countries as a family to experience different cultures. And their parents made time for them: “My dad came to my class and read to me and the other kids. Maybe my mom did it too, but it was more noteworthy that my dad did it because he was the only dad. I was so proud that he came to class and gave his time to us.”

Patrick didn’t spend the week before the first day of school figuring out what he was going to wear. But for me, “back to school” was a big deal. For the first day of school, the kids at my school set the bar pretty high. The name of the game at Mount Royal Elementary Middle School was color coordination. Kids came back to school looking like they had spent all summer matching their pants to their shirts to their socks to their shoes. Everything was brand new—the clothes, of course, but also the tennis shoes, lunch boxes, thermoses, and backpacks.

As die-hard Catholic anarchists and peace activists whose monthly salary was in the low hundreds, my parents were no more going to buy us new clothes than start working for Lockheed Martin or the Pentagon. My Dad rotated through three or four outfits, repairing his own work pants when they sported holes. He was on constant watch for waste, avarice, and spendthriftness—in his kids as much as in the culture at large. He enjoined us to reuse, repair, and always be reexamining our needs.

Every summer, we spent one stressful, unsatisfying day shopping with our mom to get ready for school. We bought off-brand shoes, underpants, and socks and then hit the thrift store for clothes. Mom was not looking for the trendiest brands or the most stylish threads. She made sure the clothes fit and weren’t worn out. I tried to be fashionable, but it wasn’t easy.

Once I jazzed up my secondhand brown tennis shoes by sticking reinforcements all over them—the little white circles used to extend the life of loose-leaf paper in a Trapper Keeper. Patrick still remembers wearing his first-ever brand new pair of jeans (a size too small) on his first day of junior high. When Shaker knit sweaters were the thing (actually, the year after they were the big thing), I showed up wearing two—along with two matching pairs of socks scrunched just so beneath my rolled-up jeans. I have another dim memory—best forgotten—of showing up on the first day of middle school wearing a three-cornered hat. It was the coolest thing I ever owned right up until the moment the other kids saw it.

These days, Macklemore is making bank singing about shopping in thrift shops and wearing your grandfather’s clothes. And CeeLo Green and the Goodie Mob have a back-to-school-worthy anthem called “Special Education.”

I don’t wear the clothes you wear

I’m just different and I don’t care

It’s kind of sad and it’s a shame

Everyone wants to be the same.

It doesn’t sound like most people in the United States are getting CeeLo’s message though. Only the capitalist craze of Christmas is a bigger bonanza to retailers than back-to-school season when the average U.S. household will spend $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies, and electronics, according to the National Retail Federation. Total spending on back-to-school merchandise is expected to reach $26.7 billion, but when combined with back-to-college spending, the total will climb to more than $72 billion.

But here is the NRF statistic that staggered me: “95.3 percent of those with school-age children will spend an average of $230.85 on fall sweaters, denim, and other chic pieces of attire. Additionally, families will spend on shoes ($114.39) and school supplies ($90.49).”

We bought Rosena some secondhand clothes, as well as a new backpack. And her mom bought her new shoes. But that was all. We walked Rosena to her first day of first grade. She looked great and more importantly, she felt comfortable in her thrift shop finery. She was a little nervous and very excited as we got closer to school. But all the nervousness disappeared when she saw the other kids. We could hardly get her to stand still to say goodbye to us before she ran off to join the throng.

Watching the kids scamper into the building, I was heartened. No two kids looked the same. They were a riot of color and pattern—stripes, especially, were big. Some were dressed up, but mostly kids looked clean and fresh and comfortable and ready for the fun of learning. It was beautiful.

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I got my first cell phone in 2003 and I have not upgraded it since then. It is a flip phone that makes and receives calls and sends and accepts text messages. Supposedly it has a camera, but I don’t know how it works. When I send a text message it is almost like I am deploying smoke signals—choose the right spot, make the fire, get it smoky, start waving the blanket. To say “hi,” I must tap the four button two times, wait a beat and then tap it three times. Each text message is an artisanal product made with painstaking care.

Seamus was curious about my cell phone from the beginning. Whenever I hold it, he wants it. If I am on the phone, he tries to pull it out of my hands. He loves opening and closing it, and he loves the noises it makes when messages come in. He is forever calling Ali and Amanda, the first two entries in my address book. But it is just a simple phone: no games, no stories, no excitement.

At the doctor’s office and in line at the post office, I see kids not that much older than Seamus using cell phones and handheld games with a confidence and alacrity that I will never have. I have never even held a tablet computer in my hands.

Seamus and I took the train from New London to Baltimore when he was about a year old. I packed toys for him, crossword puzzles for me, and snacks for both of us. It was a six or seven hour trip. I pulled out a crossword puzzle once while he was asleep and draped it across my lap. It was not easy to work on the puzzle around his little body. I spent the rest of the time trying to keep him from catapulting down the aisle, helping him play peek-a-boo with our neighbors, taking him for short walks, chitchatting with his admirers, reading him the same two books over and over again, and trying to get him interested in the postindustrial wasteland outside the train window. All he wanted to do was lick the window itself.

It was not a relaxing trip, but we had a good time. As we got off the train in Baltimore, I noticed a woman with a two- or three-year-old girl in our train car. I had neither seen nor heard them the entire trip. The little girl had big pink headphones on and was glued to a tiny screen. Her mom was glued to her own, slightly larger screen. I felt a twinge of envy. With all that quiet, the mom could have easily finished a crossword puzzle. But then I felt a twinge of sadness. They were missing out on each other, I thought. Looking at them, I saw a moment of total detachment.

This got me wondering: is there technology meant just for toddlers? I discovered that the $99 nabi tablet junior is marketed to kids as young as three. It has a 180-degree camera and video recorder. Kids can watch movies, play games, and learn math and reading through educational games. Kids can drop it, smear it with sunflower butter, lick it, and it survives. After reading through the website, I felt almost bad for little deprived Seamus. He should have one! Otherwise the other kids will have an edge on him. I don’t want him to be left behind. I don’t want him to be bored. I grew up bored. No TV, no computer, no nabi junior. Just books and people and pads of paper for drawing and writing. My mother always said: “Only boring people get bored.” Her message: develop a rich inner life, nurture a vivid imagination, cultivate the gift of conversation, and you will never be bored.

But we were definitely bored as kids. Bored and deprived. No Atari or Sega or Talking Barbie. We eventually got a computer, but it was the “peace and justice machine” where we were allowed to write our papers for school and nothing more.

We weren’t allowed to chat on the telephone either. Our parents enforced a strict “five-minute rule” all the way through high school: “The phone is a shared tool of communication for everyone who lives here. Don’t hog it by yapping with kids you spent all day with and are going to see again tomorrow.”

As a result, I never learned to multitask. Most of my friends had their own phone lines, so they could do their homework, chat on the phone, and watch TV all at the same time. One friend was so accomplished at this technique that she managed to be a National Merit Honor Scholar; another finished second in our class. Unlike them, I could only do one thing at a time.

However, perhaps multitasking is overrated in the long run. Dr. Teresa Bolton, a professor at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning in the UK, interviewed artists, writers, and scientists who all reported that boredom spurred their exploration and creativity. Dr. Bolton concluded that “Children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

Thanks to my childhood, I can occupy myself for hours. I do not need to be entertained, and I get the most satisfaction from crossword puzzles, novels, magazines, newspapers, conversations, writing in my journal, and just observing the world. I don’t get jittery or go into withdrawal without some form of entertainment. I was never able to develop the addiction in the first place. I recently read about a four-year-old in England who went through all the symptoms of classic withdrawal when her iPad was taken away. She was using it for three or four hours a day. Her parents were forced to enroll her in digital detox and compulsive behavior therapy. Yet, despite this possibility, half of all parents interviewed for one UK survey say they let their babies play with their smartphones or tablets. I like my tactile world of newspapers, snapshots, and books. I like the heft and texture of blocks and puzzles and games. I like talking to the people I encounter throughout the day—even the casual, nonverbal interchange of two people passing on the street. I like the feeling of wet grass between my toes and squishy mud on my heels. I want all of that for Rosena, Seamus and Madeline too. There will be plenty of time for the world to be mediated, distorted, and upended by technology when they are older. For now, and for the next few years, we are saying no—as does the American Academy of Pediatrics—to all the beeping, whizzing, vibrating, touch-screen gizmos. We are saying yes to imagination, creativity, and a little bit of old-fashioned boredom.

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I grew up eating compost. That sounds virtuous—if not reminiscent of back-to-the-land advocates Helen and Scott Nearing—it is actually a lot more truthful to say that I grew up eating garbage. Yes, I found half-rotten potatoes and grapefruit under the train tracks and brought them home to make into casseroles and salads.

About half an hour’s drive from Jonah House was Jessup Market, a wholesale fruit and vegetable market, where food came in on trains from fields across America and ships across the sea before leaving on trucks bound for supermarkets. A lot of it spoiled and got thrown out along the way. Boxes broke and spilled down onto the train tracks or rolled under tractor trailers. There were dumpsters full of food everywhere.

Sometimes as many as a dozen people lived in our house and everyone painted houses for a living. There was not a lot of money. But there was a lot of ingenuity, energy, and willingness to get dirty hands. For years, we went to Jessup every Tuesday morning before the sun came up. We got there early to beat the pig farmers, who also had permission to take the garbage and the leftovers.

My brother and I would join the crew in the summer and on school vacations. Wearing old clothes and too-large gloves that smelled like sawdust and old oranges, we dug around in dumpsters, scrambled under silent trains, and walked miles along the terminal collecting the smushed, the half-rotten, the excess, the unripe, and the overripe.

Sometimes, Dad let one of us drive the truck along the rows or share his honey-sweetened coffee. Other times, we got to ride home in the back of the pickup, perched atop piles of boxes. The produce and fruit was not just for us. A line of neighbors—their numbers curling around our block—waited for the truck each week. Folks would go along the line of boxes we placed on the ground, taking fruits and vegetables from each one. How much people took home depended on what we had and how long the line was. Dad would eyeball the five crates of apples and the seventy people and figure “four apples each.” If we had a lot of something, people could take a lot. If we had a little, everyone would just get a little taste. We’d set some boxes of food aside for our community at the beginning and then take the leftovers too.

That was just the beginning of our work. After saying goodbye to all the people, breaking down all the cardboard boxes and crates, and sweeping up the detritus and mush, we’d go inside to process our food haul. Some folks worked on a massive fruit salad and an equally massive green salad, while others picked through greens, pulling off old and yellow leaves before parboiling the remainders for freezing.

The work happened around our dining room table. There were bowls of vinegar-laced cold water for washing off the dirt and grime, layers of dish towels for drying vegetables, an array of repurposed plastic bags for repacking the good stuff, and huge piles of rotten bits that had been carefully carved off the good food. Sometimes dinner preparation started right there, with someone trying to figure out how to combine green beans, artichokes, and red peppers into a meal for ten.

It required a lot of creativity and some subterfuge to get through all the produce and fruit before it rotted away. Dad was always trying to hide grapefruit in the Sunday morning pancakes. It was also tough to find places to store all that food. Once, someone put a case of half-frozen potatoes under a table in the living room and promptly forgot about it. It defrosted through the floor boards and dripped rotten potato juice onto my sister’s head, as she and I slept in the room we shared in the basement. It was weeks before the stench dissipated.

But even with these somewhat gross setbacks, our sometimes bursting, always bustling household lived on garbage. This was long before dumpster diving was a T-shirt motif and freegans were on Twitter.

My family doesn’t dumpster dive today, but we haunt the “get rid of it” shelves in the produce aisle, where you can buy perfectly ripe avocados, somewhat bruised (but delicious) bananas, piles of loose grapes, somewhat split tomatoes, slightly spotty apples and plenty of other fruits and vegetables for dimes on the dollar. We don’t mind peeling away a brown spot here and there because it all enters the cycle of life in our robust and fecund compost pile in the backyard.

Throughout the growing season, we also have a community garden plot a few blocks from our house, where we grow lettuce, greens, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. This spring Seamus and I planted peas, lettuce, and cilantro in our three-by-six raised bed. At the end of that project, his hands were filthy and new freckles covered his cheeks. I can’t wait until the pea vines break through the soil. Then it will only be a month or so before he can pull snap peas off the vines and pop them right into his mouth. Last summer, his first strawberries were ones we grew ourselves and we’d come home from the garden every day covered in bright red berry juice.

In thinking about how and where we get food for our family, I was shocked to hear recently that about 40 percent of the food in the United States today goes uneaten. We throw out $165 billion worth of food each year. There is an insidious violence embedded in that percentage and that dollar amount—a blunt disregard for the labor of others and a callous devaluing of the gifts of the Earth. Why? Perhaps because it is hard to remember the people who grow our food and the land that nourishes our bodies beneath the fluorescent lights and piped-in Muzak of the grocery store. It gets lost amid the big displays and the elaborate packaging. Take breakfast cereal for instance—you pay more for the box and the cartoon character on the front of it than you do for the grain you pour in your bowl.

But when you work hard to grow, harvest, and prepare food—just like when you work hard to scavenge, distribute, and prepare it—you are a lot less likely to scrape it into the compost pail (or the trash can) at the end of dinner.