It isn’t until I sit down on the subway platform that the tears begin to fall. My wrists still show the marks from the zip-tie handcuffs, my shoulders are stiff, and I am exhausted, but I am really crying because I am missing my daughter. Her first day of kindergarten. Her first step into that wider world, where she will discover her own voice. And I am not there holding her hand, kissing her goodbye. I am on the opposite coast, rubbing my wrists, waiting for a train to take me away from this Washington, DC, police station. This is not the type of mothering I want to do. Unfortunately, heartbreakingly, it is the type of mothering that is required.
I’m a hands-on mother. A co-sleeping, attachment-parenting, school-volunteering, constant presence in my children’s lives. I’m one of those moms, the ones who seem to have found their true calling in making organic, homemade ice cream and planning elaborate, eco-friendly birthday parties. Who seem to practically live at the school (amazing how many school garden hours you can fit in when you work nights), and don’t resent it. The kind of mom my own mom was. The kind of mom who wouldn’t be caught dead NOT being there on the first day of kindergarten. Until now.
As my youngest child enters kindergarten for the first time, I am sitting in front of the White House, waiting patiently for my turn to be cuffed, photographed, and escorted into the police van. Because as much as I wish it were different, I can’t feel good about being the kind of mom I always thought I would be, there holding my kids’ hands their first days of school. Now that my three kids are all old enough to be in school, I’m able (forced, really) to step back just enough to gain a new perspective. What I see compels me to change my mothering plan. The problems facing my children on a macro level are so huge that it’s ever so tempting just to lower my eyes and put my shoulder back to the grindstone of day-to-day parenting: laundry, meals, bedtime, packing lunches, more laundry. I’m living in this world that I don’t know how to fix, and I want to just have the same work my mother had in raising her three kids: give them love, and healthy food, and some basic values.
But my work is different. Instead, I have to look, and look clearly, at how climate change is happening now, faster than anyone thought it would. I have to be willing to see the damage we are doing to our planet, to their planet, through our failure to address not only climate change, but issues of clean water, clean air, environmental justice, and corporate-money political influence. And I don’t want to see it, I really don’t. Thinking about those things is just plain depressing, and my kids need a mother who is not depressed.
So I must choose one of two pathways: denial, or hope. I choose hope, and with it, love. But against such odds, hope only makes sense in the context of action: there is no love without proofs thereof. My proof, this week, is the bruise on my wrist. I love my children enough to use my body, my willingness to give up my personal freedom, in order to tell President Obama that he has the power to protect the planet that my children have to live on. This fall, President Obama has the sole decision-making discretion to approve or deny the necessary permits for the Keystone XL pipeline to be built: he can stop an environmental disaster right now.
If built, the Keystone XL pipeline will carry tar sands from Canada to Texas oil refineries, escalating the rate at which the currently sequestered carbon in the tar sands is released into our already over-carboned atmosphere. The world’s leading climate scientists say that if we burn the oil from the tar sands, it will be “game over” for the climate. Which means, basically, that my kids will be trying to live on a dying planet. I cannot even imagine the scale of the human suffering that will occur if we do not radically adjust our global response to climate change. President Obama can, and must, start this shift. So for my children’s sake, I must tell him myself; I cannot depend on anyone else to mother my children for me. Mothering, in this century, means carrying the grief of dire possibilities around with you. And doing everything you can to fix a broken system.
The morning before I left for DC, I looked into my daughter’s bright eyes and felt my own eyes fill. “I’m gonna miss you, sweet bug,” I told her. “I hope you have a really great first day of kindergarten.”
She gazed back at me seriously for a moment, then smiled. “I hope you have a really great first day of going to jail, Mama.”
And so we are both starting to learn, both stepping out into a larger world. May we find our voices, and may they rise and carry.