When I was a young mother, I wore a t-shirt with the words: “The
hand that rocks the cradle rocks the boat.” The phrase put a spin on a 19th
century poem entitled “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World” by
American poet William Ross Wallace. I understood at the time that becoming a
mother was increasing my desire to create change in the world, although I didn’t
know where that would lead me. I had already realized that, as the feminist
movement espoused, the personal is political. I had already challenged a few
assumptions about how life was supposed to work – including rejecting both the
style in which I’d been parented and the institution of school as an effective
vehicle for education.
As much as I didn’t like the rules of the status quo, I also
didn’t like labels – even the ones that accompanied my rebellion. In fact, I’ve
fought my whole adult life to avoid descriptions of myself that involve isms and
ists. I dislike being referred to as an environmentalist, an activist, a
feminist, a humanist, a homeschooler, a radical unschooler, a life
learner…although each of those words describes an aspect of my life and work. As
helpful as such labels can be to connect with others who think similarly, they
can also constrict, separate, polarize, alienate, and confuse. And because they
name groups with a specific set of “membership requirements,” they help
School is where we learn to sort, segment, and label in that
manner, where knowledge is broken up in to subjects and students are grouped by
age and their ability to perform on tests. And the post-secondary world has
turned segmentation of knowledge into an art. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been
surprised the first time an academic feminist scorned me because of my advocacy
of life learning and its apparent support for the stay-at-home mom. However, it
had never occurred to me that life learning and feminism were mutually
exclusive. In fact, I am quite certain that life learning in all its
label-defying glory is the ultimate feminist act, for a variety of reasons on
which I’ll elaborate in this article. But over the years, I’ve encountered many
people – including some self-doubting life learning feminist moms – for whom the
picture isn’t quite that clear.
I wasn’t always so sure of myself, and once upon a time was
even apt to wonder if my outlook on education was at odds with some of my other
progressive stances. That changed when I began to observe young children and how
little respect they and their caregivers receive.
I trained to be a teacher in 1969 but realized after just a few months that
neither I nor most of the students wanted to be in the classroom. So I quit
teaching. Researching a more suitable career and curious about how children
learn (something that hadn’t been a major part of the teachers’ college
curriculum), I spent some time working at a daycare center.
Daycare centers were not that prevalent in the early 1970s, but
my developing feminism led me to believe they were crucial if society was to
move beyond the nuclear family and its smothering hierarchy. But I was
astonished at how undervalued and underpaid the entirely female staff was,
especially for work that was so stressful and so important…and at what
uninspiring places the centers were. I am a questioner by nature, and that
experience inspired a lot of questions: Why was our society apparently
undervaluing this work? Was it because women were doing it? Or did we value the
care of the next generation so little? What is “liberated” about paying other
women a minimal wage to look after our children so that we can have high paying
careers? Does one have to have a paid job in order to be a feminist? Why do
women have to embrace the male model in order to challenge patriarchy? Is there
a third way?
What is “liberated” about paying other women a minimal wage
to look after our children so that we can have high paying careers?
Does one have to have a paid job in order to be a feminist? Why do
women have to embrace the male model in order to challenge
patriarchy? Is there a third way?
My husband Rolf and I soon chose to begin our family. Once
pregnant, I struggled to understand why feminism wanted me to make a choice
between my rights and those of my future children. We decided to create a life
that would affirm the rights of all members of our family. And thus it became my
life’s work to advocate for children’s right to be raised and educated with
respect and without the “isms” – sexism, racism, classism, ageism, consumerism,
and other elitist or destructive social influences.
Motherhood focused my early political consciousness. It helped
me understand how the choices I make in my personal life are linked to those I
make on a larger scale. I remember thinking that a mother’s body is the first
environment for human life, so I’d better ensure I was providing a clean,
nurturing place for my unborn child to grow, as well as ensuring a safe,
respectful world for her to live in after birth. And that’s when I began to
weave change-making into my life.
At the personal level, one of the things this meant was that our
children would learn without school. And so my husband and I set about creating
circumstances to allow that to happen. With the panache of youth, we started the
family business that publishes this magazine, thinking we would all stay at home
together for the next decade or so, happily living, learning and making money
together. While the fairy tale didn’t turn out exactly as hoped, our lives
taught our children – by experience, which is the best kind of learning – about
making a living, about working out differences, about the need to be critical of
the power structures in society and in the microcosm of family and personal
relationships...and much more.
In some ways, what I was living has since been defined as
“empowered mothering” by York University Women’s Studies professor and founder
of the Association for Research on Mothering Andrea O’Reilly. However, I don’t
identify with this label any more than any others because O’Reilly’s stance is
woman-centered, rather than child-centered. She describes empowered mothering as
using the role of mother to challenge systems that smother women’s choice,
autonomy and agency. And that seems to leave out children’s choice, autonomy and
agency. Dismantling patriarchy is crucial to creating a whole society but we can’t
accomplish that by ignoring the rights of another group of people.
Perhaps O’Reilly and others in the educational industry think that our public
schools are taking care of the kids. But they’re not. As I wrote in my book
Challenging Assumptions in Education, our public school systems perpetuate
social hierarchies, disempower children, coerce them – supposedly for their own
good – and encourage a destructive level of consumerism and consumption.
Furthermore, they are not democratic because they don’t allow children and young
people to control their choices and their daily lives. School teaches submission
to power based on size, age, intellect, and sometimes ability to bully, and there
are race, gender and class biases, and even sexual harassment. The very
structure of schools delivers a hidden socioeconomic curriculum of
standardization, competition, and top-down management by experts.
In short, schools – and society in general – treat children the way women
don’t want to be treated. They don’t trust children to control their own lives,
to keep themselves safe, and to make their own decisions. In this way, feminism
and life learning are one and the same because they trust people to take the
paths that suit them best.
Aside from allowing academic freedom, unschooling (which I prefer to call by
the more positive term "life learning") is about living more
mindfully – acting altruistically (instead of earning gold stars or the approval
of authority figures), respecting individuals for who they are, overturning
discrimination, being aware of and remediating the conflicts inherent in our
society, working cooperatively, and learning about and improving the world by
living in and acting on it.
Unschooling parents care deeply about children’s choice, autonomy, and
agency. They respect young people’s right to make their own decisions (within
parameters that address their physical and emotional safety, of course). They
understand that when children are part of a community, they have an interest in
making that community function well, taking responsibility for their actions and
contributing to the group.
One of the stereotypes about unschooling (and homeschooling) that results in feminist criticism
is that of too much togetherness – children who are home alone with mom all the
time, tied to the umbilical cord or the apron strings. On the surface, that’s
based on ignorance. But aside from the fact that unschooling kids typically
spend more time in their communities exposed to a more diverse range of people
and experiences than kids in school, the apron strings criticism denigrates the
value of the mother-child relationship. Being an activist of any sort is more
than resisting; it’s also about providing positive alternatives. Parenting
practices like cosleeping, prolonged breastfeeding, and family-based education
are powerful and nurturing alternatives, which provide the early security that
leads to independence.
One of the questions I asked almost forty years ago – the one about paying for
childcare in order to have a career and retain the feminist label – is still on
my mind. These days, some feminists are working to solve that conundrum through
the use of tax credits or other methods of financially rewarding caregiving
parents; others believe higher quality childcare, workplace reform, and better
pay for childcare workers is the solution.
But there is, as I mused so many years ago, a third way. What if we
overturned the male model of success that feminism adopted in creating equal
opportunity for women? If we reject the idea that success is only about money,
we can forge new attitudes toward what’s important in life. Challenging the
notion that feminism relates only to equal opportunity within the workplace and
can only be obtained by a full-time paying career is controversial, but there is
a growing movement that questions the tradition that well-being is based totally
on economics. As I have written in Natural Life Magazine, the Genuine Progress
Indicator is one tool that has been developed to factor caregiving, pollution,
and other positives and negatives into the accounting that we know as GDP. One
of the proponents of that idea is feminist and environmentalist Marilyn Waring.
The author of the book If Women Counted, she was one of the first to suggest
that the GDP sustains the institutionalized enslavement of women by focusing
solely on production and consumption in the market sphere, thereby rendering
women’s unpaid work invisible.
Taking the notion further, Australian academic, author, and social commentator
Susan Maushart asserts that motherhood needs to be at the center of human
society, from which all social and economic life should spin. Society needs to
“acknowledge that bearing and raising children is not some pesky, peripheral
activity we engage in, but the whole point,” she says. Warehousing kids in
daycare or school so mothers can get on with what they see as their real lives
is not part of that vision, but we need to find ways to ensure economic security
for women of all classes, and extend the vision to include fathers as well.
It has been said that feminism is the radical notion that women are people.
Even more radical, I would suggest, is the notion that was printed on a t-shirt
my young daughters once shared: “Kids are people too.” At this point in history,
allowing them to live and learn in the real world, unfettered by the
discrimination inherent in compulsory schooling, is the best way to honor that
idea. We need to find ways to make that possible without diminishing anyone
else’s rights. Then we will truly be on the way to creating a more egalitarian
Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life’s editor and
co-owner, and the author of twelve books. Her new collection of
memoir-style essays and poems about life, learning, mothering and daughtering entitled It
Hasn’t Shut Me Up was published in 2013.