Necessary Magic

In my 20s, I always imagined that if I had kids, I would raise them in a collective. Over the years these dreams took on various forms: an intentional community with yurts and goats and one central kitchen; an anarchist collective house in Oakland; a communal farm in New York. I never planned to raise kids in a nuclear family. I grew up in a nuclear family, and it was an isolating, frequently toxic place. Given, our family had some extra challenges, like severe alcoholism, Reaganite Republicans and chronic illness, but still—the basic structure seemed insufficient. My grandparents and cousins were people I saw once or twice a year. I didn't really know them. We had few family friends. My parents and I were an island. A very lonely island.

Because my relationships with my family of origin were so strained, they were never part of my childrearing plan. My mom died early and my dad peace'd out of my life for several years, so my plan involved chosen family. People who shared my values and were freaky and creative in all the important ways. It was going to be beautiful, intentional, revolutionary and whole.

Except it didn't work out that way. By the time I'd done enough healing to even think about kids, I was in my late 30s, and most of my people had moved away, coupled up or become embedded in careers. We weren't living in collective houses anymore and most of our land projects had gone bust. Many of our polyamorous relationships had detonated. We were old enough to care a lot more if we had things like health insurance and a car that runs.

So I found myself marrying someone amazing, buying a house, and starting a super-gay nuclear family. It's so beautiful. And it's so hard. My kid's a perfect little wonder and a rambunctious toddler with a fledgling immune system and many needs. Like all kids, she's a lot, and we need more hands on deck. We need breaks from parenting. Our families live thousands of miles away. We have wonderful friends who help out for a couple hours when they can, for which we are so grateful, but it's not the same as having family who want to spend time developing a deep relationship with a little person, and who you don't feel guilty about leaning on when things get rough.

I recently attended a conference on early childhood trauma where the keynote speaker, Bruce Perry, helped provide some much-needed perspective. Perry kept mentioning that the brain of a young child did not evolve to have only one or two parents. He insisted our brains evolved to have four adult caretakers for each child under the age of 5. Four! That sounds like heaven, except it's not so abstract and dreamy a concept as heaven. It's very concrete and reasonable: Tiny humans are a lot of work and thrive when surrounded by tons of love and attention. It's too much for one or two people.

I can't help wondering what it might have been like for me, as someone growing up in a stressful and isolated home, to have extra caretakers in my life. I think it would have been more profound than I can fully imagine, and I want that for my daughter.

The day I heard this talk, my daughter was home sick with my wife. We'd completed stressful negotiations over who'd take the day off work, and she lost, because I'd already used up all my time off during the previous weeks when my daughter (and everyone else in the family) kept catching whatever bugs were going around daycare. No third or fourth caretaker was available. So we were haggling and I was wondering Will I lose my job if I stay home with my daughter or should I just quit and stop trying to work full time? Except … money? My mental health? The mortgage? Maybe we should just move into a van or move to Florida to be near the grandparents or emigrate to some Scandinavian country that cares about families?

Because raising kids in America is a setup. Our culture, our economy, our government and our workplaces aren't designed to support families. American notions of "family values" are most concerned with conformity and supporting the straight, white and affluent—preferably Christians—in policing things like abortion. American "family values" have nothing to do with supporting actual children after they're born with basic needs like healthcare, childcare, adequate parental leave and food. These values aren't interested in families who have any kind of marginalized identity. God forbid parents are single, or queer or brown. God forbid anyone needs income assistance or student loan forgiveness. We should all be pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, right? We're all on equal footing, right?

The other thing Bruce Perry said is that the basic unit of human survival is not the individual, it's the clan. It strikes me, however, that capitalism thrives on eroded kinship networks and alienated individuals. Thrives, as in makes profits. So many families living under capitalism are not thriving. The burden shouldn't be on each individual household to figure out how to survive. How do we rebuild our clans and kinship networks? How do we lean into our interdependence? How do we dream and mobilize a very different collective future for ourselves and our kids?

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