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My Thoughts About the 'Advocate Like a Mother' Theory

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International Women’s Day 2019 was recognized in March, and I wondered why we are still faced with  common tropes of caring for children with disabilities or chronic illnesses that are gendered and overwhelmingly focused on “mothering.”

Are there perhaps other ways to have a conversation about this? Ways that do justice to the complexity of trying to strike a balance between our roles in meeting the needs of our own children, and fighting to uphold the rights of others and the inevitable sacrifices and uneasy compromises that this entails?

A few months ago I realized I had only been to my daughter’s school twice during the whole month of February, because the rest of the time I had been away mostly for work (but also a short half-term break). Later,  an article came up on my feed that critically discussed the difference between the act of parenting a child with disabilities, and the task of being an advocate. It plunged me into the depths of my own, ongoing deliberations of being a mother and working in the field of international child rights advocacy.

As a mother I often get asked how I manage, or even justify working in a job that requires intense periods of travel. Sometimes, I sense that these are out of genuine interest; but I often get an uncomfortable sense of being judged for choosing to prioritize my professional over my personal commitments. Particularly as the parent of a child with a chronic illness, I grapple with the guilt that is unleashed by this questioning. But I also often resent the implicit gendering of caring responsibilities that I sense is thinly veiled as curiosity. I find myself wondering how frequently men who do similar work to me get asked how they achieve their work-life balance. I suspect that it’s not raised as often.

But by far the most difficult judgement and questions to face are those asked by my own daughter. As she has grown up, when she sees me packing my suitcase week in and week out, she often asks me, “Mummy, why are you leaving me to go and take care of children in other places?”

My response — both to my daughter and others — is that I feel deep down, that my work contributes in some small way to making this world a better place for a generation of children, most of them unlike her, who don’t have the same opportunities and privileges she has. And that is why I make the choice I make to work in this role; to travel to different countries at the cost of reducing the time that I spend at home. Because I feel my commitments as a mother can only be truly fulfilled if I maintain an outward-looking view about what is important for other children in this world.

This underpinned by a perhaps radical vision of equality and social justice, that entails that it’s not just enough to struggle for things to be healthy and happy in my home, in my family, in my neighborhood, but that we should leverage what we have to seek to make positive changes for others.

And this an ongoing topic of discussion in our home, that we unpack and explore together. Whether we’re going to a local demonstration to protest the closing of our local children’s centers, or reading through books about women who changed the world, the themes of struggle, compassion, justice, solidarity and hope meander through many aspects of our day to day lives.

When my travels take me to a refugee camp in Kenya or the United Nations in Geneva, I ask my daughter if she is interested in knowing about where I am going and what I will do there. If so (which, in her boundless curiosity, she usually is) we look at photos online, I ask her questions about what she thinks about the topics I’ll be discussing in a child-friendly way. In doing so, I request her to engage with and become part of my way of making sense of the world and these choices, not to usurp or manipulate her, but to share my conviction that (as my best friend put in her high school yearbook quote) “no one is free while others are oppressed.”

All of this speaks to why the article I mentioned above resonated with me, particularly these points:

“Advocacy requires a long view focused on the change you want to create. It requires understanding who to ask and how to ask it. It loves critical thinking and puzzle solving. At the legislative level, it takes understanding the background of why a policy or a law currently exists, and how you want it to look 20, 30, or 40 years down the road. It anticipates arguments. It explains relevance. You can be a parent who advocates. I consider myself one. But, parenting and advocating are distinct acts. Both are important. Both require patience and passion, but they are different. And most importantly, if I can do both, I bet you can, too.”

While I feel encouraged by these words, I do think the article misses out on one fundamental aspect of being “a parent who advocates” entails — the costs. And the energy that it takes to sustain the demands of when personal and professional collide; a hectic schedule, juggling jet lag and “fuzzy plane brain” with late nights spent finishing off reports to meet deadlines. Then digging deep for energy to go running and cycling in the park to support my daughter’s physiotherapy, but also for my own mental and physical well-being…keeping track of doctor’s appointments, and then sometimes Skyping from hospital rooms. I feel a sense of guilt for putting an extensive burden on my partner when he too tries to balance work and parenting our daughter…trying to be truly present to make up for so much absence.

But also missing out on important moments, like school plays, or friend’s birthday parties. Or just knowing that you’re cutting back on the everyday, mundane moments of pure, boundless joy unleashed by watching and listening as your child unravels into a fit of giggles, or stares wide-eyed in wonder at learning something new that pushes the boundaries of her knowledge and comprehension. I find it easier to reconcile myself with exhaustion than with missing the micro-moments of sublime love scattered across each day.

For all that the important discussions generated first by the t-shirt and then through unpacking of the slogan, I think I differ from the author of the article above in one significant way — even though I’m a mother who advocates, I’d never wear a t-shirt with that slogan. Instead of directly dissecting the reasons why, I thought it’d be better to suggest three ways that I’d rework the slogan to make it capture the things that it currently doesn’t quite grasp about my aspirations for how to move forward the discussion on parenting and advocacy.

1. Advocate like family.

There is no need to glorify mothers over fathers, or even parents over other caregivers. It’s true that in most social and economic systems, childcare is borne by women and mothers. However when we talk about fighting for one’s child and one’s beliefs, instead of just being descriptive and bound by the status quo, why don’t we dare to be prescriptive and look toward the important roles of father, grandparents and other carers who deserve recognition?

2. Advocate like a phoenix.

It’s important to capture the tendency of advocacy work to be all-consuming, and to warn ourselves of the real danger of burn-out. Self-care and nurturing are crucial to being able to sustain acts of parenting and acts of advocacy, but doing both side-by-side may leave little room to consider our own wellness. When we get to the point of flaming, due to anger or frustration at not having achieved our goal, or out of elation because we have finally achieved the breakthrough that we’ve been working for, let’s remember that we must allow ourselves to settle and rest, so that we allow the best conditions to perpetually renew the fires inside and rise again.

3. Advocate in solidarity.

None of our work, as parents or activists, will ever be successful in isolation. Friends, neighbors, wider communities around us are important parts of how we cope with adversity and relationships where we create and construct common visions for each other’s well-being. Caring and compassion are essential in thinking beyond our own individual struggles or personal priorities, in order to build a wider foundation that enables others to find strength to deal with their own struggles in parenting, relationships or work and to open spaces where we can bond with each other to consolidate efforts and take on the more structural injustices that impact on our collective well-being.

This story originally appeared on

Photo credit: Likica83/Getty Images


Originally published: May 13, 2019
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