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'Kids as sacred as mine'

Parenting and protesting in an unsaved world.
By Denise Breeden-Ost
March/April 2004 3.1.04

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Last spring, [in 2003,] my 21-month-old son Glen invented a new game. When he found anything that resembled a sign—a twig with a trash tag stuck to it, a blue utility survey flag—he held it high and hollered “Peace!”

I had mixed feelings about this. Yes, it was adorable. But I didn't want Glen to be the next Cute Baby for Peace. I didn't want him, by age six or ten, to be composing a poignant message for his protest sign and asking how to draw a bomb. I wanted him just to be a kid.

I did make signs as a kid; I knew just how to draw a bomb. My parents were peace activists. And I entered adolescence with the crushing conviction that it was my job to save the world. Maybe it was supposed to be everybody's job, but most people weren't pulling their weight and an unsaved world was an outcome I couldn't bear.

At 19 , suffering chronic back pain and depression, I went to a healer who rubbed my back, listened to me, and said, “I think you're carrying the world on your shoulders. Try just being a young woman for a few years.” This sounded impossible, but I must have listened: I fell in love that spring and spent the next nine years writing, joining a church, building a house, getting married, and having a baby. The back trouble improved and the depression lifted. When I returned to activism it was on the local level, opposing a new interstate highway project. I moved slowly, careful not to lift more than my share of the world's weight.

I wanted to protect my son from that painful journey, from the dark side of activist life. After September 11, 2001, I was glad to see people witnessing for peace at our courthouse each week—and I kept baby Glen at home. But last year, as war in Iraq loomed, I found myself pushing a toddler in a stroller down the street, surrounded by shouts of “What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!” I wasn't entirely sure how I got there, but I knew it was where I belonged. And Glen belonged with me. Glen loved it. He insisted that all the red cars were Grandpa Bill's, helped Grandma carry her peace flag, and practiced his running during the speeches. He yelled “Beece! Not!” during diaper changes for days before I realized he meant “Peace! Now!”

Our family joined the weekly vigil at the courthouse the day before the bombing of Baghdad started. The adults were sober, angry and afraid. I followed Glen through the crowd as he cheerfully inspected all the drainpipes in the flowerbed walls. A six-year-old girl stood with her family, holding a homemade sign: “the kids in iraq are scared.” Those words tore at my heart, and later in the week I made my own sign—a small, sturdy sandwich board that left my hands free for carrying Glen. The front read “Mom for Peace”; the back, “Their kids are as sacred as mine.” The mothers of Iraq haunted me; I couldn't remain silent while my child was promised safety at the expense of theirs.

So I made my choice. Activism will be part of Glen's life, part of what his Mama does. Some kids' parents fly helicopters or grow peonies; Glen's Mama cooks, writes, does laundry, and protests. I'm the mother he got, for better or for worse.

I never blamed my parents for teaching me activism. They did what they had to do, given the world they had, and I respected them for it. But somewhere in my heart I hoped that the swords would all be plowshares before Glen got old enough to wave a sign and yell “Beece!” It wasn't that I didn't want Glen to be an activist; I didn't want him to need to be an activist. Sharing activism with Glen means admitting that I am passing on to him a world that is still thoroughly, miserably unsaved. It's hard to forgive myself, and the world, for that. It's easiest when I watch Glen talking to a caterpillar, or sing “Happy Birthday” with him to a grinning uncle. Parenting makes it impossible to resent the world for very long.

And, you know, I loved being a kid in an activist family. Making signs was creative and fun. Protests were a way to feel powerful in a world that gave me nightmares about nuclear war. We did our peace work together as a family, laughing and singing. In between peace actions, I read novels, learned long division, boiled potions out of wild onions and shampoo, baked cookies with Dad, argued with my brother—in other words, I was just a kid. A lucky kid, with loving parents, plenty of food, good places to play. And lucky, too, that my parents handed me a marker and my own posterboard, gave my fear and hope a voice. Lucky because I knew peacemakers from all classes, many religions, and other countries. In a scary world, I knew I was not alone.

Many experts urge parents, in answering kids' questions about war, to offer reassurance: Tell them they are safe. That's a lie, of course—a loving lie I may yet use. But there is something more I want to tell Glen, when he looks up from his drainpipes and starts reading the signs—something that will remain true beyond the limits of any promise of safety. Knowing that he, too, may find it painful to grow up with a conscience in this world, I want to offer him some part of an answer, an antidote to the grief and hopelessness that can suffocate the spirit. I want to show him that yes, the kids in Iraq are scared—and so we need to speak out for their safety. And so we conserve gasoline. And so we do what we can to make peace where we are. There is always good work to be done, and we can all do our part.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq, open hostility toward the peace vigils suddenly escalated, and they no longer seemed a good place for children. I hung my sign in the closet. Alone at my computer, reading about depleted uranium and still seeing those sacred, scared kids, I feel a familiar despair creeping in. Writing letters and calling senators are solitary acts, and e-mail and Web sites can't sustain me in the face of evil; I need the touch of human hands, the meeting of eyes as full of love and rage and hope as my own. I need my family around me, strong and loving and real—just as I always have.

What work calls to me now? What work can Glen be part of, learning how to be a good neighbor in the world? I don't yet know. And I still haven't answered all my heart's questions about raising another child of activists. In an imperfect world, perfect answers may be too much to ask for. But as I listen to the news and resist despair, I return again and again to those Wednesday afternoons last spring: Standing again on the courthouse sidewalk among the signs and drums and familiar faces, I breathe, listening to the questions in the thump, thump of my heart. I balance my child on one hip and remember that he, not the world, is my weight to carry. He bounces, kicking my painted sign. Thump, thump. Mom for Peace.

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