Little Punk Babies

by Justin Cober-Lake

24 May 2007

As Evelyn McDonnell's new book illustrates, motherhood should be neither something done on the side, nor something that pushes everything else away, and it's that balance that our culture and government can be striving for.
Evelyn McDonnell with family (photo from

Hipster parents are everywhere, and are being seen as everything from a new trend to douches (or maybe they’re just the reporting fad of the year). But the debate over hipster parenting suggests a fundamental flaw in our culture’s thinking: that you need to stop being yourself when you become a parent. Whether you own seven hoodies or shout “Douche!” at the first sign of an ironic t-shirt, it’s important to recognize that having a child does not mandate a change in interests or personality. And if being a hipster and a dad are troubling, what are we to make of an agitpunk, Riot Grrrl, cultural critic mom?

This issue confounds many of us. For dads, it’s a little simpler, because society expects us to fertilize an egg and get back to work—the childcare is bonus (consider how many people refer to the time a father stays alone with his own children as “babysitting”). For mothers, it’s harder because traditional cultural roles demand one thing, which capitalist structures refuse to incorporate into the larger structure. It seems like we need to either lose ourselves completely to our kids or else give up ever having them in order to achieve our professional or other personal goals.

cover art

Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids, & Rock 'n' Roll

Evelyn McDonnell

(Da Capo)

In Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids, & Rock ‘n’ Roll (Da Capo), Evelyn McDonnell places her route from early rebellion to political activism to motherhood in a larger cultural context, mapping out the struggle that many people have in balancing work and relationships, individuality and parenthood. With frequent pop culture allusions and chapter titles like “Kick Out the Jams, Mothers” and “Dig the New Breeders”, McDonnell, co-editor of Rock She Wrote, examines the challenges of preserving her identity even while moving into the roles of parenting.

McDonnell puts the early stance succinctly: “My attitude toward children was summarized by my fondness for dead baby jokes.” She didn’t have parenting in mind, and worried about friends who seemed to disappear as diapers piled up. Late in the book, however, McDonnell comes to an important realization:

Volumes have been written about how to “balance” career and family.
I don’t like that term. I am not a fulcrum. I prefer to see kids and jobs not as oppositional weights, but as complementary pleasures. I want my life to be integrated, not pulled in different directions.

Her interest isn’t in succeeding in compartmentalized areas, but in achieving a whole life that takes in different parts of her personality, interests, and desires. The sentiment underpins an important paradigm, and becomes the key moment for the “mamarama” philosophy: the attempt to fulfill both the mama (child-raising) and the rama (intellectual activities, adult recreation, etc). McDonnell adds that “all moms are super. Just because we have kids doesn’t mean we give up our diva glamour .... Parenting adds to our worldliness”. She proposes a new way of looking at motherhood in which integrated, personal fullness becomes a source of individual and collective strength.

The catch, McDonnell acknowledges later, is all the cultural strictures that inhibit such a position. She’s lucky to be able to feel this way and to be able to live it out, but our society (particularly the US) doesn’t serve to help moms (or, for that matter, dads, but the different expectations and traditions usually make these sorts of pressures lighter). McDonnell eventually raises these concerns herself, pointing out the expense of war and the lack of sufficient “paid parental leave, subsidized child care, or universal health care” as problematic conditions, as are unequal pay, uneven hiring requirements, and inflexible work environments. Likewise, the institutional expectations on career women to postpone or limit their child-bearing and the cultural expectations on a mother to put her career second limit many women’s financial and social abilities to have that full life.

McDonnell proposes a hopefully effective and possible solution in writing, “I’d like to reclaim momism as a growing branch of activism”, citing Cindy Sheehan as a prime example of a person motivated to political action in part through her motherhood. It could be that angry mothers will be motivated into a coherent politicized group fighting for change and the realization of suppressed rights. Such movements are beginning to coalesce, such as MomsRising, a group that’s working to move “important motherhood and family issues to the forefront of the country’s awareness, and…break the logjam that’s been holding back family-friendly legislation for decades.”

Evelyn McDonnell

Evelyn McDonnell

Such work gives traditionally domestic concerns the voice and forum they deserve. If the “personal is political”, then the political is personal, too, and it’s McDonnell’s return to politics that fills out the book’s circle and gives us what may be its finest lesson: motherhood should be neither something done on the side, nor something that pushes everything else away, and it’s that balance that our culture and government, and not just individuals, can be striving for. At the same time, she recognizes that “women shouldn’t have to have kids to feel successful or complete” but women also “shouldn’t have to not have kids to feel like successful women”. Those phrases summarizes the options that should be open to women, but that too often aren’t.  Now, if we can only convince more people to dig the new breeders…

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