When I started this blog six years ago I was in the throes of parenting two young children full-time. I was struggling with the daily reminders from colleagues and Facebook that I was ruining my career. I was learning the art of mindfulness, the ability to be present and in the moment without being reactive to the regularly unreasonable, intense, and constantly changing demands and big emotions of the small people around me. I was feeling alone and connected, helpless and empowered, and feeling the ground shift under me as I became a new person in this world.
But now I also realize that I was in the throes of white woman perfectionist parenting.
The reasonable part of me recognized that my children are surrounded by love and resources and will be “fine”. But the lizard brain part of me - fueled by every contradictory message in the media directed toward mothers (and specifically white mothers) - lived in constant fear that I would make a wrong choice about sleep, food, play, school, pediatrician, career, or childcare and ruin my children.
With nine years of parenting experience and a few years of diversity / equity training through SEED, Change Makers, Courageous Conversations on Race, and lots of reading and reflecting I’m now (slightly more) skilled at recognizing how our family has benefited from centuries of laws, court decisions, and institutional policies centering and reinforcing the power of whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, Christianity, native English language skills, and other majority social identities.
The United States was established as a zero-sum game, in which people with prioritized social identities are granted greater access to resources (while being told we live in a meritocracy) then subtly and overtly trained to push our ways to the "top" and to fear a world in which this ladder is toppled. I believe this socialization is what fueled my generalized anxiety about making the “right” choices, every day, to keep my babies safe and well, despite evidence that my children are actually buffered from the impact of the historic and current trauma perpetuated by our racist system on communities of color.
I now see that I was being trained in the fine art of Opportunity Hoarding, or the tendency of white parents to fight to preserve the best resources for their own children. Sometimes this looks like dominating spots, time, and school resources at the expense of other families (and especially families of color). Other times this looks like advocating or fighting for resources for my child, at the individual level, rather than fighting to improve the system for the benefit of all children. Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to cheat your child into college admission? Yep, that’s opportunity hoarding too.
Pause here. Are you a white parent? Are you thinking to yourself, “But wait, I know it’s wrong to cheat my kid into college, but I’m not a rich celebrity. I’m just working every day to do what’s best for my child. Isn’t that what it means to be a good parent?”
Let’s break down that “good parent” idea for a moment.
From an evolutionary standpoint, we are all animals competing for resources and we want our children to survive. The “good parents” are the ones who keep our children safe into adulthood so they can reproduce and carry on the family line.
The story we (translate: white people) tell about American culture is that everyone has access to the same resources, and it’s up to each of us to work hard and fight for our self / family / tribe. And if everyone has the same access, then my job is to do everything I can to help my child succeed.
Except that not all people in the U.S. have access to the same resources. Starting in the mid-1600’s the United States has been shaped by laws and court decisions that specify that “whiteness” is the qualification that entitles a person to legal protection, access to resources, and indeed classification as a human. So if all of the (white) people who have the most privilege and power are fighting to take advantage of every available resource, they will keep increasing their share of the pie, and the amount of pie remaining for those without privilege and power will continue to dwindle.
The privilege that counts the most is whiteness and maleness, although there are many privileged social identities. So in this historical and narrative structure of white male supremacy and concentrated, differentiated power, what is the role of white women in keeping the system alive and well?
We are raising the white adults who will inherit our power. We are taught to play into the game of meritocracy, the narrative of opportunity for all (white people), and the patriotic belief in self-determination and freedom. Oh, and make sure to spend, spend, spend to keep your kids on track!
Here are some of the ways new white mothers are explicitly and implicitly coached to become Opportunity Hoarders:
- Research all doctors and hospitals in your area and interview multiple pediatricians to find the right fit.
- Spend time and money to make you own baby food out of organic produce.
- Enroll in the "right" parent/child classes, enrichment opportunities, and preschool to meet the combination of developmental and unique personality needs of your child.
- Devote countless hours (and many, many dollars) to the art of babywearing and/or customized strollers so as to find the ideal way to transport baby in all activities and weather.
- Move into the “right” neighborhood (e.g. historically white due to redlining practices that shut out people of color) with the “best” schools (e.g. high in resources and not shaped by the economic and social consequences of centuries of racist practices that have isolated people of color and prevented the generation of wealth)
So many decisions felt paralyzing to me in that early time of motherhood. I was consumed with all of these choices, while also struggling to fulfill the desire for autonomy, agency, and mastery that I lacked when I left the full-time workforce. Without a professional identity, all of my striving and ambition was funneled into the choices I made for my children. And even as I sought a counter-culture group of "hip mamas" with which to share my journey and challenged many of the capitalist assumptions of modern-day, western parenthood, I was still embroiled in the narrative of trying to be a "good" (white) mom.
I was not alone in this feeling. Despite sitting with a wide array of social privileges, the white mothers around me also struggled with anxiety, depression, and loneliness laid on top of an undercurrent of fear that our children would not be okay and that we would be to blame.
But what if, as a new parent, I had been able to break free from that story of what I was supposed to do as a “good mother”? What if I had devoted those three years at home with my children to intense activism and advocacy? What if I had actively committed to showing up in every way possible in support of and working alongside women of color so that we could work together to dismantle the system that keeps us all trapped?
Here are just a few of the areas where my energy might have been of service:
- Access to basic health care and preschool for all children
- Transparency around the historical, and current, financial and real estate practices that funnel wealth into white communities, and advocacy to revise these policies
- Challenging the narrative of “good” and “bad” schools, as well as the narrative of “choice” to opt out of the bad ones, by volunteering at our neighborhood school, showing up at school board meetings, and engaging with our local school system
Now I know better, and I am trying to do better. My children are both in elementary school (a “desirable” school in a “good” neighborhood, incidentally, which is a topic for another article). I have a full-time job outside my home which leaves less time for activism but has helped me tap back into and activate my professional identity and skills. As my kids have needed me less, I've devoted more energy to educating myself on the history of whiteness and power in this country. I've joined school committees and volunteered as co-President of the PTA to use my voice and presence in support of equity-centered initiatives. But I wish I'd started this work sooner. I still have a long way to go.
To my fellow white mothers - what if we rejected the story we have been told about what it means to serve our families and our children? What if we challenged one another to revise our model of motherhood so that it focused on questioning and upending the power structures that keep us living in divided communities?
To center myself in this work on a daily basis, I ask myself, what is my true calling as a parent? What do I want for my children, and how will I work for that today?
I want them to grow up feeling safe, connected, and whole. I want them to be seen, loved, and known for exactly who they are. I want them to learn the skills that will help them follow whatever path and purpose they are called to in life, as long as it is in service of others as well as themselves. I want them to be kind, compassionate, loving, and full of gratitude and joy.
But more importantly, I want them to grow up in a world where these statements are true for all children. I want them to encounter friends, partners, coworkers, and neighbors for whom love and joy are alive and thriving. Where people they meet and connect with and love have been able to work through and heal from life’s suffering and trauma, who see a future full of opportunities for growth and prosperity rather than fear.
We do not live in that world today, and white perfectionist parenting will not get us there.
When I feel compelled to advocate for my children I will ask myself, will this benefit all children or just my child? And if I find myself falling back into white perfectionist parenting, I can remind myself that to be a good parent is to bring all children into my circle of care.
What world do you want for your children? How will you channel your energy, resources, love, and devotion into the work that will make that world a reality for them?