April 2017

Woke-ing the Baby: The Case for Babysitting as Radical Activism

As it has for many progressive families across the country, the steady stream of protesting that followed Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 has added a new challenge to my family’s daily routine.

by Mara Caelin

As it has for many progressive families across the country, the steady stream of protesting that followed Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 has added a new challenge to my family’s daily routine. At the time of the Women’s March on Washington, my baby was just under seven months old and not particularly inclined to be out in yelling crowds for eight hours straight. Graciously, my partner volunteered to stay home on baby duty while I marched. But we would face this dilemma time and time again: who protests and who parents? On the occasions that we tried to bring the baby with us, we needed to leave the protest almost immediately.

Photo courtesy of Mara Caelin.

A few months into this new life as a weekly protestor, I sat in a Swing Left meeting with other parents in my position.  Several parents, like myself, had drawn the activist straw on that particular day and were there solo; others had come with children in tow. A lawyer with a baby strapped to her chest remarked that when the ACLU called for legal volunteers  to help the Muslim detainees at Dulles Airport she had wanted to go but could not arrange a babysitter on such short notice.

At that point it occurred to me (belatedly, the result of several layers of privilege I experience as a middle-class woman in a two-parent household) that my family was not alone in experiencing these difficulties.  The challenges of juggling childcare needs have larger consequences in terms of who is able to take leadership roles in political organization. While I have a partner with whom I can share childcare duties, many parents soldier on with less or no support. Childcare expenses and related concerns may provide significant barriers for single parents, for low-income parents without an affordable childcare  option, and for women who are often expected to provide the domestic and nurturing labor that enables male partners to engage civically.

If the current progressive movement that is flourishing in the wake of Trump’s election is going to be a movement inclusive of women and the working class, then it must raise them up as leaders and work to remove barriers to their participation at every level of activism.

One way to do this is to reframe our understanding of what the labor of activism looks like:  activism is not just attending the meetings yourself but also providing practical support to an activist whose voice might otherwise not be heard.

Image courtesy of WokeBabysitting.com.

As I shared this insight with my partner and a friend (who happens to be a professional web developer), they said, “Ok, let’s do it.”  A few short hours later, we had created an online prototype for Woke Babysitting, a website that would serve as a way for activist parents who needed support to send a request to a body of willing volunteer babysitters in the DC metro area.

The idea was soon validated as, two days after sharing the prototype on social media, hundreds of people had viewed the website, a dozen had already signed up as local volunteers, and several parents had already made requests. Furthermore, we had received media inquiries from The Washington Post and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, as well as one tartly-worded summary of the project published on the conservative site HeatStreet that claimed, “When you get back from the bar (or wherever else you happen have your post-protest karmic transfer Reiki meeting), your children will be waiting with Black Lives Matter signs, subversive art projects, or having heard politically correct bedtime stories.”

While I still struggle to understand the dangers of politically correct bedtime stories, there have been clear issues and limitations with Woke Babysitting. Perhaps the problem on the highest order is that the people who are most likely to volunteer for babysitting, as well as the people most likely to be accepted as babysitters, are women. While the transfer of this labor from working-class women onto more affluent women would still provide greater access to participation and leadership for an important group of activists, it does little to change the assumption that the supportive labor that enables activism is the province of women.

Photo courtesy of Mara Caelin.

On a more nuts-and-bolts level, however, legal liability is a huge concern when one is essentially creating a politically-charged CraigsList for babysitters. While two members of our three-person team are parents, none of us are either lawyers or childcare professionals. A lawyer who volunteered some of her time to answer our questions cast doubt on the power of a disclaimer to actually protect us from liability should something go wrong during babysitting. Groups with similar goals like the DC Childcare Collective (active since 2005) have a different model where they train babysitting volunteers who provide childcare for the events of partner organizations. While this model reduces risk, the tradeoff is that their reach is limited to activism within that handful of organizations.

Without the expertise to train everyone who may volunteer for Woke Babysitting and without the legal resources to defend against any grievances that may come out of it, Woke Babysitting has been tabled indefinitely. But while this project has faced roadblocks, the demand for this sort of work is real. If you or someone you know is interested in donating time and work to this cause, check to see if there is a childcare collective near you. If there is not, consider reaching out to parents you know within your community for whom childcare may be a barrier to political engagement and volunteer to babysit or to help them organize a Google or Facebook group of friends and acquaintances dedicated to this purpose. And please, don’t forget to bring your best politically correct bedtime stories.


Mara Caelin is a media analyst, mother, and progressive activist. She holds an M.A. in American Studies from George Washington University and lives and works in Northern Virginia with her partner and 11-month old baby. She can be contacted here.

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1 comment on “Woke-ing the Baby: The Case for Babysitting as Radical Activism

  1. Pingback: Editors’ Pick: Our Favorites from a Year of #ActivistHistory – The Activist History Review

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