My Mother Wears Combat Boots

Jessica Mills is a partnered mother of two children, ages 7 and 1. She is also an activist, artist, a touring musician (who plays saxophone with Citizen Fish), and a first time book author. I've been reading her column of the same name in Maximumrocknroll (MRR) for years. We've traded zines, emails, and crossed virtual paths as "mama-writers" (although not in person yet, but will soon!). In 2007, both of us came out with our first books on independent, small presses. I called her on the phone to chat about the process of becoming a first time author. We come from the same background (zines, mutual aid and DIY community) and so it was really cool to talk with her; after we had gotten our book deals, we also shared the overwhelming fear at a certain point that we were not up to this opportunity.
In Jessica's case, she told herself "don't be a foolish loser – this is your dream, take it." For me, I leaned on the support of writer-mama and radical-librarian friends, which helped me through the terror of the process of writing a book, which had always been my dream as well. We have our differences, too: I'm a single mother and she isn't; "Daddy 'Nesto," as their two daughters call him, gave Jessica a lot of support and encouragement for which she is very thankful. Also, instead of having an 18-year-old daughter, like I had, who encouraged me and left me alone to work on my book, Jessica had to write this book with a new baby!
My Mother Wears Combat Boots was a massive undertaking, finishing at 320 pages. It's an impressively intelligent and well-organized endeavor: full of practical and personable writing from her own experience and including resources from other radical parents, side-bars and book indexes in back. To compare and contrast our books: Jessica uses her column as a departure point to write detailed chapters from pregnancy and newborn care to battling isolation and going back to work; from discipline notes, setting up co-operative childcare to gender-coding, toddlers cursing, and early schooling issues. She set out to "debunk some myths" such as "hospital birth is the only choice, that only ‘stay-at-home' moms can successfully breastfeed, that it takes a shit ton of money to have a child, the super-mom myth, that it's time to ‘settle down', and that you can't do certain things anymore (like go on tour with your band) once you have a kid." She also includes topics not touched on by other pregnancy and parenting manuals, like taking your child to a protest and forming your own baby bloc.
My book is a compilation of the best of 16 years of my zine (from 1990 – 2006). The Future Generation: Zine-book for Subculture Parents, Kids, Friends & Others retains its zine-y feel but was edited to follow the personal narrative of my daughter growing from infancy to teenage-hood. It also includes other topics such as anarchism, anthropology, sociology, personal history, single parenthood, and class conscious children's liberation. Both of our books encompass ideals and actions, theories and experiences from books, ourselves and others. Beyond parenting, both have to do with community. I thought it would be interesting to interview her in the context of a punk rock background and cultural movement.
The interview:
China: Your book has an obvious punk parent slant. It also originates from the seminal punk zine Maximumrocknroll (MRR), yet its tag line is "for the rest of us". I don't want to limit your audience in this interview, since you basically wrote an up-to-date progressive parenting manual that is of interest to all kinds of parents that might not define themselves as punks, or even button hole themselves into any category. Who do you see as your book's target audience?
Jessica: While I largely wrote from my personal experience & self-chosen sub-cultural context (political-punk), I attempted to speak to the broader spectrum of "progressives / radicals". I see the book's target audience as non-status-quo / non-conventional young parents-to-be & new parents of babies / preschoolers who are looking for the proverbial instruction manual. Also more seasoned progressive parents who'd like to read another's parenting journey through the waters they've already tread themselves. And hopefully, also those who are not planning on having kids of their own, to give them glimpses of the importance and clues for how to be a good ally to parents and kids in their chosen communities. Before the thought of having a kid ever crossed my mind, I think I would have benefited from reading a book like this - I wouldn't have been so naive going into becoming a parent and I would have been better able to recognize, understand and aid the daily struggles and needs of parents in my midst - like my band-mates and fellow politically active folks.
China: In 1997, an issue of my zine (#8 "resistance") was reviewed in MRR as being full of "hippy shit"—because it had child-raising issues in it—and that "it was good, if you liked that kind of thing". This was ironic because for one, there were some really pertinent issues about struggling with being a radical mom of a 9-year-old, and falling through the holes of the subculture support network. (This essay, by the way, actually became my first column in Slug & Lettuce.) Also, I came of age in the DC area with "Hippy" being one of the biggest insults in the punk scene. It was equated with sell-out, soft, hippy-dippy, and a revolution that failed (I don't see it this way anymore). Back in 1997--them was still fighting words! My co-editor/housemate at that time, a punk since the tender age of 12 and now a mama in her 20s, wrote in a letter defending raising children as punk rock. This was not the first time the MRR letter column contained a letter justifying punks having kids to the greater community: earlier, Andrea (NYC) wrote a letter in defense of her choice to give birth and raise a child up with the ideals dear to her. The predominant notion then was that it was irresponsible to give birth to a child because of the population explosion. Hers was a very serious and thoughtful letter. Nowhere in your book do I see you act defensive of your actions, choices, or just the very fact that you are a parent, or that you are a punk parent. It seems to me that you, while being only a half a generation after mine, are on the crest of a new wave--unapologetic punk parents creating alternatives and dialogue in a community that is coming around to support their choice. Have things really changed as much as I think they have?
Jessica: When I was invited to start writing a column for MRR, I was given free-reign to choose any topic to write about. After becoming a parent and after the "Punks Having Kids" theme issue came out in 2000, choosing a punk-parent themed column seemed an obvious choice. I needed to talk about it and it felt like I'd be filling a needed niche. If I was choosing such an uncool and easily criticized topic within the punk scene, then I remained oblivious to how unpopular my choice was. I received a lot of positive feedback right away. Maybe that's because one obvious thing that has changed is that punks are getting older. And a lot of us are having kids. One punk slogan, "Never trust anyone over 30" has made quite a few of us step back and take a look in the mirror. We don't see the face of punk youth culture anymore, but we still see a punk. Aging is a funny process – I trust myself more now that I'm in my 30s. I'm more fierce and ideal driven but less reckless and reactionary. Maybe another change relates to more awareness. For example, to regard the right to choose to not have a child as the only or the best choice is too simple-minded and seriously overlooks individual freedom. Supporting choice means supporting those who choose to have a child just as much as it means supporting those who choose not to. The "thank you for not breeding" sentiment as it relates to the notion of over-population has not been limited to the punk scene. It was rampant among radical environmental groups in the 80s and 90s, too. I think there's been more awareness to discredit this sentiment and show it for what it is – misguided, sexist and classist reactionary bullshit – and more analysis on how the unequal distribution of resources and the undemocratic, environmentally disastrous ways goods are produced -- which is, of course something to better fight against than those in our shared sub-cultures who are having children.
China: How have your punk ethics served you as a parent? I always found it an invaluable quality, in myself as a parent, that I cared less what society thought and could ignore others' opinions more when deciding to go down a less traveled path. In my early days of being in the punk rock community (early 80s), it was not uncommon to have people stop, stare, yell, or want to beat you up for looking different. Therefore, it felt pretty easy for me, as a parent, to continue to go my own way – with attitude - in ways I hadn't seen other parents go before. Being a mother in this society can be hard on your self-esteem, and it can be hard to stick up for your child's rights as well when so much is put on your shoulders. My experiences with Punk Rock were a good vitamin to have for these situations. I had already rejected the school system at age 15 when they told me it was the only way to go. I had rejected the system, as what I was told I had to buy into and be. I found others who were living and creating different ways. This led me to trust in my child, as I had learned to trust in myself, and always to believe there are alternatives to a life you didn't want to be living. I have a feeling that your experiences in the punk community set you up for creating DIY solutions to problems you faced, like starting an alternative childcare co-op and organizing childcare for parents who wanted to take part in the FTTA Protests; and then going as a baby bloc when the childcare fell through. (This is so awesome to have this stuff in a parenting book! The way you share your process so we can learn from it; mistakes and successes). Do you think being a part of things like Food Not Bombs helped you to prepare for your activist rad parent organizing to make the solutions you wanted to see?
Jessica: As a parent, my DIY punk ethics have most definitely served me well – for some of the reasons you identified in yourself as well – caring less about what society thought and more about what I thought felt right (like using cloth diapers, extended breast feeding, co-sleeping, wearing my baby, and now that my oldest baby is nearly 8, knowing how to help her dye her hair green and blue instead of forbidding it, ha!). Being involved in punk culture taught me how to live thrifty/frugal yet quite well – an essential ingredient needed for my decision to work less and parent more. (Though I actually work harder and for longer hours when I'm parenting more and working less paycheck work.) I know how to thrift, dumpster, create hand-me-down circles and organize cooperative childcare. Mostly through DIY punk, I got politicized and I know how to avoid mass marketed consumer culture and its patronizing "you need to do things this way / rely on corporations" ideas – as well as marginally participate in it when I need or have to in a careful, conscious way. Through my involvement with Food Not Bombs and projects like Free Radio Gainesville, I learned a lot of organizing skills that I've found are very complimentary to my core parenting philosophy – cooperation, good communication, group decision making, responsibility, patience, standing up to illegitimate authority, and keeping on keeping on when the going gets tough. I think this is all stuff that has and will continue to serve my two kids well, no matter if they embrace as their own, sit on the fence with or outright reject my and their Daddy Nesto's ethics. My hope is not to create clones of ourselves but to help nurture their critical thinking skills so they can be free to responsibly follow their own paths.
China: One great thing with writing about your own experiences, as you go and grow, is the kind of feedback and connections you make with others. You always say at the end of your column in MRR "punk parents get in touch" and one thing I love so much about your book is not only all the factual sidebars and resources, but all the voices you include in your book from other parents. How did you gain confidence enough to share your truths with others (sometimes it's scary to put your words out there) and what did you gain in return from doing so?
Jessica: My confidence to "share my truths" with others started building in 1993 when I put out the first issue of my zine, Yard Wide Yarns (it was a punk, feminist, sometimes humorous & always personal zine). Putting out a zine was something I was really inspired and motivated to do, but when I finally finished my first issue, I felt very vulnerable when I stood back and looked at my finished project and saw how much of myself I had put in there for others to read. I felt like ducking and hiding, like I'd just pitched a fastball towards a huge plate glass window that was sure to shatter. I felt this same feeling after all 7 issues (I averaged one a year) and each time, these feelings would eventually be replaced by encouraging words from friends and through letters, mail orders, reviews, interviews and requests for zine trades from others. It was a huge thing for me to connect with others outside my immediate community of friends who had similar thoughts or experiences as the scene I was coming from was a rather insular one. It was also a huge thing for me to learn that something I had written had helped someone else out in some way; I was also benefiting by hearing from them, learning that certain problems were not rooted in our individual selves, but in larger society's social structures and institutions. Through the wide array of folks my zine introduced me to, I not only gradually gained confidence in my writing and in what I was writing about, but I also gained for the first time a community outside of my immediate, physical, geographically-defined community. Becoming a parent in 2000 was a shocking transition for me and getting in touch with, by way of my MRR column, and sharing experiences with other parents who were also navigating the transition-into-parenthood waters - or with those who were more seasoned than I - was crucial, important and sanity-saving. I've found community building essential in the battle against nuclear family isolation.
China: How does your childcare guide (as most of this book is an in depth taking care of young children manual along with memoir type notes of your expectations, experiences, and lessons learned) differ from others?
Jessica: I set out to write the book I wish I'd had available to me when I was pregnant and becoming a first-time parent. I think my book differs from others I've read in a couple ways. I tried to be very careful to point out that "this is what worked for us / this is what we've learned / this is where I'm coming from" so folks could pick what spoke to them and leave behind what didn't. Some parenting books are more rigid, coming off as "this is how to do things and if you don't, you'll be sorry." Some books I've read ignore that there are different lifestyle choices to account for, as well as fail to address sexism in hetero-partnered parenting, or class issues that effect parenting choices. I've never read a parenting guide that combined personal anecdote, practical advice and political analysis while at the same time examining different parenting philosophies and encouraging parents to pull the best parts of those philosophies, the ones that speak to them, into one that's their very own philosophy and style. My book encourages folks to combine theory and ideals with practice and flexibility. It recognizes that different personality types between parents and kids need to be addressed while parenting, too.
China: We teach children best by modeling. We often learn things by watching others, too, like "monkey see, monkey do". I don't think people are going to be influenced to do something that wasn't in them in the first place, but I know seeing what others do has influenced me, and I, in turn, have influenced others. Knowing my friend Gypsy nursed her son Thor to four, (when my daughter was only 2) gave me a model of seeing an older child nurse so I wasn't freaked out when, wanting to let my child wean when she was ready, nursing stretched on so long past my original expectations. My friend Vikki said she overheard someone once say, "If they can ask for it, they must be too old," and says she thinks she might have felt shamed into weaning earlier if she hadn't had the examples of other mothers around her. Your book can give others the strength to know that they aren't alone, to feel supported in the decisions they want to make as a parent, and that punk ideals don't end at a certain developmental age.
Jessica: I do hope that my book will give others strength in knowing that they are not alone. It's all too easy to feel alone as a new mama with a new baby. I also hope that it can serve as a model for those who do not have a Gypsy in their life like you had or have the examples of other mothers around her like Vikki had. In our society where bottles are the official symbols of babyhood and where breastfeeding rates are much lower than what they should be, it is crucial for those who are experiencing new-mama-insecurity/uncertainty to have parenting models beyond those found in mainstream culture. Though I'm talking about breastfeeding here, the point I'm making can be applied to almost any other parenting issue.
China: On the other side, today I notice more rad parents feeling judged by each other, splintering into little groups, or having a hard time with feeling pressured by notions that they can't (and shouldn't have to) live up to. Back in my day, we didn't have as many labels like "attachment parenting" (there was pretty much just "natural parenting"). Sometimes I feel luckier that I didn't know so much when I was a young parent -you need to find your own way for yourself. How do you feel about this?
Jessica: Addressing the idea of how parents can feel judged by each other and splintering off into little groups, I have most definitely learned how to navigate around this problem over the last 7 years of my own parenting journey. As I wrote in the book, the supposed "Mommy Wars" (between SAHM and working moms) are a myth. And so should hair-splitting among rad parents be viewed as such. To me, those nit-picky judgements are little more than signs of insecurity. I have really appreciated and grown from friends calling me out when I've been judgmental of another's parenting choices. We need to be allying ourselves together over what our common struggles are instead of worrying about, for example, who's co-sleeping and who isn't.
China: I think that my generation of punk contained many self-destructive impulses (like the fact I, like many young punks/death rockers, felt suicidal and often put out cigarettes on my arms). It took some drastic and often cathartic measures to break free of childhood conditioning. I remember the fear of nuclear annihilation at any moment during the Reagan Era. To embrace the fact "we had no future" freed us to live, really live, while we could, no matter what. I was also involved with peace/political punks, early on. Witnessing and participating in actions such as "No Business as Usual" protests, sleeping in a "Shanty Town" on my friend's college campus in order to get the school to divest from South Africa, stopping traffic, throwing flyers to get out information about what was happening with the Contras in Nicaragua—it was always a creative and active, hopeful venue to me. More also because so many people were doing something, rejecting the system, going another way. Seeing Berlin in 1984, before the fall of the wall, and the squatted section of town—it's an impression that sticks in your head forever, the possibilities. One can only be angry for so long before one gets involved in healing, self-discovery, starting to explore and build self-expression and new healthy options. (That is if one is going to survive, which, I have to say, not everyone did.) People used to laugh about the very notion of "punk parent" because the two things seemed counterintuitive, impossible to co-exist. Punks had parents; they weren't parents. Punks were seen as the perpetual angry teenager, but you can't stay angry forever and teenagers, if they don't die, grow up. Of course not everyone has to, or should, have children in order to grow up but having children can be part of that process and also part of a sustainable culture of resistance, to be all ages and not just a youth rebellion. Do your experiences have any parallels to this?
Jessica: Yes and no. Like most adolescent females, I had a lot of anger. I didn't have plans for my future like my parents did. I had self-destructive tendencies and was full of wonder about just who the hell I really was – typical need for self-discovery stuff. I was no stranger to self-medicating my dissatisfaction and angst away. A classic nihilist. Ironically, though, punk gave me more insight into creative possibilities for a more fulfilling future than growing up into a mainstream square would have. I didn't fit into that sterile world. But in the world of punk, DIY and getting turned on to subversive politics through punk, I felt more comfortable and excited to get my shit together as to help create positive change. A big part of me feeling like I had my shit together enough to parent a child is reflected in how I feel about children being raised in freedom; the conscience act of parenting a free child IS creating positive change. You know, "Be the change you wish to see."
China: Could you explain why you wrote, "Parenting is living a life of daily revolution"?
Jessica: I wrote that one sentence because it about sums up the entire book. I'm talking about revolution as "a drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving." Daily, there are new situations to navigate with my kids that test my patience, my commitment to cooperation, mutual respect & trust, non-violent communication and non-punitive discipline. Even a seemingly simple situation like trying to get dinner prepared in a reasonable amount of time while my almost 8 year old is doing her best to get all of my attention on her and her new jump-rope trick and my almost 2 year old is clamoring for attention from either me or her sister can be a real test of patience and the commitments I just mentioned. In situations like that, it would be much easier, in the short term, to rely on tired-out conventional parenting models. I do think that constant, good intent with being patient, not having adult behavior expectations for children, and being committed to things like NVC and non-punitive discipline are revolutionary parenting practices because they are drastically different than the status quo conventional approach to thinking about and behaving towards children. More examples how parenting can be seen as daily revolution instead of as perpetuating the status quo include legitimate authority vs. illegitimate authority, power with vs. power over, in cooperation with vs. in conflict with, negotiation vs. coercion, mutual respect vs. respect for elders/ageist hierarchy, team approach vs. adversarial approach, and control vs. cooperation. My intentions to teach my kids by example things about environmental responsibility, healthy life choices, undoing institutional racism, sexism and classism and how with individual freedom comes responsibility are also part of the daily revolution.
China: Of course Punk can become a tired old cliché too, a new uniform. Do you think it might have helped you to have to accept your daughters "fashion victim" love of polyester Little House on the Prairie style dresses—to have the shoe turned, as they say, and let your sensibilities be insulted by your offspring?
Jessica: Most definitely! Her girly-girl / princess phase taught me that I harbored some control issues that I needed to get over! I learned that what she wanted / needed to wear wasn't about me, it was more about her emerging sense of self and autonomy. And I learned how to be more sensitive to her sensory issues – just because I've never been bothered by T-shirt tags, sock seams or tights making my legs itch didn't mean I could dismiss how those things truly affected her. This is just one example how she has been a great teacher to me.
China: It's a hard balance, isn't it – between respecting your child's autonomy and choices, and protecting her from commercialism. How do you navigate this balance?
Jessica: Yes, it's a hard balance but now that E-J's older, it's easier. She now has her own saved money and we have a TV-free house now as well. One thing I'm really glad that I had the foresight to do, beginning at an early age, is to make her aware of advertisements and commercials and how they are directly targeted at her. She knows what "pester power" is (and how mama don't play that game), the difference between junk food and healthy food, and how to distinguish between want and need. (One way we help navigate a balance is that we tell her that we buy her the things she needs, she buys herself the things she wants.) Plus it helps that we don't shop at the places where kids are more likely to be overwhelmed with shit tons of goods whose marketing is aimed at them. When she has it in her mind that she'd like to buy something, it's her decision. For example, she got some money from her grandparents for Christmas. She asked me to take her to three different stores where she bought herself a pair of stylish shoes, a metal Slinky, a jump rope, a pacifier to help her stop biting her nails, and some blue hair dye. All stuff for which she had genuine desire (for whatever reason), not stuff that had been advertised to her, creating a manufactured desire. It was actually fun and interesting watching her price compare and listening to her talk her reasoning out loud about whether a Slinky or a clump of rubbery, fake spaghetti would be more fun.
China: Why do you think parenting issues have been such late bloomers compared to other issues punk has taken on (like food, gender, health, media)?
Jessica: Maybe because punk is such a youth culture (a culture for youth, not for us geezers parenting youth)? It's much easier for youth to get turned on to new-to-them ideas like vegan/vegetarianism, animal rights, queer liberation, and anti-consumerism than it is for youth to be interested in or ready to become a parent. Part of getting turned on to and embracing new ideas that are different ones than your parents presented you with is rooted in self-assertion away from one's parents. So it makes sense to me why parenting, as an issue, wasn't sooner seen in punk culture. It's just more commonly seen now because enough of us who've gotten older and who still identify with punk culture have had kids. Punk itself has gotten older and so have plenty of punks.
China: I have to disagree with you on this notion that people and (punks) are getting older and so now rad parenting is more common. I think the lag in development involved a lot more forces like the western anti-child slant, white middle class alienation, the prolonged age to start childbearing in some circles (especially among professionals and the artist class too, where having children is more rare) and the fact that feminism has still not discovered, let alone incorporated, a liberated-form of motherhood--some kind of fundamental oppression that is still barely addressed. Also, it doesn't take into account those of us in the subculture who chose motherhood at an early age: I had my daughter at 21, and Gypsy, whom I mentioned earlier, had her child at 15. There has been a societal change that I can't put my finger on. There are many more alternative types willing to have children now and thus a lot more discussion on these topics. I talked to some kids in the bar the other day who said, "parenting is punk" and blew my mind, bringing up the issues I have always argued for. It's not that they wanted to have children themselves or that you have to have children, but just to understand that parents and children can be part of a creative life affirming radical culture of resistance and not just the status quo. I know you're younger than me (I'm 41), but not A LOT younger, yet there is definitely a generational difference between us (your daughters are almost 8 and 2 and mine is about to turn 20!) Anyway, how old are you and how old were you when you had your first child?
Jessica: I'm 37 now. I had Emma-Joy when I was 29. Your points are well taken. And I hear what you're saying about plenty of people choosing parenthood at a younger age, but it's also true that the older a population gets, the more kids will be popping out.
China: Do you think that you have you written the "perfect parenting for all occasions" handbook or do you think people should read and make up their own minds about what part to use by what resonates with them?
Jessica: I most definitely do not think I have written the perfect handbook, though it is, like I mentioned before, the book I wish I had access to when first starting to tread the parenthood waters. (That What to Expect When You're Expecting series can kiss my ass.) There is no such thing as perfect parenting for all occasions. I think it's all about intent and doing the best you can - learning from others and from your own mistakes, and being able to pause, reflect and change things up when your gut (or your kid!) tells you something you're doing just doesn't feel right. And most definitely, like I mentioned above, like with all parenting books, people should take what resonates with them and leave behind the rest. Parenting is a one size does not fit all adventure of trial and error.
China: Also: is punk still not dead?
Jessica: Nope, it's still not dead and won't ever die. There are armies of young punks all over the world creating and reaffirming for themselves a vibrant subculture of what punk is, making their own scene instead of waiting to consume one that is manufactured, advertised and sold to them.
China Martens is the author of The Future Generation: Zine-book for Subculture Parents, Kids, Friends & Others (Atomic Book Company, March 2007).