Co-operative Living as Path to Revolutionary Parenting

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

Co-operative Living as Path to Revolutionary Parenting. Sidestepping government and market-based childcare

Many families today live in discrete units, geographically distant from extended family or kin, parenting in isolation. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center , bell hooks  critiques this state of parenting, arguing for tax-funded public childcare centers and the equal participation of men in childcare. As parents living in Stone Soup Co-op , we contend that cooperative living provides an alternative means of realizing hooks’s call for revolutionary parenting.

Cooperative living affirms and supports a variety of relationships, breaking down the assumptions and practices surrounding the nuclear family. In this way, alternative family constellations are created and de-pathologized. Parents in our community are bolstered by the presence of other adults with whom they can make decisions about the household and share responsibility for its upkeep; children develop siblinglike relationships with each other and gain adult role models who reflect a wide range of gender/racial/ethnic/sexual orientation/faith identities; and nonparenting adults have the opportunity to take on nurturing roles and engage with young people in ways that can be hard to develop otherwise.

Using a consensus model of decisionmaking, cooperative living sets up a democratic model of communal child rearing. It seeks the participation of all stakeholders, including children. Further, the consensus process allows for equitable spaces that can interrogate racist/sexist/classist/heterosexist practices within the co-op. When Jasson’s daughter wanted to get a pet, she came to a house meeting with a proposal for a gerbil. The members of the community discussed the pros and cons of a gerbil together. Although her proposal did not pass, Nisa gained a pedagogical experience of active democratic participation. Unfortunately, there are few places today where children can access and actively participate in the decision-making process.

Just as significantly, cooperative living changes the structures and politics of resource accessibility, opening up alternatives to traditional nuclear family living arrangements, like single-family homeownership. Our co-op shares communally in financial responsibilities, such as mortgage debt, property taxes, repairs, utilities, major appliances, and food, which lowers costs for each individual or family. In turn, the risks associated with home ownership are also distributed across the membership, so individuals and families are less likely to be devastated by unexpected or catastrophic expenses.

Additionally, we share a great deal of social capital. The last time Jennie’s son was sick, a nurse in the community looked him over, another member loaned a car to take him to the doctor, and a third drove them so she could sit in the back with him and comfort him during the ride. The culture of abundance that exists in cooperative living situations allows parents to reframe their relationship with work. This could mean reducing work hours to return to school, take on part-time work instead of full-time, or shift from a two-income household to one.

In our opinion, this reframing of work goes much further to set the conditions for revolutionary parenting than setting up taxfunded public childcare centers. Although we don’t contradict their importance as an alternative to market-based options (especially for working class and mothers of color who seldom have the option to choose between work and childcare), governmentbased childcare cannot reconfigure childcare work. By reinforcing the work-childcare dichotomy, government-based childcare essentially reaffirms the classist and heteronormative structures of the nuclear family system rather than challenging them. Further, it separates child-rearing from our everyday lives, ensuring that parenting (and mothering, especially) continues to be undervalued and unsupported.

We live in a society where men are not expected to participate in, and are often divorced from, the world of childrearing until they become biological parents. In order to resocialize men for primary parenting responsibilities, there must be real opportunities for them to engage in child-rearing. Traditional living spaces or dependence on childcare centers prefigure men to uphold and maintain patriarchal modes of childrearing, whereas cooperative living exposes men to the knowledge, skills, and firsthand experience of childcare. Moreover, the culture and structures of cooperative living reframe typically gendered work (not just parenting) as collective work. All members, regardless of gender, are equally expected to cook, clean, wash dishes, do laundry, pay bills, and complete minor repairs. When we allow only market and government solutions for childcare, we miss the opportunity to create the praxis needed for revolutionary parenting. We need to create and support new models, frameworks, structures, and institutions that assume that the responsibility for childcare is collective. Through resource sharing, consensus, and shared responsibility for domestic (women’s) work, cooperative living creates a practical way to realize hooks’s call for revolutionary parenting. ◊

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