The cure for activism guilt
I was ten years old when I first took to the streets to protest the patriarchy. My mom took me to a rally and march to end sexual and domestic violence against women. It was a chilly fall night and most of my friends were cozy at home watching Family Ties on beanbag chairs in their family rooms. I remember hopping from foot to foot to keep warm and standing close to my mom while a crowd of women spoke about things I was too young (thankfully) to understand. It was the first time I witnessed collective female outrage and it was mesmerizing.
Growing up, I was the kid who allowed to go to protest rallies but who couldn’t watch Adventures in Babysitting because of its PG-13 rating. (I snuck and saw it anyway at a neighbor girl’s house, the same one who taught me about eyeliner and George Michael). I had no idea how to to save the princess in Super Mario or what happened last week on Beverly Hills 90210, but I could (and did) teach my elementary school classmates anti-Reagan chants in the lunch line and help organize a walk-out at my junior high to protest the Gulf War. Needless to say, my childhood did not exactly resemble that of Mallory Keaton.
I kept up my activism all through college and the years immediately following. I worked for a non-profit and devoted nights and weekends to volunteering for causes. Gradually, though, activism was crowded out by the shifting priorities that come with building a life in early adulthood. My friends were starting to make money and drive nice cars, or at least ones that didn’t break down every five miles. The leaders of the movements I was involved in, on the other hand, were taking the bus and living with their parents. I began to want things other than equal pay and education reform, like $12 cosmopolitans at trendy bars and the ability to retire one day.
So, I shocked the world (or at least my parents) and went to business school. I majored in Finance. It was a topic for which I had little passion but one I knew would offer a stable career and earning potential. I told myself that along the way I’d figure out a way to still do some good in the world.
Activism was surprisingly easy to let go of, like a boyfriend you think you’ll miss but whose name you barely remember after a month. I had moved to the liberal Northeast, and living surrounded by people and politicians who agreed with me made it easy to feel like it wasn’t as important to use my voice. I trusted that with all these like-minded people around, surely someone was out there standing up for my beliefs. Plus, it truly seemed like times had changed. We had a Black president. My gay and lesbian friends could finally get married. Two more women joined the Supreme Court.
Then, November 2016.
At the Women’s March on inauguration weekend I thought about how long it had been since I’d protested anything. Still, standing in the throngs of women (and men) who’d shown up from across the country with their cardboard signs and their outrage, I felt the same current of power I’d experienced as a little girl standing next to my mom in a crowd of angry, determined women.
I was six months pregnant when I attended the March, trying to balance my righteous anger with needing to pee every fifteen minutes. Early on in my pregnancy I’d sworn there would be no place in my life for “mommy guilt”; that pervasive feeling of “not enough” that our culture generously serves up to mothers. For the most part, I haven’t given in to it.
Activism guilt, though, is another story. Activism guilt perches on my shoulder throughout the day; clucking its tongue and telling me I should be doing more. Activism guilt doesn’t care that as a working mom it’s hard enough to eat a square meal or text my best friend back, let alone call my senators or be on the front lines of a protest. It doesn’t care that I’m not in my twenties anymore, flush with spare time and the ability to survive on five hours of sleep a night. Nor does it celebrate the small victories, like when I squeeze in twenty minutes of phone banking for a candidate after wrestling my toddler into bed and before falling asleep on the couch.
Taking action is the only antidote I’ve found for this kind of guilt. In this way activism is like exercise. Start small. Get off the couch. Just move—anything will do. As someone who used to be a super activist this has been hard for me. It’s like being a former marathon runner who now gets winded walking around the block. Some days it’s all I can do even to lace my shoes up.
What helps me on those days is to think of it like one huge relay marathon that we’re all running together. Some people are going to carry the baton for miles, and others are going to carry it a block or two. The only thing that matters is that you do your part.
I’ll likely never again be the kind of activist I was as ten or twenty year-old. I also know that I can never again afford to do nothing. Instead I’ll be operating somewhere in between, channeling my anger and outrage into action, no matter how small.