The Baby Steps of Change
In late August 2020, amidst a pandemic, social uprisings, and increased impacts of climate change, I had a baby. Jade Selene was born at quite a moment in our collective history. So much is happening politically, socially, and environmentally, and the pandemic has thrown how we process time for a loop. While all of this is looming so large, when Jade arrived, my world also got very small. Days are scheduled around feedings and naps and diapers. This has been such an intimate, precious time for my husband and I to be with our child, in what feels like a chaotic period in our lives.
As I watch her every day, I’m struck by all of the changes that are happening in our little world. And it has made me reflect on what I have learned from her when it comes to change and whether there are any lessons for the changes taking place in our communities. I could basically copy and paste the core principles from Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown or the living systems principles from Kathy Allen’s book Leading From the Roots here because they also seem to be the principles of parenting. Coming up on my three short months of motherhood, here are three things that Jade has taught me so far about change:
1) Change comes in spurts: Every few weeks, Jade suddenly looks different to me. She’s bigger, heavier, more expressive, and more alert. Seemingly overnight, holding our little potato felt more like carrying a sack of potatoes. Her growth doesn’t happen on some kind of graceful, linear timeline. It happens in fits and spurts, starts and stops, not at all and then immediately. My normally calm and curious child will turn into a screaming, starving vampire for a few days, only to have grown again in that short time. And each time I turn to my husband and say, “Look at how different she looks again.”
Changes in our movements, organizations, and institutions have never happened in a smooth way either. Ricardo Levins Morales recently wrote a beautiful piece called Between the Waves. He talks about the changes necessary in the police system coming in waves:
That’s how it is with tides. The waves of a rising tide roll onto the sand and slide way, rise and slide. Each time (or every few times) reaching a little farther. We’re hearing it now. “The window of opportunity is closing,” we’re told, for making changes to the police system in this country. No, societal change comes on the tides, not through the window.”
This framing is so helpful to me. I shouldn't expect change to come only when the timing is right. And when change feels like it is in a lull, maybe we are at a moment between the waves.
2) Little actions make big movements: Jade is constantly moving. Her wiggles are the signs of her instinct to crawl. Her little head lifts are practice for when she will start to roll over. She first started batting at toys that were dangled in front of her with clenched fists. Then she started opening and closing her fists around the toys. Now she’s grasping at all kinds of things in her reach. The gradual steps, building muscle and memory, and the constant practice leads to these milestones.
One of my favorite concepts in change work is fractals. Every journey is made up of thousands of steps, and they had to start with the first one. With the urgency of issues that we are facing in the world, we desire big impacts and fast. Sometimes the way to achieve that is through small actions of many people moving in the same direction. Our election process is a good example of this. To elect representatives we trust, who will make decisions in the best interest of the country, who will actively work on the issues that are affecting our communities, we need millions of people to vote for positive change. And mobilizing those voters takes volunteers, activists, and others making phone calls, writing letters, encouraging people to vote early, or driving folks to the polls. These are all of the little actions that lead to big movements.
3) We need to embrace paradox: Before Jade was born, I wondered what kind of mother I would be. Or how being a mother would change my identity. I have sat with how motherhood makes me feel, and I feel two things very strongly, kind of like a Yin and Yang.
I feel motherhood very gently. I felt soft and warm, sweet, loving, and calm. I feel kind and nurturing. I feel like a blanket.
I also feel motherhood very fiercely. My feelings are sharp, focused and deep. I feel ferocious in my love for her and everything around her. Her presence has made me more ardent about issues that I used to think I already cared passionately about.
These gentle and fierce opposing feelings are not either/or. They do not exist separately from each other. They exist simultaneously, twinning in my relationship to Jade and in my identity as a mother.
For change to happen, we need to embrace paradox. A few weeks ago, Dr. Elizabeth Swain, co-founder and co-director of Climate Interactive, put out a short series of tweets that encapsulate this idea for the climate movement:
We need individuals and systems. We need urgency and we need time. We need to do things and we don’t have to do everything. It’s both/and.
I will likely share more lessons about change the more that Jade keeps teaching them to me. Until then, I’ll leave you with the most important lesson of all: get some sleep.
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