There are so many ways to make a difference. So why has becoming a mother made choosing what to do and then doing it so difficult? Suzy Edwards reflects on whether she really can be an activist and a mum
I made the decision to ‘save the world’ when I was 15 – reading Ecologist magazine and feeling so devastated at the pictures of the rainforests burning in Amazonia. I really did feel it was down to me – and this feeling continued for the next 20 or so years: if I didn’t do something, then it wasn’t going to happen.
I threw myself into the task. My professional life was ‘environmental’ and I was on the board of Friends of the Earth, a trustee of another small charity, and founder of my local climate network, some climate conversation cafés and my neighbourhood local food festival. Then I began working at the place that has changed my life in so many ways. It’s a social enterprise in Devon and its mission is to “touch hearts, stimulate minds and inspire committed action for a truly sustainable world”. It holds spiritual fulfilment to be as important as environmental and social sustainability, and this is what gradually drew me away from the hectic world of environmental activism that I had been part of.
At Embercombe, we nourish people who have already dedicated themselves to being in action, as well as stirring others who have been too worried about their deficiencies to feel they have anything to contribute. It was the perfect project to lend my effort to. I joined the team in Devon and stayed living in London – but my frequent visits to Devon diminished my involvement in the environmental groups I had been so busy with.
As I slowed my pace of activism – the meetings, the letter writing, the stalls on the high street – I was able to notice the thousands of others all making a massive contribution in so many different ways. With that sort of army on my side, I reasoned, maybe I could give up the idea that I had something so important to offer to planetary survival that I shouldn’t attend to my own small life. Instead I could fulfil my dormant but long-held wish to become a mother. Embercombe touched the parts of me that wanted to dream and let my heart expand – what would it be like to be ‘part of life’ rather than standing on the sidelines looking on at others living and campaigning for them to do it differently?
The answer is pretty complex. During my pregnancy, I discovered deep reserves of peace and an assuredness that all was well. It seemed there was no reason to fear environmental apocalypse. My body chemistry of that time has moved on, yet I still feel fairly calm. Now I worry if it’s just complacency from tiredness that is at its root. My passion for life, for its beauty and wonder, my pain at the casual destruction of Nature all around us, still burn brightly. And I’m now more conscious of the waste and misery of lives lived without love: children in care, ‘criminals’ who never stood a chance in life, neglected older people. This feeds my daily outrage at the inequality of a society that believes in the make-believe of ‘the market’.
So I seem to have all the hallmarks of someone prepared to stand up and do her bit and even go the extra mile for what she believes in. But now when I read about a new campaign to stop a nearby incinerator or I hear talk about inspiring people to reduce their CO2 emissions by 10%, I find my energy for action has completely disappeared. How can this be, when my head tells me I should be even more ‘vested’ in a safer future?
One part of my change of attitude is the sheer physical presence of the small person now in my life, a daughter called Doro with copper-red curls and an eager appetite for words and breast-milk. I treasure her existence and notice how quickly she has reached 2. My husband and I share her care so we can both work part-time, and we feel proud of modelling such a healthy existence. But it does mean there is little ‘time off’ in each week, and finding surplus energy for life outside work and home is a challenge.
The other part of the change that Doro has brought about runs deeper – and I think I’m still coming to terms with it. My head is slower to catch on than my body. Shortly after her birth, I was moved to write a paragraph for myself entitled ‘I do not believe death is the end’. As I looked down at the life that had sprung from me, the mystery of it and yet its simplicity, her presence spoke so eloquently of the endless nature of life. Which changed the heart of me… and yet, perversely, I have found myself still drawn to involvement with the type of groups I had been active in pre-motherhood. But now it doesn’t make a good fit and something has to change. I feel that trusting in life makes sense, and that I should wait, and that something positive to do will come into view. Meanwhile I notice the signs of imminent and catastrophic societal change and wonder what they will bring. Being ‘part of life’ and part of a family certainly brings a new sense of vulnerability.
It seems my definition of activism keeps changing. When I was pregnant and facing into the loss of my activist self, I found myself wanting to replace it with a softer self, determined to be a force for good in my community, creating a cheery face in greeting strangers and friends alike; to be a loving presence amongst those who met me. That isn’t as easy as I once thought: the emotional waters of mothering have been more choppy than I anticipated.
There have been some successes: I’ve encouraged several of my mother-friends to keep working at their relationships with their mothers-in-law, having shared how I’ve done so myself. Is that activism? Whereas effecting global change was once all that mattered to me and all I thought everyone ought to be doing, I now have more respect for the people who do the ‘small’ things like volunteering to drive older people to the doctor. I see the bravery and heart of foster carers and the professionals who work with them. The list of good people I now notice is endless.
And then there are those who do the ‘bigger’ things I so admire. I have a friend, Emily, who with her own small son gathered a posse of mothers with pushchairs to march on the headquarters of Esso and demand action from them. She went on, several years and another child later, to attend the UN Convention on Climate Change and meet the negotiators from countries across the globe, stunning them into attention by introducing herself simply as “a mother, here to represent the voice of children” and then asking them to secure the radical action that will stop global temperatures rising above 1.5 degrees. She continues to raise awareness with her Sing for the Earth campaign. The value of her work doesn’t stop her feeling guilty about the time she has spent away from her family, and she also feels her efforts to be small, given the scale of the problems we face; but she has to make sure her family have her time too.
Even with my own contribution, which is now limited to my two-and-a-half working days, I have met fellow mothers who look at me, with my wonderful job, and say, “I don’t know how you do it” – until they see the state of my home and realise what I am prepared to let slip for the sake of more present and loving days spent intensively with my daughter.
Where next for this mother formerly known as an environmental campaigner? Right now, I feel as emergent as my 2-year-old. I feel that I am joining her in the cocoon, that stage of life where we build ourselves. Two-year-olds inhabit a new stage of being every few days, it seems. My new unfolding is taking a little longer but it’s definitely happening. And just like her, right now I have no idea what the next stage will look like.
Suzy Edwards lives in Ashburton, Devon with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, Doro. She has been part of the management team at Embercombe for the last 4 years. (Accurate at the time this issue went to print).
First published in Issue 27 (Spring 2012) of JUNO: