Toddler Activism: How One Mother Balances Familial and Civic Responsibility

Some days, as a parent to a toddler, I feel like I exchanged the big turbulent world for a tiny turbulent one of my own making.

My new world involves skinning and slicing apples; pretend-drinking bath-water “soup”; enforcing constantly (to mixed results) the need to take turns; cleaning up after countless poop explosions; kissing wounds; singing lullabies; keeping mental notes of everything—what foods were consumed each day, which shoes are growing too small, where I’ve last seen “doll.”


Sometimes the big world pierces through the domesticity, shocking me back to a global mindset. Lately I can’t stop thinking about the unfathomable cruelty of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. I watch my daughter putting socks on her stuffed rabbit or eating frozen blueberries while engrossed in Daniel Tiger and think about how a trauma like that would live in her bones.

And I will never forget scrolling through the news on my phone in the early morning hours two years ago while nursing her at three months and discovering a terrorist had murdered dozens of people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. My sinking horror as the reports rolled in and the victim count grew. The way she unlatched and turned her head, her peaceful breath, the warm weight of her body in my arms. My racing heart and the rising sun.

Pre-motherhood I would have channeled my despair into immediate action by attending a vigil or protest. But as a deeply exhausted, brand-new mom to a sleep-averse, reflex-ridden infant, I didn’t—or couldn’t—respond that way. I was consumed instead by a static despair. I spent every spare minute over the next few weeks reading first-hand accounts of the shooting and sobbing over the heartfelt eulogies of the victims’ families.

The truth: There isn’t always something to do. Sometimes our job is to simply pause in the wake of a tragedy and feel it. This is one of the strangest and most bittersweet blessings of motherhood—the way it forces us to slow down and reckon with reality.

But in these moments I also note my lapsed activism and wonder, was choosing to become a mother ultimately a selfish act? But how can it be when it demands such profound selflessness day in and out?


“This is one of the strangest and most bittersweet blessings of motherhood—the way it forces us to slow down and reckon with reality.”

My parents raised us to be rabble rousers.When my daughter was an infant, I tried to sustain that tradition. I put her in a carrier and joined millions of my sisters at the Women’s March. I plopped her in a stroller and marched in small circles with dozens of my neighbors. One particular protest I remember standing behind barricades with a handful of others, facing off opposition who were hurling insults our way. I held a sign that said, “If you build a wall, I will teach my children to tear it down.” One older man looked at me with utter disgust and screamed, “What are you doing? Take that baby home.”

This vitriol stuck with me. I think because I knew we had been one step away from encountering violence. I stopped bringing her to protests. With no outlet for my endless outrage over the past two years, hopelessness has sometimes crept in. So I sign more petitions and donate, whenever I can, to worthy causes. But there is nothing like solidarity in action—the sound of so many voices rising for what’s right and good. This is how my faith in humanity has historically been restored.

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Photo courtesy of Coriel Gaffney

After the Parkland shooting, I wanted to join the March for Our Lives in Manhattan but there was no way my baby-turned-toddler would tolerate the crowds or being stationary for long. So I reached out to a few neighbors about creating our own mini-march in our Brooklyn neighborhood. Word spread, and about a dozen families showed up. I brought kazoos, maracas, the board book Feminist Baby and a picture book about kindness. Someone else brought cardboard and markers. Another, snacks.

The little ones drew squiggles on the cardboard and the older toddlers dictated messages for their grownups. My three-year-old niece, who was told we were marching to remind people to be kinder, asked her mom to write the words, “Be nice to mommies. Be nice to daddies. Be nice to babies.” My two-year-old daughter was simply psyched to shake her shaker.

We marched around that park shouting, “The children go marching one by one…” and “Hey hey ho ho, the NRA has got to go!” Some strangers joined in. Others simply smiled as we passed, or gawked. My daughter refused to stay in her stroller and kept bee-lining for the playground. We marched with the group for ten minutes before I surrendered to her demands.

“…there is nothing like solidarity in action—the sound of so many voices rising for what’s right and good.”

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Photo courtesy of Coriel Gaffney

Ten minutes for all that prep, but it was worth it. Motherhood is, in large part, about accepting quality over quantity. Short-lived as it was, we had come together with our neighbors to express our hearts. Our children got to hear the power of their collective voices and we got to demand a world worthy of them. A country where guns no longer outnumber people. Where kindergarteners do not have to do lockdown drills. Where you could send your child to school without fearing they might not return.

The project of raising humans in this world is complicated. I think about how to remain civically engaged constantly. I want my daughter to learn the lessons I did growing up and I desperately want her to inherit a better world. But I also know that I am limited in how I can participate, at least for now, and I am making my peace with that.

In fact, motherhood might be an opportunity to actually live my values more consistently. The decisions I make as a parent are likely more impactful than attending a protest anyway. Where will I send her to school? How will I teach her about privilege, prejudice or poverty? How will I show her to care for the earth? How will I model kindness?

I left the cardboard signs that we carried at our mini-march in the lobby of my apartment building for weeks afterward. I suppose I needed their symbolism. Every morning on our way out the door, my daughter would point to them and exclaim, “Mommy! Marching!” And I would say something along the lines of, “Yes, baby, we did march. Want to do it again sometime?” She always said yes.

We are leaving my daughter’s generation a whole lot of damage to repair. They will have every right to be furious with us. My hope is that they will also have the tools to channel that righteous fury into action. And that, if and when their turn comes, they will know how to raise their own children into engaged and hopeful citizens, too.★



Coriel O’Shea Gaffney received her MFA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York (CUNY), where she was the recipient of the CCNY Teacher-Writer Award and the Jerome Lowell Dejur Award in Poetry. Publications include: Literary Mama, Elephant Journal, Manifest-Station, City Limits, Lyre, Lyre and Vision through Words. A certified yoga teacher, she is currently pursuing her dual degree in Early Childhood General Education and Special Education. Coriel lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two-year-old daughter. Read her Motherhood Manifesto here.

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