Notes on Childcare at the Wisconsin Occupation

by China Martens

Working to create support for parents and children is one of my main forms of political activism (see, so after reading reports of how the protesters had settled into a camp within the Capitol Building that included childcare, I wanted to find out more. I asked Ryan Harvey (who had written about the childcare station in his “Dispatches from the Madison Fight #3, also here on to put me in touch with an organizer. Mary Jo, a mother of three active in the protests, responded to my query.

Caretakers of young children will appreciate this: When I finally got voice- to-voice phone contact with Mary Jo she said that, ironically enough, she was having childcare issues at the moment. She couldn’t get to the Capitol to get her press pass on time this morning (she’s with radio), and now the kids are throwing flour all over the kitchen floor because she is on the phone with me. “Gotta go, China, call me back!” In a bit she called back and rushed out this informal interview over the telephone. Day-by- day the situation is changing. These are the typed notes from our chat on Thursday March 3, 2011:

Mary Jo said that people/families are already in crisis in their daily life. Being at the Capitol and holding space like this puts them in further crisis. Camping out in the Capitol building for almost 20 days is creating stress.   Authorities only let one person go in and out of the building at a time – it’s not clear to families if they can get back in, but they can. But it’s okay, since people need to rest. It’s been three weeks and they are regrouping: this is going to be a long battle.

Childcare is important space and (she designates it as) stress-free space!

They were asked to move yesterday  (March 2nd) and the childcare space had been targeted since they were the only ones on the second floor. It was started by mothers looking for a quiet space to relax and recoup away from the main action. The police told them they must leave for the building to be cleaned. When I asked if they were still in the building, Mary Jo replied, “OH YES – we are still there and we are not moving. If you move – you’re done!” Mary Jo is holding space for children who will also be affected by this bill and for their parents who have come to protest. Her vision is to lobby for families.

How did (what Mary Jo has dubbed) “The North Wing Family Center” start? First a friend R. started by getting meals for youth and putting their art and other flyers on the wall. That helped change the space and set the tone. Others started hanging murals and banners and stuff. L. had a baby. Put up signs for childcare. Two moms, S. and L. just sat with each other, and then L. spent the night. The next day Mary Jo came. She asked what the mothers wanted and together they made a list.

She tells me that lots of power plays go on within the Capitol – some try dictating what they should do, and how others should do things. Some of the people said, “We should compromise, they want us to leave–we should”. However, Mary Jo is part of those who say “No.”

The mothers had started it by needing a space to rest, and they found it. But by the next day, there were already some (without children) that were trying to kick them out of their space – which is a really good space. “Stake your ground,” her friend recommended. Half the moms decided they would leave like they were asked to. Mary Jo says, “I’m not leaving, I’m going to sit here and hold space.” The moms left, but a half an hour later they came back because they had been shooed out of the first floor when the hearings started and there was nowhere else to go. There were three moms. Then I. and E. with her two-year-old made five moms.

I ask if anyone who’s not a mom is helping out now? Yes, Mary Jo says. C. (a male without children of his own) is holding the space now. She tells me that conceptually the idea came from M.G. (another male) who said “Everyone is not here,” and then they had a long conversation about what they could do for families. The Children’s Museum is a block away and has offered some support with a discount on admission. They are strategizing about what to do next.

 These are Mary Jo’s key points about the family space they have created:

-We are holding space for the people who aren’t here yet

-Not everyone is at the table

-Everyone is affected.

-If we don’t put family first and foremost in the movement, the movement will fail!

Mary Jo tells me a little more about her struggles with holding space. “I held that ground [where we had set up the families’ area] at least 3 times where it became very unsure and I had to be very strong and clear. And people aren’t used to that in this day and age. I’m uncompromising. I call it the battle of the north wing.” The most recent incident had happened the day before. Five police officers came in, very forcefully, with their shoes on (You couldn’t ask them to take off their shoes. She had instituted a “no shoes” rule at the door because snow was tracking in and getting very dirty, and she wanted to keep the space clean for babies crawling on the ground). They pushed away the rocking chair she had brought from home at the door. “Excuse me!” she said. A policeman said, “I’ve worked here for 21 years and I can do what I want, I have immunity.” “What does that mean?” she asked. He answered that it means you can come and go, as you like. Mary Jo replied that she has immunity too! “The police told us that we needed to get our stuff out! But we ignored them and they didn’t come back. You just don’t leave when they say!”

Bringing the children to the occupation is good for the kids, Mary Jo tells me – and its good for the community! People recharge and ground themselves watching children.

Mary Jo is good at showing how an action is built from the conversations and actions of many. She tells me another kernel of wisdom to ponder. C. (who works as a “mama’s little helper” and helped Mary after the birth of the last of her three young children) said “Families need backup at home. The GOP wants to affect us in our communities and homes.”

Mary Jo expands: “There is a whole tier of people who cannot get to the Capitol. It’s too intense there. But they are supporting the occupation from the outside. We need to figure out how to increase the support there.”

Mary Jo wants to emphasize how parents are organizers and that many parents who are organizing this action at the Capitol have children at home. Parent organizers first seek support from their own families but even their extended support systems are not enough during this time. She asks other organizers that she knows are parents how they are doing; and how they are keeping things sane at home. What has been happening is there are a lot of typical gender divisions: many of the mother activists are staying home with the children while the father activists continue more visibly working on these issues. She and her husband are currently hiring a nanny to stay home with the children as she continues to organize but she is well aware of the fact that not everyone can afford this. What Mary Jo would like to express to the reader is that the struggle in Madison is going to come to us all. We need to reach out and ask for help. The reason Mary Jo and others continue working to keep a Family space at the Capitol occupation is to work towards collectively supporting children and parents, primarily mothers–those most affected by the new state government’s policies.

Note: As of Monday, March 7 the “North Wing Family Center” is no more. All their stuff has been removed. Concerned participants are planning what to do next and how to rebuild in a new setting or format to support families at the protest. I will post up more information when I receive it.

For more background on the larger protest in Madison, Wisconsin:

Inspired by “Did You Know There Was a Pop-Up Kindergarten in Tahrir Square?” :

And with thanks to Ryan Harvey for his reports and putting me in touch with  the North Wing Family Center: