The Future Generation
China Martens Created Her New Book the Way She Raised Her Daughter--One Day at a Time
If you went to a punk show in Baltimore in the early '90s, you remember Clover Martens. She was the only toddler in attendance, a wispy-haired imp in Goodwill sundresses darting in and out of the crowd of slam dancers and malcontents. Her supermodel-tall mom, China, was always with her, available for a quick snuggle or suckle but otherwise letting her daughter zip around at her own whim.
There was sometimes talk that China Martens didn't have a steady partner to help raise her daughter, that her anarchist principles meant she wasn't going to enroll Clover in school or immunize her. One of two things (or sometimes both) crossed the minds of the callow suburban punks who'd never seen this model of parenting before: That kid is going to have an amazing life, or Is she going to turn out all right?
She turned out great. Seated next to her mom at the dining room table at a reporter's house, the now 19-year-old Nadja (nee Clover) Martens is much curvier and darker-haired than her toddler self would have indicated, but you can tell it's her in the almond-y slant of her eyes and the unselfconscious way she owns the space she occupies, in marked contrast to the cringing unease affected by some teenage girls. She says "please" and "thank you" and asks to interrupt when she's got a good idea. If she's any measure of the validity of an anti-authoritarian rearing, there ought to be Emma Goldman memorial day care centers nationwide.
"This is my new realization of my parent stage right now--of how incredibly great it is," China Martens beams. Her voice is gentle and tentative--it sucks any intimidation out of her prodigious height and enviable slimness. "Like, when you have a baby they think you're the best, and they always want to be near you," she continues. "And then preadolescent--I can't speak for everybody, but I think it's pretty common you start to not like your parents and everything your parents like is not cool. And so when they become a young adult, for the first time in your life you experience [your child] kind of balanced. They don't love you too much, they don't hate you too much, you can have conversations, you have history and in-jokes. Nobody ever told me how great it would be to have a young adult for a child."
That realization is the culmination not only of China's experience as a parent, but as creator of the zine The Future Generation, one of the first publications dedicated to alternative child-rearing. This week, Atomic Book Co. (co-owned by erstwhile City Paper contributor Benn Ray) releases a paperback collection/retrospective of China's magnum opus, a two-decade endeavor that addresses the question "What is an anarchist parent?"
"That's a hard question," China acknowledges, addressing the common conundrum of defining a political movement that resists all dogma and decree. "When you are a parent, by nature you have some control and power over this person who's smaller than you. So [anarchist parenting is] such an oxymoron in some ways. But I think that's what's so interesting about it, because that's a very practical subject." In other words, there's no room for ivory-tower hypothesizing when kids in your care have immediate needs. China agrees: "Parenting is in-your-face, daily experience."
China, who herself grew up in a "very maternal, loving family" with her peripatetically employed government-worker dad and housewife mom, addressed that immediacy in The Future Generation's very first photocopied issue in April 1990, from how the struggle to snap one last button on a fussy infant's clothes can be a microcosm of military force vs. diplomacy, to a love poem to her infant daughter: "can't say it here/ but we are revolutionaries." It's heady with the unfettered spirit of China's first years as a young mom.
"I had this very romantic, different reasoning," she recalls. "I will have the perfect witch baby, she doesn't really belong to anybody, we don't belong to anybody and we're free."
The experiment showed fruit early. Clover grew into a gentle child who was better behaved than any other kid during story time at the library. But as the years went on, China, who dropped out of high school (a decision she still stands behind: "It was the first and best radical thing I ever did."), found it increasingly difficult to provide for her daughter. After staying on welfare for eight years until the Clinton-era reforms kicked her off (just as she had just gone back to college to earn a nursing degree) she worked a variety of low-prestige jobs that could never provide enough cash. By the zine's ninth issue, she documented a humiliating venture to the welfare offices, and the pang she felt at the now preteen Clover's ubiquitous question, "When we have money, can we (fill in the blank)?"
"This is intensely embarrassing," Nadja admits with a sheepish grin. "Because when your mom is this anarchist cool writer mom, then you become, `Oh, let's go to the mall, and get a crush on all those'--I don't know any of the cutesy guys names anymore, but you know, those heartthrobs. You want to be a cheerleader and date the captain of the football team." China says she knew her daughter had undergone a sea change when Nadja declared she would never shop at thrift stores anymore because "the clothes smell."
"I went through that phase and it was intensely embarrassing," Nadja blushes. "I was just outrageously bad."
"By 16, you were great," China assures her, with a mom's forgiveness.
After positive experiences in free alternative schools, Nadja experienced tremendous culture shock when China finally did enroll her in public school in the second grade. "I couldn't take those people bossing me around," Nadja recalls. "I went through a phase where I was totally the outlaw child." And she hit a rocky patch in adolescence experimenting with the same identity crises and chemical opportunities common to many teenagers. But due to the self-discipline instilled by her anti-authoritarian rearing, she curtailed her destructive activities when their benefits became dubious.
"You think about [drugs and alcohol], What has it really brought me? A whole bunch of bad memories? And then you just stop," Nadja says. "I think for my friends who live in a house where [the parents] don't want you to do that, you do it anyway. But you do it in a more irresponsible way, a more chaos-type way, whereas I did that and I learned. I didn't go to any other crazy drug, I didn't get pregnant, because basically, you just learn."
"I also think an anarchist parent offers more to their child of being alive and doing cool stuff," adds China, who let Nadja make her own decisions on nearly every front. "Every year it's like, `Do you want to go to school or do you not [want to] go to school?' So I feel like in [an anarchist] family you have more of a model of freedom of different opportunities you can do."
Like her mother, Nadja also dropped out of high school when its limitations became too frustrating. "For years [my mom's] telling me, `High school destroys you, why would you want to go to high school?' And [then] she was like, `Do you really want to drop out of high school?'" Nadja gently jibes.
"Because I had gotten used to her conservative self," China counters. "She was always talking about, `I'm going to go to college.' So I just wanted to make sure there wasn't some kind of problem. She seemed so different, so I was concerned." Sure enough, after a stint in an alternative high school, Nadja opted instead for a GED and enrolled at Baltimore City Community College, from where she's hoping to transfer to a film studies program at UMBC. She's also started her own zine, Dildo, subtitled "Masturbation for your brain," a serendipitous continuation of "the family business" that tickles her mom.
"It's been a long trip, this parenting thing," China reflects. "And I think that's why the book's going to be really exciting because it goes through all these different eras."
"I feel kind of like a movie star, because you can really see me growing up," Nadja concurs.
Compiling The Future Generation into a book was not China's idea. "I'm a very shy person." she says. "I feel like I'm a very--it's not the right word, but like an unofficial person. Not a person who's in the media. I like the informalness of zines. So I don't think I would have ever approached anybody on my own."
After China was invited to read with Ariel Gore (founder of Hip Mama, the most prominent alternative parenting publication) on a book tour, The Future Generation started attracting more attention from places like WYPR's The Signal and from Rachel Whang, co-owner of Atomic Books and the Atomic Book Co. "When I came back from the book tour, Rachel was like, `We want to put out your first book,'" China says.
With the help of Gore, activist/friend Vicky Law, and suggestions from Nadja, China sifted through 18 years of typewritten journal entries, original cartoons, birthing photos from compatriots, and culture-jammed ads for baby wares to form the book's text. "[The zine] just wasn't really meant to be a book," she says of the herculean effort. "It was before the internet, so I would reprint essays. I was researching things in the library and reprinting things from books. I was trying to foster a network, and communication, and stuff for us to share, and it's all Xeroxed and cut-and-paste goodness." The finished book preserves some of the DIY feel of the original but has a much snappier layout that impresses China to no end. "It looks so good," she gushes.
Nadja is grown and China says she's not as much of an "active parent." ("When you're the mother of a teenager, you're wiped out. It does a number to you.") So China is refocusing her efforts on building that kind of all-ages community spirit in the counterculture.
"We [alternative parents] can't do this on our own," she says. "We fall through the holes and we wind up struggling in more mainstream things. So that's been really important to me, to build community, to not focus on nuclear families per se." After all, she has no regrets about the unconventional path she's taken raising her daughter. "Being a single mom, I got to explore and grow on my own," China says.
"Well," Nadja says as a vulnerable smile creeps across her face and everyone in the room knows what she's about to say, "You were growing with me."
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