Culture & Conversation Family

‘How Do We Make a Better World?’ A Q&A With ‘The Future Generation’ Author China Martens

Victoria Law

The first to examine parenting in radical and punk subcultures, The Future Generation went on to become the longest-running parenting zine in the United States.

In 1990, China Martens was a young mother who felt the anarchist concepts of mutual aid and support weren’t being extended to her and other parents in punk and radical left subcultures. In an age before the internet, she began publishing The Future Generation: A Zine for Subculture Parents, Kids, Friends and Others to express herself, share ideas, and create community. The first to examine parenting in radical and punk subcultures, The Future Generation went on to become the longest-running parenting zine in the United States.

Her early issues were old-fashioned cut-and-paste, with typewritten and sometimes handwritten entries interspersed with collages, magazine cut-outs, photos, drawings, and photo-booth strips. Later issues reflected the graphic design skills she learned as part of her post-welfare employment plans. Martens chronicled the events of her daughter growing and their lives changing—such as dealing with infant colic, raising a toddler among punks, and the demoralizing experience of being pushed off her social safety net as part of welfare “reform.” While the zine was often centered on her own voice, she occasionally included reflection letters from other punk parents, excerpts from books and publications like On Our Backs, and even an unfinished ghost story by her fifth-grade neighbor.

In 2007, Martens published an anthology of The Future Generation, covering 16 years of her daughter’s life—from infancy to teens. Ten years later, Martens is out with the tenth-anniversary edition of the anthology with an afterword written by her daughter, now in her late 20s.

In between those two editions, she and I formulated a series of workshops titled “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”—practical discussions and workshops for activists and organizers about how to support parents and children in their movements. We presented these workshops at conferences and gatherings across the country; agitated for (and, in Martens’ case, organized) child care; and, in 2012, compiled the experiences of parents, children and caregivers into an anthology by that same name.

Rewire sat down with Martens to talk about parenting, children, and surviving the current political climate.

Rewire: It’s been 27 years since you first began putting out The Future Generation and ten years since you came out with the anthology. What’s changed since those years for radical families? Do you think there’s more support for parents and children now than there was in 1990 or even in 2007?

China Martens: Every person who becomes a parent gets hit with [the sense of being overwhelmed and isolated] fresh all over again. There’s somebody just starting, finding themselves totally isolated, and things aren’t working for them and they’re shocked. There’s a whole process that you go through anew. And the whole political climate—it’s getting harder than ever. Everything we feared and talked about could happen. In some ways, I feel like it’s the same thing, just magnified. There are more resources on the internet, but again, it depends on whether you have access. Conversations are expanding, but not everybody can get to the conversation.

Things that are discussed online—how we discuss rape culture, Black Lives Matter, uprising—in some ways, it’s like the ‘60s or the ‘70s. We’re getting back to having those really core conversations about racism and representation, but the physical realities of the time that we’re living in—your housing and your food and amount of safety that you feel and the amount of stress that you’re under just to survive—mean you don’t always have the head space to talk about these things.

The roots of my zine were me asking, “Would you like a better world? How is it you’re going to make a better world?” I was trying to carve out space for myself as a writer and a human being.  

Rewire: We started presenting “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind” workshops in 2006, when you were just starting to put your book together. Looking back, how do you think going through your life—and raising a child—influenced how you shaped “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind?”

CM: That influenced everything. I could remember the ways in which I had been left behind and the importance of support. Parenting as a revolutionary activity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. For me, as a single mom and as a low-income single mom, what I needed was more support like babysitting. For somebody else, they might want to have the support to be with their child. Maybe they couldn’t be with their child because they had to work or live in a different state away from their child. That’s what we learned with “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”—everybody needs support in different ways.

I wanted to help build support for caregivers and children—with the whole community, especially those without children of their own, and younger active energetic folks—seeing how important community support makes a difference in radical parents’ and children’s lives. Since I then had “free hands” because my daughter was grown, I wanted to contribute to others’ lives, in the ways I knew that were important from my own life.

We started by sharing our own stories and facilitating group discussions with others about their experiences: what they didn’t have, what they needed to build the support that we knew we needed. We learned a lot by listening and asking others for their input. And we thought of “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind” as a continuing conversation that others can have in their own communities and movements.

I was involved with radical child care for a long time after that, trying to create an infrastructure so that we could take care of each other and create a supportive way so, whatever the situation was, that community could support the children and parents. Again, it’s not a model of one person, one overstressed babysitter.

Rewire: In an early issue of The Future Generation, you wrote, “There was a vacuum in the subculture where issues about children simply didn’t exist while The State was fully prepared—with its social workers, public indoctrination and other mechanisms—to take over.” Can you talk more about how this played out in your life? And how have you seen this change (or not change) over the past ten years?

CM: When I had my daughter in 1988, not many punks had kids. It was almost an oxymoron. A punk with a kid? An anarchist and a parent? You can exchange this with other categories as well I have seen others write about in the 1980s—having a mixed identity or being a mother and also a writer, or a revolutionary, a Chicana, and a lesbian. I do feel like we have more discussions these days about our identities and how different aspects of ourselves all make up the whole person. We are still having these conversations! After all, discovering yourself is always an ongoing process.

But even as the Insane Clown Posse protested last month, we have seen that parents have problems with having their children taken away from them for an affiliation with this band that’s been classified a gang—or what’s now being called [by some reproductive justice advocates] “The New Jane Crow,” which has been going on for some time, the criminalization of mothers of color.

When I was a young parent, there was less literature on the subject. Pop culture had different mothering tropes that set impossible standards on what a mother could be. Feminist publications at the time rarely included any issues about children, often coming from a middle-class, white, pro-choice standard where the problem [of how to care for children] could be solved with hiring a nanny and a housekeeper. In general, the perceived powerlessness, the overburdened and underrespected role of what it meant to be a “good” (and often white, middle class, heterosexual, Western, married) mother was something that young middle-class white feminist culture was rejecting. Those who addressed children’s issues or “family values” were often more conservative, punitive, or enforcing the status quo—such as the choice between public school or private school, Disneyland or happy meals.

Now there are more conversations [about how to both be radical and a mother]. But it would require a change in the system of power, to create the kind of equity we need, to actually respect mothers and other marginalized workers.

Rewire: In a later zine, you describe the experience of being pushed off welfare under President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform.” The cover is a photo of you as a pin-up girl with the caption “Welfare mothers make better lovers.” We don’t often hear the voices of people who were on—or thrown off—welfare.

CM: I’m not trying to make a commentary on welfare. It was more like, “I am on welfare and I am talking about my life.” And you’re not supposed to be talking about your life. You’re supposed to be ashamed: Somehow your opinions aren’t valid.

You’d see it in the newspaper, like “welfare reform is doing great!” In my experience, at that point, I felt really frustrated in my life and I didn’t have job skills or ways to get money, and the only way I could do that was to go to college for something practical, like a trade. So I went to college to be a nurse. I had no interest in nursing, but it was a practical thing to get us out of poverty. That was when welfare reform came. My experience was getting a letter, coming into welfare—and you’d have to sign away different things like they could come to inspect your house or if you had another kid, you’d lose benefits. You’d wait in line for hours and hours and hours and look at all the people around you who really needed support, like grandparents or people with disabilities. Then you’d get to the top of the line and the person would tell you, “Well, welfare is gone. No more welfare.”

I told them, “I’m in school. I’m getting all A’s. I’m trying to get a job” and they’d say, “No, don’t do that. Drop out of school. Get a job. Welfare is over.”

Seeing the difference between what’s in your life and what’s being reported: that was the purpose of the zine.

Rewire: When your daughter was a preteen, you had to move in with your grandma in the suburbs because you weren’t getting the supports that you two needed. What did you need? How could the subculture and people around you have provided support?

CM: There was no place for us to grow. We needed jobs and learning spaces, community spaces, homes, and options that, as a bohemian low-income single mother, I was not finding. I started writing The Future Generation as a bold, fired-up radical. But by that time in my life—when my daughter was 10—I felt just like a regular poor person and very isolated. It sucked. And it happens. There will be times in life we need to reinvent ourselves and we need support, real-life support from others, whether they are ideologically aligned or not. Sometimes grandmothers can be our best support at these times if we are lucky.

I guess if there were places of employment for me, or more “alternative” parents, it would be better. At the same time, it seems these issues are timeless. Everyone starts over and encounters problems along the way in changing your parenting practices, outside of the ones you were brought up with, in trying to change the world, and keeping your own personality and desires as well as growing in your role as a parent. It’s going to be a struggle. Some have it better, some have it worse, but in this country right now, it’s a real struggle. Especially if you are poor, a single mother, a parent of color, or part of some other marginalized groups. Mothers are under attack.

Rewire: What are you hoping that people take away from your book?

CM: How do we make a better world? How do we do that with the choices we have today? I hope the book will inspire hope, and share some stories, and make people feel less alone and expand possibilities.

I’m still angry. I still want better. I’m not going to lie—things are hard. But we are here and looking for solutions and fighting for a future, part of a legacy, not alone. And that’s what The Future Generation was always about: expressing myself and trying to connect with others about real life issues as well as ideals and theories.

We need to be fighting for generations. I hope we get that chance, but, regardless, our lives are the good fight. We want beauty now. As far as how to make it better—change everything. You have to start somewhere. And that is always what the discussion is about …. to start, to continue, and to win.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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