This week on Live Like the World is Dying, Zena and Brooke talk about parenting.
Zena Sharman (she/her), PhD is a writer and consultant whose body of work pivots around the questions “How do we create change?” and “How do we care for each other?” She’s the author of three books, including The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory and Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021) and the Lambda Literary award-winning anthology The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). Her next book, a memoir, is forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press in 2025. She’s an engaging speaker who regularly gives virtual and in-person talks and workshops to audiences across North America. You can learn more about Zena and her work at https://zenasharman.com/
Brooke can be found on Twitter or Mastodon @ogemakweBrooke.
This show is published by Strangers in A Tangled Wilderness. We can be found at www.tangledwilderness.org, or on Twitter @TangledWild and Instagram @Tangled_Wilderness. You can support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/strangersinatangledwilderness.
Live Like the World is Dying: Zena on Parenting
**Brooke ** 00:14
Hello and welcome to Live like the World is Dying, your podcast for what feels like the end times. I’m your host, Brooke Jackson, and today I have with me Zena Sharman, and we’re going to talk about collective parenting. But before we get that, we want to celebrate being a member of the Channel Zero Network of anarchist podcasts by giving a little shout out to one of the other wonderful podcasts on our network. Insert jingle here!
**Brooke ** 01:31
And we’re back. Zena, thanks for being on the podcast with me today to talk about collective parenting. I’m really excited to discuss this topic more with you. But first, let’s, I want—I want to get to know you a little more. Let the listeners get to know you a little bit more. So, would you introduce yourself? Tell me name, preferred pronouns, other things you want to share?
**Zena ** 01:54
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much for the invitation to be here. I’m a really big fan of the podcast and hopefully will have some useful things to share with the community of listeners. So I’m Zena Sharman, I use she/her pronouns, and you can find me on unseeded Cowichan territories—so colonially known as Vancouver Island up in Canada. And I come into our conversation as a queer femme. I’m in my mid 40s, which feels salient to how I’m moving through the world as a parent, and I am a parent to three kids. And I’m raising them collectively with three other queer people. And outside of the work that I do—the care work that I do as a parent, I am also our writer, I have done a lot of queer and trans health advocacy and systems change work over the years, and then have a growing practice in my communities as a death doula and a hospice volunteer. So thinking about many facets of how do we care for one another?
**Brooke ** 02:51
That’s really great. We recently did an episode with a death doula and talked about a little bit of that subject. But—
**Zena ** 03:00
You know I listened to that one.
**Brooke ** 03:03
I’m glad. But we’re gonna talk about the other end of the life spectrum, and the the little ones, and how we care for them. So you mentioned that you collectively parent, and of course I’ve mentioned that that’s our subject for today. So I’m curious what that phrase means to you, how you define it, and what it looks like in practice.
**Zena ** 03:29
I think practice is the operative word, in the sense that I’m definitely not coming into this conversation as someone who claims any kind of expertise or definitive take on how to do this. And what I can say is I’m coming into the conversation sharing some of the things I’ve learned, and I’m still in a process of learning now, having been in this experience for more than five years, almost six years. So I wouldn’t say that I use collective parenting necessarily, kind of, consciously in my day to day life. And I do think it’s actually a really nice way to describe what it is that I do. And I mean, I think if I had to give the most distilled down definition, collective parenting would be parenting together, including with more than two parents are multiple kinds of caregivers and whatever that family or caregiving formation looks like. And I think it’s useful to think about how there are many ways in which different kinds of ways of taking care of children are collective. Though there’s definitely variation in maybe the shape or intensity of the collectivity kind of inherent in that. And I mentioned that because I think about the ways that family structures continue to change, right, like if we think about the dominant norm of the nuclear family, which is such a structuring shape in the context of settler colonialism, in the context of the ways in which the state seeks to legislate family. Yet many kinds of communities are creating family in different kinds of ways, you know, even down to kids with multiple parents because of having blended families, you know, maybe with divorce, for example.
**Brooke ** 05:01
**Zena ** 05:01
So I think it’s useful to think about that bigger picture piece, but also think about like, what does it mean to make an intentional choice to parent together outside of the nuclear family form? And that’s the particular kind of collective parenting that I’m practicing.
**Brooke ** 05:18
Very interesting. Did you—I’m really curious, did you start doing that when your your first child joined the family? Or is that something you discovered, sort of after they, you know, after you became a parent?
**Zena ** 05:34
Yeah, it started even before that, actually.
**Brooke ** 05:36
**Zena ** 05:38
I’ll give you that the micro genesis of our family. So many years ago—so our—I should maybe you kind of bring us into the present for a moment and say that there’s four adults in our family, there’s three kids. So we have a five year old and we have 20 month old twins. We’re busy. And among the adults, we have two romantic couples who are coparenting together, we all live together in one big house, and at the core of that, as well is a platonic coparenting dyad. So two of my coparents many years ago, as friends, said you know, we keep dating people who don’t want to have kids, but we really want to have kids. What if we committed to co parenting together as friends? You know, we’re queers. We do what we want. And so that I think was really cool origin story was them basically saying, look, we know we want to become parents, we don’t want to have to wait to find, you know, quote, unquote, like the one, you know, the romantic partner who is going to be your like perfect coparent. And then eventually, you know, my other coparent, like, dated her way into this family system. And then I kind of laugh because my agenesis was actually initially, like, what was very much supposed to be a casual hookup with my now-partner. So I hooked up my way into this family. And the process of becoming a parent, you know, it took longer than that. But actually, by the time my partner and I really very first got together, they were already in the process of trying to become pregnant, and were already committed to coparenting with these other two folks. And so, as our relationship became more serious, as they were still in that ongoing process of trying to become pregnant, you know, then I became essentially folded into this family through a lot of conversation between us. So it started on purpose before our first child was born. So that’s where we’ve been at this for nearly six years. So that’s where it is—an everyday practice in my life, and one that I’m still learning from.
**Brooke ** 07:42
That’s a really great origin story. I love that so much.
**Zena ** 07:47
Yeah, like it wasn’t—it wasn’t through any kind of, you know, there’s different kinds of apps I think now that some people are using to find coparents. This was definitely born thorugh the classic queer practice of hooking up.
**Brooke ** 07:59
[Laughing] Yeah, well, as a as a polyamorous person who is very—I purposely call myself slut positive, because that word to me is a compliment that I use about myself—I can identify, especially being part of a polyamorous community and watching the fluid dynamics of so many of those relationships, and that do sometimes lead to coparenting situations. Which is I think—not to say that you have to be, of course, polyamorous or even queer, to do collective parenting at all. It’s just interesting how that ends up intersecting a lot of the time, it seems like.
**Zena ** 08:38
Yeah, I mean, I think certainly something that I think about in the context of our family system is, like, what are the lineages were part of. And for me there is that aspect of, by parenting in this way, we are connected to lineages of queerness, you know, thinking about historical movements for gay liberation, for children’s liberation, you know, and that there are these really interesting kind of entanglements and histories that I think, you know, feel important for me to be able to lean into, like, as a queer person doing it in this way. But I think also recognizing that these kinds of family formations exist in so many historical and cultural and geographic contexts, you know, and that, you know, they’re very deeply tied into particular kinds of communities. You know, thinking about many Indigenous communities, for example, or Black communities and all of these different ways of practicing forming family, and what does it look like to actually be in a conscious or intentional practice of pushing against the kind of narrow family forms that the state—and again, through processes of settler colonialism and white supremacy—tries to impose, often violently, you know, on particular communities and particularly in people and families.
**Brooke ** 09:50
Yeah, I was gonna say, as an Indigenous woman, you know, that was a rich part of our history, you know, before colonialism came along was the more collective parenting and, you know, grandparents, if they were still around, were always very involved in taking care of children—and not just their, you know, biological grandchildren, but the children in the tribe. So that collectivism was there for a long time and was—it worked very well. And it was a very healthy and functioned for the better of the community. So it’s unfortunate, for many reasons, that we don’t have that now. And really inspiring and uplifting that folks like yourself are putting that into deliberate practice and helping teach others about, you know, collective parenting and ways to do that, because I think it, it does strengthen our communities and, you know, helps us all as individuals, and parents, as well, you know. As a single mother now, it’s nice when I’ve had friends, or when family lived nearby that I could have more shoulders to lean on. Anyway, we can get into more of that. It’s just, uh, yeah, I’m just really touched by that.
**Zena ** 11:15
Well, and it feels like an important point of connection for me as someone who is the only child of a single mother, you know, and I think so much about how the image of parenting I had growing up, you know, was certainly of seeing a mother parenting in a lot of isolation because of the really important survival-driven choices my mother made around purposely moving us away from her family of origin as a way to break cycles of intergenerational trauma—which was really necessary for our survival, and also was something that did cause different kinds of severing from kinship, right? And so I think a lot about, like, what does it mean to be parenting the way that I am now? And how is that teaching me really important lessons, and simultaneously allowing me to do a lot of unlearning, I think, about maybe narratives of independence or isolation that I think I internalized really deeply as a young person. And that, I think for many years, gave me the idea that I couldn’t want—couldn’t becme and didn’t want to be a parent because it felt overwhelming to contemplate the idea of doing it on my own or doing with a single person, a partner. And it was really only through this family formation that I realized, oh wait, you can do this. And I know—I now know, of course, it’s so possible, but those possibilities hadn’t been modeled for me until my late 30s, was how I came into this.
**Brooke ** 12:37
**Zena ** 12:38
Yeah. And I wonder too, I know that, given I think particularly the focus of this show, I wonder if it would be helpful for me to talk a little bit more about maybe some of the practicalities or structural aspects of our collective parenting, because I think it’s—I think it’s maybe sometimes useful to sort of turn it inside out a little bit. And the specific things I’m thinking about are, so domestically, you know, we are a family that, we live in a house together, we share our resources and financially share all of our resources on a sliding scale basis that shifts according to what any person’s income is at a given time. So there’s, I think that experience of, like, what does it mean to be dwelling together. But we also have different parenting roles. So we have to lead parents, you know, those platonic coparents at the center.
**Brooke ** 13:30
**Zena ** 13:30
And then to vice parents, so me and my other coparents. So we kind of made up our own name.
**Brooke ** 13:35
Yeah, I like it.
**Zena ** 13:36
I think that that maybe is useful to talk about, too, because I like the idea that parenting—or parent—isn’t a monolith. Like, it also gets to be something where there’s that opportunity to really think about, okay well, what does this look like in practice. And I mean, in our family what that’s looked like is the lead parents are the people who, you know, individually, each were pregnant and carried our kids, they nursed them, you know, we’re really fortunate to be in Canada where more people have access to extended parental leave from work. So they were ones that took longer periods of leave to care for our children when they were really young. And they also, I would say, kind of carry a heavier, heavier mental load of parenting, you know, which is I think a big part of the work of parenting is just—
**Brooke ** 14:20
**Zena ** 14:21
—holding it all in your head. And for me, as an early morning person and recovering Insomniac, I’m also grateful that I don’t do nights in the same way that the lead parents do. So that’s a real win for me and I think can also be, you know, for some people, you know, thinking about parenting through the lens of accessibility, like, what possibilities might collective parenting create in terms of thinking about, like, how can we each show up as parents in ways where we can both meet the needs of the family system and have our needs met? And as vice parents, you know, we’re very, very actively involved in the everyday work of parenting, you know, getting the kids ready for school, making lunches, giving baths, taking them to school and daycare, putting them to bed at night, all of those kinds of things—particularly because of living together and having three small kids. But I think it’s useful maybe to think about some of those practicalities, and I’m happy to answer questions if there are specific things you’re curious about.
**Brooke ** 15:18
Yeah. When you when you say vice parents, you know, I just inherently hear a word that makes me think there’s a hierarchy to it. But then, of course, what you just said, there’s, you’re very actively involved in all these other aspects of their life. So I am quite curious about whether there is any sort of hierarchical structure in your collective parenting situation. And also noting—this is a very random question, I’m sorry—but, you know, sometimes when you fill out school forms for a kid, there has to be like the medical decision maker who they contact and, you know, gives permission if there’s an emergency. There’s some of that kind of stuff, which isn’t necessarily hierarchical, but it is like, you almost have to decide, okay, whose name is gonna go on, you know, this part of the form. So, that’s a two or three part question, if you want to try and tackle that.
**Zena ** 16:17
I like it. I feel like it’s an inherently polyamory-inflected question. Like, is there a relationship hierarchy? And I would say, you know, yes and no, in the sense of the hierarchical nature, like, one of the things I think is really interesting in the context of our family system is to see how attachment operates. And like—
**Brooke ** 16:35
**Zena ** 16:36
Our kids are all attached to all of us. And it is true that the children in our family, at this time anyways—and they’re all pretty little still—have particularly strong attachments to the parent who birthed and nursed them, right, and was their primary caregiver through the first year of life. So I think that’s an aspect of it. And I think we run very democratically in terms of how we show up in our family and how we make decisions together. And there’s also the both explicit and implicit understanding that, by virtue of the roles that we have, we get to participate in different ways. I would say, for me, as a vice parent, the way that I would describe it is maybe I have a little more freedom and flexibility to tap in and out of parenting, which is helpful for me as someone who has a full time job, a writing practice, you know, thinking about the other ways that I’m spreading my time and attention across all of the things that I do. So I think that’s a—that’s a piece. And one of the things that I think is a really crucial, honestly, tool for our family is we have a weekly schedule, and every weekend we sit down and have a meeting called Week In Review. And we look at the schedule for the week and we say, okay, who’s doing bedtime for which kid? Who’s doing school drop off? Who’s doing daycare drop off? Who’s doing daycare pickup? Who’s doing school pickup? Who’s cooking dinner? What are you cooking dinner? Who has a massage appointment? Who has a volunteer shift? When is our friend coming to visit?
**Brooke ** 18:04
You do that every week, once a week? Wow.
**Zena ** 18:05
Yeah, and it takes like half an hour, you know, because we—we’re so practiced at it, right? It’s very straightforward, because we also have places where we try to have a regular cadence of, you know, this is the bedtime rhythm we work with, this is the school drop off and pickup rhythm, that kind of thing. And it creates predictability for the kids to which is helpful for them. But I also find it—it takes, I think, maybe the decision fatigue out of having to do it on an everyday basis—
**Brooke ** 18:32
**Zena ** 18:32
Because we just have it mapped out for the week.
**Brooke ** 18:34
Oh, yeah sure.
**Zena ** 18:35
And then—and then we flow and flex, of course, as things come up. So—
**Brooke ** 18:39
**Zena ** 18:40
**Brooke ** 18:41
Are there—are there defaults at all in the schedule? Like so-and-so usually is able to do Tuesdays and, you know, person Q is able to do Wednesdays, or anything like that, that you can kind of start from a place of predictability, or—because it almost sounds like every week you’re reinventing—not reinventing the wheel, but like, figuring out who goes into all the slots. But I’m hoping—I’m guessing that there’s a little more that’s maybe already built in normally that you can work from.
**Zena ** 19:10
**Zena ** 19:11
Yeah, there’s definitely some predictability, like we have a standard bedtime rotation, and we just go basically in alphabetical order. And so—and then it’s also really helpful because it means that the couples, we get two date nights a week.
**Brooke ** 19:11
**Brooke ** 19:26
**Zena ** 19:27
Because we are not on a kid bedtime those nights. And so even just being able to have more time off, right, than would be afforded if we were doing this, you know, if there were just two of us, or if it was one of us doing it on our own. So I think that’s also something that’s been really helpful to build in. And I know you asked a question, too, about what I would think of maybe more around, like, how have we chosen—what are the decisions we’ve made around legally formalizing our roles. And I would say, we’re in a space of evolution around that. So we made a very intentional choice, including after talking with, you know, radical queer lawyers who’ve done a lot of work in this area, to think about, you know, what do and don’t we want to have legally or state-sanctioned around the family relationships that we have. And the choice we had made was to have the coparenting dyad be the two people on the birth certificate for all of our kids. There’s some greater degree of flexibility where we live in Canada because of the legal advocacy of people with different kinds of family structures. But we still would be limited. We couldn’t actually put all four of us on the birth certificate, it isn’t allowed, given the nature of the relationships that we have.
**Brooke ** 20:37
**Zena ** 20:38
And that’s been fine up until this point. But now that our older kid is in public school, we’re actually now in a process of realizing that it is really necessary for the two parents who are not on the birth certificate to go through a process of formally—we’re choosing to do a legal guardianship of our kids rather than going through becoming kind of a full legal parent. And again, that’s through consultation with other radical queer lawyers. And I say that because I think this is one of the tricky things about, like, what would be most values are politically aligned around, I don’t want the state to sanction my relationships. Like that, that feels values misaligned for me.
**Brooke ** 21:17
Right, oh yeah.
**Zena ** 21:17
And simultaneously, like, what does it mean when, you know, we and our children become implicated with these institutions in different kinds of ways, and when does it become a barrier around things like getting to be recognized as a parent by the school, getting to be a healthcare decision maker in the event of an emergency, that kind of thing.
**Brooke ** 21:34
**Zena ** 21:34
So we’re in a space of having to make some different choices now. And that’s complicated, because it involves the courts, it involves getting criminal record checks, like, things that are highly inaccessible to many people in many communities. And that we’re muddling our way through.
**Brooke ** 21:49
Yeah, that’s quite the—that’s quite the journey, for sure. And I’m sure very—a very interesting process to go through and figure out and—
**Zena ** 21:59
My learning is: don’t casually mention to the lady at the police station that you’re doing gender open parenting. She will immediately become icy cold to you.
**Brooke ** 22:11
**Zena ** 22:11
Why did I not predict that? So many reasons. She asked me about the gender of our children and I chose to answer honestly. It was probably the wrong choice.
**Brooke ** 22:23
Yeah, I hear ya. In our—in our pre-taping conversation, you mentioned that phrase, the gender open parenting, and this is maybe kind of an aside and not exactly collective parenting. I’m intuiting what I think you mean just from the phrasing, but I haven’t actually heard anyone use that phrase before until you said it. So I’m wondering if you might be willing to go off on a little tangent here with me and teach me about that.
**Zena ** 22:50
Yeah, I mean, the maybe the simplest way is that we didn’t assign a gender to the kids when they were born. And we just use they/them pronouns. Which, again, I recognize is still a choice. But in our family, we’ve opted to use they/them pronouns for our kids until they were big enough to say otherwise. And so with our older kid, it was very clear—just before she turned three she said, I’m she, I’m a girl. And we said, okay, and proceeded accordingly. And our other kids are still little enough that they haven’t articulated that to us. And, you know, the message we always want to give to our kids over and over again is, whatever that looks like in the future, if it changes, wonderful. You know, we will celebrate and accept you exactly as you are. And that also feels really important in our family with a couple of parents who are nonbinary, all of us who are queer, you know, and really trying to create a space for our children that’s really affirming of them in the fullness of who they are, and who they’re in a continual process of becoming.
**Brooke ** 23:47
With your—with your older child who has now identified her own gender— and I guess, as you’re doing—you’re raising the younger ones too, are there—I’m thinking about, like, when I go to the toy store, right, and there’s still, you know, the "girl" aisle and the "boy" aisle kind of a thing. And there’s probably other scenarios of that kind of, like, classic gender division, and I’m wondering how much you all had to work to, like, to avoid any of that, or if you did, or how you manage some of that while you were trying to keep this gender open parenting philosophy going on. Practice, practice.
**Zena ** 24:27
Yeah, I mean, I think gender is always present, right?
**Brooke ** 24:32
**Zena ** 24:33
In so many ways, and certainly becomes this like shaping and structuring thing in our society.
**Brooke ** 24:38
You go to a public bathroom.
**Zena ** 24:39
**Brooke ** 24:40
**Zena ** 24:41
I mean, you know, even thinking about it at the level of like children’s clothing you know as a micro example, it is so fascinating to me how different the cuts are—
**Brooke ** 24:50
**Zena ** 24:50
Which means a tshirt for a quote unquote girl and a tshirt for a quote unquote boy, identical sizing in terms of the kid clothing size, but actually, in our experience, like vastly different size, right?
**Brooke ** 25:05
**Zena ** 25:06
And so I use that as a micro example, I think, to think about the ways in which, you know, gender shows up in so many layered ways and obviously shows up for kids in a whole bunch of kinds of ways. And I think what we try to do was just create a space of possibility, giving the kids lots of choices around the type of garments that they wear, not attaching labels around, this is a boy thing, or this is a girl thing, you know, just really saying, oh, okay, this is what you want to wear, this is what you like, Great, how can we support you in that and give you lots lots to choose from, whether it’s around how they want to express themselves or what they want to do. I mean, I like it in the context of our multi parent family too, because I think about the different strengths we bring as parents, and I know that I will never be—nor do I want to be—the sports parent. As a queer femme, you know, who has been deeply immersed in femme community for 20 years, I am definitely the parent who will paint your nails.
**Brooke ** 26:04
**Zena ** 26:05
You know, if you want your nails painted, like, my got you, you know? And so I think about that too in the different ways we can model, like, what are the gender expressions we have as adults in our family—we’re very lucky to have a community of people around us with a lot of really diverse gender expressions. And so I think that’s also something that’s really helpful for our kids to see that there’s a lot of kind of ways to be,
**Brooke ** 26:27
Yeah, that’s really neat. So I imagine that you, you know, probably don’t even sort of approach clothing from a gendered standpoint a lot of the time. Like, you know, I need to work on my own thinking—but like, if I were to pick up a two year old size bright pink shirt, my brain immediately would go, oh, you know, girl, or, you know, if I pick up a two year old shirt that’s got, you know, big old monster trucks on it, I think, boy. And so my original question to you was—was trying to imagine like that scenario, and then what you do or don’t put on the kids, but I suppose that if you’re coming at it with a really non-gendered perspective, and saying, this is not a girl thing, this is not a boy thing. it doesn’t matter who’s wearing what. You need—you don’t have to try to put them in quote, unquote, gender neutral things, either. Am I—am I right in thinking that?
**Zena ** 27:20
Yeah. And I think especially because I think sometimes what gets coded as gender neutral, you know, often is something that might look more sort of, quote, unquote, kind of masculine. And I see this, I think, probably more reflected in my observations of some of the sort of ostensively gender neutral clothing lines that have come out, like, I think often in context of queer community and being marketed at queer community. But then, multiple times I’ve seen femems say, hey, but is that actually neutral? Or is it—is it really kind of like repackaging something that, you know, might be coded in other contexts as more kind of masculine, right? So, I mean, again, it’s sort of the malleability of all of this stuff, but also kind of the stickiness of these, these gender norms that show up in all kinds of places. And I think, you know, for our kids, like, hopefully, we can bring the same ethos we bring to our own clothing, which is like, what feels good on your bod— including from a sensory standpoint—like, what’s comfortable? And then also, like, what delights you and what can you move in, you know, and the clothing that a little kid needs is different, right, that perhaps what my wardrobe looks like. Though, I also think a lot about what can I move in. Because I sure do a lot of crouching and crawling around—more than I did before I was a parent.
**Brooke ** 28:30
**Zena ** 28:31
And I think a lot more about how will this outfit hold up to all manner of bodily fluids and other weird liquids, you know, it’s really—it’s really a factor that I didn’t used to think about in my pre parenting life.
**Brooke ** 28:43
Yeah, and my—my child was far enough, kind of, from that age, that’s not really an issue. And so, you know, you say that I’m like, oh yes, I remember that phase of parenting, where that was one of the considerations. And it’s funny to be on the other side of some of these things and realize some of what I forgottenthat used to be of such great concern. I want to back up though with you like three steps, because we were talking about how, when you came into the relationship, you know, it was sort of already established that there was going to be this collective parenting where that quickly developed, whatever, whatever the timeframe was. But, you know, by the time children came along, you all already knew that’s how it was going to be. I’m wondering if, in that time or since that time, if you’ve done a lot of, I don’t know, reading or researching or talking to other collective parents, or if you’ve done mostly kind of figuring it out, you know, with the four of you of how it works, or perhaps a mix of both techniques. But how did you learn how to collective parents, is really what I’m getting at.
**Zena ** 29:49
Yesah! Well, and I—I’m definitely learning all the time, and that’s one of the things I love about it. Right? You know, I think parenting is such an ongoing learning process, whether you’re doing it collectively or not.
**Zena ** 30:01
And I think, for us, there is a really—a really beautiful aspect that is about rootedness and community. And I feel grateful for that. Like, there are other people that we know who were already doing different forms of collective parenting—again, as has been done for generations. But in this case, these are maybe more immediate kind of peers of ours that are parenting kind of similar age kids in different cities, some in Canada, some in the US, that we are in relationship with. And so there absolutely are those kinds of conversations and connections that happen, which I think can feel like a real balm for us in terms of saying, oh yeah, you know, how do you navigate this particular thing? Or, oh, yes, I also have had these types of conversations. Like, it’s so great to be able to talk about this with another set of coparents and see how you guys are, you know, dealing with this particular challenge you might be grappling with. Or, oh cool, you have a neat kind of hack, like, tell us what it is we want to know. And then I think, again, because we also have been more open about our family story intentionally, because I think we’re mindful that—you know, certainly even thinking of my own experience, I didn’t have models for this kind of parenting when I was coming up as a younger person. So as a family, we’ve made an intentional choice to tell our story in certain contexts. As a way, we hope to be able to open the door for other folks to contemplate what kinds of possibilities they might want to co create and the communities and relationships they’re part of.
**Brooke ** 30:01
**Brooke ** 31:25
**Zena ** 31:25
And so I think there also is that element where then people will come to us and say, we’re just starting out, or we want to do this, can we talk with you? Can we learn from you? And we always try to be in that space of generosity and reciprocity. And absolutely, there’s a research-based element, including for me as a writer whose work is historically-informed, like, I’m always really interested to learn about the lineages we come from. I’ll never forget, you know, the the story I often think about—which is mind boggling to me when I think about it in terms of era—I read about a lesbian woman, this would have been in the late 70s, who was coparenting a baby. And she was doing it with 10 of her friends.
**Zena ** 32:05
And like in the era before cell phones, and group texts, and email and Google Calendar. Like to coparent a baby with 10 people. What an accomplishment. Right?
**Brooke ** 32:05
**Brooke ** 32:15
**Zena ** 32:16
Just logistically alone, it’s astonishing.
**Brooke ** 32:18
Right? Yeah, for sure. Do you find that—let me say it this way, how common is that people become parents after they’ve decided to collectively parent, as opposed to becoming collective parents after they’ve become… regular’s is not the right word. But, you know, after they’ve become a parent, starting to do collective parenting versus pre planning for that?
**Zena ** 32:50
That’s a good question. And I can’t say I have an easy answer to it, because I would say it probably depends. Like I get the sense that more people are going into these kinds of parenting arrangements, like, intentionally, before there are kids on the scene. And I also think that these kinds of collective parenting relationships and arrangements emerge organically over time as well, right, as relationships change, as people situations change in the context of their family systems. So I would wager it’s probably a mix. And I would guess that there might be a bit of an upward trend in terms of seeing folks maybe coming into these types of family formations with intentionality before they have kids.
**Brooke ** 33:33
**Zena ** 33:34
But that’s, you know, that’s based on literally no data whatsoever—
**Brooke ** 33:37
Oh I know.
**Zena ** 33:38
Except—except vibes and what I know about, you know, how family formations are changing in a lot of different ways.
**Brooke ** 33:45
Yeah. Well, you certainly talked to a lot more collective parents than I have. So, you know, not that’s a representative sample as an economist. But certainly, there’s there’s some information to be gleaned from your connections there.
**Zena ** 34:01
Yeah. And I think you can maybe also think about it in relation to, you know, places where we do see like legal advocacy happening, like, often driven by folks in different kinds of poly family arrangements or, or what might be a different or kind of non normative family arrangement, like, fighting to have those family arrangements and relationships recognized by the courts. So, you know, I think that that is also a place where I have seen shifts, both in the US and Canadian context. And, you know, what that’s going to look like over time. Obviously, given the regressive politics we’re seeing right now, given rising fascism, and obviously the targeting of trans and queer folks and people across a lot of lines of identity. I don’t have a sense of any of those advances are going to be rolled back, but I do look at the work of organizations like the Chosen Family Law Center in the US would be a great example of a place, I think, where they’re doing some really interesting advocacy about, you know, how might different kinds of family formations have greater legal recognition, greater state recognition—which does have many forms of utility, right, and all it’s complexity.
**Brooke ** 35:01
Right. Yeah, yeah, unfortunate, as you had said before, that you know, the state—that we sort of have to get the state involved in some of this because, you know, we don’t want them in our relationships. At least I don’t want them in mine, much as you said you don’t want them in yours. But then, yeah, there’s certain rights and privileges that are granted or denied, you know, based on—purely on biology a lot of the time. So there’s the work that has to be done to, you know, move that forward. So you were just talking about, you know, our current political climate and the rise of fascism. Do you feel like collective parenting has become more important or more useful because of our current political and social climate that we’re in?
**Zena ** 35:47
Yeah, as I was thinking about this conversation, I went back to the book "Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice" by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. And in that book Leah quotes their friend, Dory Midnight who says, "More care more of the time." And I love the simple potency of that phrase. And the reason I’m drawing a direct connection to the current social, political, economic climate is that I believe very strongly in the need to grow and deepen our capacity for interdependence, and to build the relationships that are necessary to enable more of us to survive. Like that, that is something I try to organize my life around in a lot of different ways. And certainly, I think, collective parenting is is one of those. And I think that, you know, certainly parenting—and I think caregiving more broadly, whether you’re caring for kids or other adults in your life—can be immensely joyful, pleasurable, rewarding and fulfilling. And it also can be exhausting, depleting, and unrelenting, right? Like you’re a single parent. I’m sure you have your own intense experiences of the joys and challenges of what it means to be a parent and a caregiver. And so I think a lot about, like, how might we actually grow our capacity to care for one another, you know. And I don’t think it’s unconnected that one of the tenets of disaster preparedness is to get to know your neighbors. Like I think about that in the sense of, like, what does it mean to build relationship, to be an interdependence? And like, what does it mean to push back against isolation, including the isolation that can come from the ways in which parenting is often organized in our societies?
**Brooke ** 37:30
**Zena ** 37:31
But I think also how to broaden the framing so that we’re not solely thinking about the experiences of parents, but also, again, thinking more broadly about caregivers, right, and that many people are giving care to folks of different ages. And, more broadly, how do we all care for one another? You know, and thinking about what we can learn from disability justice around that, in the sense of really thinking about an active and ongoing practice of interdependence and collective care in all of its difficulties and messiness, and the transformative potential of that. And that—I don’t, I don’t mean that in a romanticized way, either. Like I know that, before we started recording, I was talking about, like, how many butts I wipe in my everyday life, you know. It’s a butt wiping intensive phase of life, and I’m sure I will enter into other ones as I—as I and the people around me age, right, or become disabled in different ways. And so I think so much about, like, the practical, tangible hands-on aspects of this, and how that connects to the politics and values we might be bringing to this, you know. And for me, this is a form of praxis, it’s a form of prefigurative world building, you know, really thinking about like what is the world I am working to build? And how am I living those values in my intimate domestic relationships? And like, it matters to me that I am doing this in my home space with the people with whom I am in the most intimate of relationships.
**Brooke ** 39:01
**Zena ** 39:02
But I also don’t want that intimacy to stop, like, at the walls of our house either. And so how can we then continue to expand that web of interdependence out and—you know, it’s interesting, I say this like as a gay divorcee, right, like I have been gay married, I got gay divorced many years ago, I came full circle there. My partner and I—my current partner and I had a DIY backyard magic ritual this summer, you know, no state sanctioning involved. And it was really important to us in that, where we intentionally spoke our commitments to one another, and we spoke our commitments to our coparents and our kids. And then we spoke our commitments to the community and family that were gathered there. And that it was really intentionally about, like, how do we create a space where we can honor the interdependence that we are part of and that holds us and holds our family and holds our relationship, and like, what does it mean to make an active commitment to that, including in the context of actually ritualizing it. And as a—as a way to demonstrate the importance of that to the people that were there bearing witness and sharing that experience with us.
**Brooke ** 40:11
Wow, that is—that is so beautiful. It really is. Thank you for sharing that. All right, so we’ve talked about some of the great parts of collective parenting, and the good that it brings to the children, the good that it brings to the other parents. You talked about some of the tools that you have that have made that practice more successful, like your weekly sit down on you, you know, discuss calendar things together. Are there pitfalls in collective parenting, you know, things that—lessons you’ve learned along the way, things that you’ve seen and heard in talking to others. You know, anything that sort of collective parents always try, but it never works out. So, you know, something somebody could avoid trying and inevitably failing at, because it always goes that way—or anything like that, that you might want to share.
**Zena ** 41:02
One of the things that I really appreciate about—and find consistently challenging—about this experience of collective parenting, and this particular form of, like, deeply intimate and sustained interdependence, is what it asks, I think—certainly, it asks of me in terms of building my capacity for conflict intimacy outside of romantic partnerships or professional relationships. Because I actually think that there are entire cultures and industries around how to have a better fight with your partner, and how to have a better fight with your coworker. And I think it is really interesting, and in some ways, unsurprising that there’s not similar modeling in a maybe more mainstream way around how to actually move well through conflict in our friendships, our intimate relationships. And like, of course, this is a place where I think there’s much to be learned from transformative justice. And—and! It is a whole thing to think about, like how to bring that into practice in your everyday life, you know, how to have a difficult conversation with someone you love and are intimate with to say, oh hey, like, that interaction we had in the kitchen, you know, was frustrating for me, here’s why. While still giving us, like—one another, a lot of grace for, you know, what it means to be living in the fullness of who we are and all of our messiness and grouchiness, you know, in the way that nobody needs to be perfect or perfectly happy all the time. But I would say that that’s something I’ve talked with my coparents about at different kinds of points is like, how do we get more practice—practiced at having those kinds of challenging conversations, including in the context of just also the fullness of our everyday lives. Like, you know, we do have a weekly kind of evening, just the adults, you know, checking in talking about parenting stuff, you know, bringing up anything that we might want to surface. And certainly we’ll have one-on-one conversations when we need to work through something maybe that’s kind of challenging or sticky that’s come up between a couple of us. But I also am just tired a lot of the time, you know, and it’s the end of the day, and I’m ready to go to bed. I don’t want to be like, and now let’s talk about our feelings for one hour.
**Brooke ** 43:14
**Zena ** 43:15
And sometimes you need to, right?
**Brooke ** 43:16
**Zena ** 43:17
And I think also, for me, that’s a place where, you know, speaking personally, I’ve found it really useful to have a therapist, you know, and to be able to reach outside my family system—of course, like, through friendships and other kinds of relationships. But I mention my therapist specifically because I think so much about how so much of parenting for me is also about that process of reparenting myself. And like, looking back on my own childhood experiences, and like, appreciating the gifts that I received through those experiences, but also the ways in which there are things I need to unlearn from how I was raised, you know, and thinking about how those show up in my parenting. So big fan of Internal Family Systems, you know, and I think that that’s also a really interesting therapeutic modality in relation to collective parenting, because it’s like, how are we holding the fullness of all the parts that make us up as individuals? And then how are we showing up in these more expansive intimate and familial relations? So that’s another pro tip: if you’re into therapy, get a therapy. Just a really good advice, you know, generally. As long as you can find one and afford one. And that’s also often impossible, which I recognize. But I think, you know, the other thing I would say, too is, I think it can be sometimes—it can be easy to get caught up in perfectionism, or the notion that there is any sort of getting it right, you know?
**Brooke ** 44:36
**Zena ** 44:37
And I don’t think that there is. You know, I think something I feel really grateful for in our family is that we come in with a shared set of values around parenting, and a shared set of political commitments. And that makes a difference, I think—
**Brooke ** 44:50
**Zena ** 44:51
—in terms of, we’re able to move from that shared foundation in ways that makes the harder stuff easier to navigate and also the places where we do things differently—like, sometimes difference is perfectly okay. Right? It doesn’t have to be perfect unity on every single thing, right? But it is really understanding, where do you need to be aligned on the stuff that really matters? Right? And how can—how can those shared values be helpful in that regard?
**Brooke ** 45:16
Yeah. And I—and then I also imagine that having and practicing some amount of, you know, compassion and empathy and understanding for other people in different viewpoints—you know I, again, I’m not collected parenting, I’m a single parent. But my child’s father and I are sort of opposite ends of the political spectrum almost at this point. And I try very hard to be in practice of, you know, never putting down her father, you know, that’s part of who she is. And being clear that, yeah, you know, I don’t agree with this thing that he said, I don’t agree with his stance on this and whatnot. But never making that about who he is as a person, that never making it that he’s wrong, even if I feel that way. But, you know, being able to, you know, articulate that we have this difference of opinion, in a way that holds compassion and kindness for that other parent in the situation, you know, even if I don’t agree with them, even if, you know, I do think that some of their beliefs and practices are genuinely harmful to other human beings on this planet. But not putting that into my child so much, because they’re going to, you know, learn that part on their own. And really, what I need to do is just be clear on what I believe, and not damage their other parenting relationship in the process. At least that’s how I feel about it. And you know, I’m open to being wrong or having—learning that there’s a better way to do that even than I am.
**Zena ** 47:03
Yeah, and I mean, I think about it in this sense of, like, I sometimes think about how parenting feels like the most sustained and complex form of activism that I’ve ever done, in the sense that it asks me to live my values in a really intimate and ongoing and everyday way. And one of the places I continue to do learning is around children’s liberation, confronting adult supremacy. You know, when I think about, like, Carla Joy Bergman the anthology "Trust Kids" that came home with AK Press, that’s all about confronting adult supremacy and supporting youth autonomy. You know, I know Carla uses the phrase, "solidarity begins at home," you know, and I think so much about that, too, of like, what are the ways in which many of us have both been taught and internalize the relations of domination over children? And like, what does it look like to actually try and disentangle ourselves from those, I think really often insidious tendencies, like, even in those of us who are trying to, to the best of our ability, come at this from a more liberatory kind of way. So that for me, I think, feels like a really rich site of inquiry and practice in all of this too. And definitely a place where I’m really still learning.
**Brooke ** 48:12
Yeah. So I got the chance to interview Carla—almost a year ago now, it was February of last year—on, you know, we talked about—we talked about our book, and we talked a lot about adult supremacy. So that was February 24th 2023 episode, episode #59, should any of our listeners be curious to go back and talk about that. And it’s funny, because, you know, when I—when I sat down to talk with her I actually wanted to talk with her about collective parenting. And then our conversation really took us into this realm more of talking about adult supremacy. And so that really ended up being the focus of that episode—it was great and really interesting, and I think an important component of parenting in general, but also collective parenting, as well. So yeah, there’s a lot that I certainly have learned about that as well. In our last couple minutes here, I’m wondering if there were any other things that you might like to talk about with collective parenting, the ways it ties to other social movements or issues going on, or, or just generally, anything else that you want to say or share about collective parenting?
**Zena ** 49:29
Yeah, I mean, I think I would want to speak to some of those bigger connections. And then, I think, end on a really practical tangible note, because it’s something I really appreciate about this podcast is I feel like I always walk away with things I can do. And so, you know, something I do think is—
**Zena ** 49:45
Something I think about is, like, you know, how can these forms of parenting, you know, in this practice of deepening our capacity for interdependence—and for intergenerational solidarity, right? Like, I don’t assume that every person out there wants to be a parent, you know, or wants to necessarily be someone who’s in an everyday caregiving relation. And I do believe very deeply that all of us should be committed to a practice of intergenerational solidarity. That includes giving a shit about the children in our community, and seeing them as self determined people whose liberation is bound up with ours. And I have absolutely no patience for adults who think it’s cool to hate kids. It’s not radical to hate kids. It’s not cool. It’s bullshit, and it’s ageism. And I just feel so strongly about that, you know, similar to the ways in which I think so much about like what might it look like to build communities where we honor and ritually welcome in older adults, you know, disabled people, like, all of the people who capitalism and white supremacy and settler colonialism and ableism and ageism and childism tell us are less valuable, you know. When in fact, they are vital members of our communities and our movements. Right?
**Brooke ** 49:45
Take it away!
**Zena ** 51:01
So I think about that. And I think about how we can also connect these practices to movements for abolition, you know, in thinking about the violence that the family policing system does to so many families, particularly Indigenous, Black, other racialized families, disabled families, you know, poor folks. And so what might be the ways in which these forms of collective parenting—and again, just deepening our capacity for interdependence and solidarity with kids in our communities and parents and families can also be a way to intervene against the violence of that kind of state surveillance, child apprehension, family separation, and just reproductive injustice, right, that is happening in so many communities today—including and not limited to the experiences of trans kids. So I want to pull in those threads. And I also want to take a moment to just to speak, maybe, to the folks that are asking themselves, like, do I want to parent in this way? And what might that look like? And so some of the things I would share would be: I think this is a place to begin by reflecting on your own wants and needs, you know. How do you imagine parenting? What would you want your role to look like? You know, if there aren’t already kids in the picture, how do you imagine those kids coming on the scene? You know, would that be through a process of somebody becoming pregnant? Would it be through adoption or fostering? You know—and again, all of these things are part of this process. I think it’s also really important with the folks that you might be doing this with, to really think about, like, having upfront conversations about your needs, your desires, your dreams, your visions, but also your fears and boundaries, and your desired family or coparenting structures, and how you want to distribute the care and parenting labor. Not that you’re going to have all of that figured out upfront, but I think—I think it’s useful to begin the conversation. And I think, also, to really understand that, like, none of this is fixed. It’s going to change over time. And I would say, you know, maybe just a couple of other thoughts that I think are really pragmatic and useful are, I think, to also think about how "out" you want to be and can be about your collective or co parenting relationships. Like, are you in a position to be able to be out about this to your families of origin, to your neighbors, you know, to your kids, daycare providers, or school teachers, or health care providers, to your kids’ friends and their parents? You know, like, we’re really fortunate to be able to be out and well supported by our family of origin and the various caregivers and teachers and community members we have. But that is absolutely not the case for everyone, and I think is also entangled with, with the whiteness and other forms of privilege of our family that insulates us.
**Brooke ** 51:01
**Brooke ** 51:01
**Zena ** 51:02
And I think also, as we’ve talked about, like to think about where and how you want and need the state to sanction your family structure, you know, and that that can create a lot of barriers for folks, right, you know, including the ways in which that can disrupt people’s access to disability or welfare benefits, for example, or bring the surveillance of the state onto you and your family system in ways that can be really harmful.
**Brooke ** 54:16
**Zena ** 54:17
But it also can be an enabling tool in the system that exists. So I think, I think to ask those kinds of questions as well. So yeah, sort of kind of toggling between the like relational and values based and care work based piece, and then also the, like, what happens when your family system is turning outward to the world that exists now, and what are the ways in which you want to be navigating that world as purposefully as possible?
**Brooke ** 54:42
Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. And I really appreciate the—that advice for folks considering the situation. It’s obviously really important starting point, if you get to do that before you know children come in the family, or are something that you definitely have to think about if you’re—if you’re going into, like you said before, an organically forming collective parenting situation. So I appreciate that a lot. Before we say goodbye, I wanted to, again, thank you for being here with me today, talking to me, teaching me, I learned a lot today. And I—I’m really grateful for that and hope our listeners did as well. And then give you space if you have anything that you want to share, plug, endorse, etc.
**Zena ** 55:41
Yeah, really appreciate the opportunity to be in conversation with you. And hopefully, there are some useful gems, and I can also share some resources with you to put in the show notes if there are just going to be some other books or things that that I think are useful for folks maybe to check out as kind of part of their contemplations here. And I would say, for plugging, I know you and I were chatting a little bit earlier. So I’m a writer, and my most recent book came out in 2021. I have a new one coming out in 2025, but it doesn’t have a title yet. But my 2021 book is called "The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory and Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health." And the simplest way I can describe it is: the queer and trans health book that loves sex workers and hates cops. So if you want to learn about that, or learn more about me and my work—and I do actually write a little bit about our family in that book as well—you can find that and more information on my website, which is just zenasharman.com.
**Brooke ** 56:35
Great. Thanks so much.
**Zena ** 56:38
**Brooke ** 56:43
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