An inspiring, out of the box conversation with British-born writer, mother and activist Lucy Aitken Read.
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Who is in your family?
There’s me, my husband Tim, and our two daughters: Ramona, eight, and Juno, six.
Tell us about your life in London before children.
With my master’s degree finished, I began working as a campaigner for Oxfam. One of my biggest campaigns focused on climate change. This was twelve years ago, when discussions were about what climate change would look like in developing countries, and how we could mitigate the effects already being experienced.
Tim also worked for a charity, and while we both enjoyed our jobs, they were quite intense roles with long hours. We were part of the 9-to-5 commute, paying the mortgage on our traditional Victorian terrace in South London.
When did you first realise you were an activist?
I think I was born an activist, and my parents did a great job of letting me know I had some agency. I became a vegetarian when I was ten because I believed an individual choice mattered, and I wrote my first letter to the prime minister when I was thirteen.
How did life change when you had children?
When our first daughter was born, Tim and I worked hard to split our week and ensure we both took an equal share in parenting. On our days off, we would get the bus to a patch of woodland and play in the forest. For holidays, we would pack up a little bike trailer and ride out to some remote meadow and camp in the wild.
When I became pregnant with Juno, we realised we would have to shift our lives around to keep paying our mortgage. One of us would need to work full-time, or we would require childcare. Our life was beginning to shape into something we didn’t want and wasn’t aligned with our desire for shared parenting and plenty of time together in nature.
What motivated your family to move to the other side of the world and live off-grid in a yurt*?
When Juno was born, we sold our home and took off in a campervan around Europe. It was a time of transition, focused on shrugging off societal expectations. No one moment triggered a plan; rather, we saw many things that opened up new possibilities.
In Germany, we visited a forest school and saw, for the first time, a future without school. We witnessed children learning autonomously, based on curiosity instead of fear of punishment or hope for reward. Until then, I had seen school as a kind of civic duty: good people support their local school for everyone to have access to education.
We also visited a solar-powered eco-community in Spain. It was the first time we ever used a composting toilet. At the time, we thought they were pretty extreme hippies, so it’s funny we now live similarly.
As for the yurt, it chose us. Friends in New Zealand invited us to spend time on the organic farm where we now live, and the only accommodation was a yurt. We thought it was hilarious at first but quickly fell in love with living in a round space and having only a piece of canvas between us and the natural world.
How differently are you raising your kids compared with how your parents raised you?
The biggest difference is life without school; I had never heard of homeschoolers until I was twenty-two.
I grew up in London and attended school every day until I realised I could truant at fourteen and went to the beach instead. My mum would make lighthearted remarks about how great my tan was considering I had been at school, and looking back, I think she knew my spirit didn’t fit within the walls of a desk-based school.
Despite living in the city, my parents did their best to expose us to political events and nature. We took holidays in the countryside and visited the Czech Republic when the Iron Curtain fell.
What are some of the most wonderful aspects of the way your family lives?
I love watching how excited my children are to learn. It’s wonderful to raise children so aware of their personhood, dignity and gripes. We have always strived to raise them as fully human, not a sort of half-human, as lots of the world does. By raising kids to understand they are wise and should be treated with the respect we give adults, they are allowed to flourish, and I can see them stepping up to the vision of who they are.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of the way your family lives?
Raising children respectfully and with trust in their learning journey comes with a big responsibility for Tim and me. We must look after our own needs and be committed to dealing with our baggage. When we neglect this, it’s obvious.
I believe if we raise children respectfully and model empathy, our whole world could be more socially just, with less conflict and more care for the environment. We are failing our children, and our parents, by not talking about the importance of parenting.
Can you explain what ‘unschooling’ is, and why you chose this method for your daughters?
Unschooling is about giving children enough space to be who they are truly are, rather than what society might expect from them. It’s waking up every day and hearing what they might like to do and figuring out a way to build on that.
Learning happens at its best when people are free from stress, and when it’s hands-on and practical. Deep learning based on real-life experience travels with children for the rest of their lives. So for us, unschooling is a way of providing opportunities to learn in a bespoke way.
If one of our girls wants to become prime minister, we’ll facilitate her getting the qualification needed. Some unschooled children are accepted into university based on an interview, while others begin studying and sitting exams in their teens. We want to support our kids to achieve paths springing from their own motivation.
How do you balance your roles as a mother, educator, writer and wife?
It’s important to recognise I can’t do it all and need to compromise. In my dreams, we would hike as a family every morning. Instead, my kids watch Netflix so I can care for my own needs.
Another compromise is the state of our house, which is just bananas; it’s a lot messier than I want it to be.
Tell us about your blog. Why did it start and what is its ongoing purpose? What topics do you cover?
I began blogging when Ramona was a few weeks old. I was reading parenting articles while breastfeeding and wanted to be a lighthearted voice in an online world prone to preaching. I still try to be funny and relatable and show I’m not perfect.
In the early days, I documented my journey of attachment parenting and talked about breastfeeding, baby-wearing and raising a nappy-free child. From there, it went in a few directions. I shared eco-craft ideas, showed how we were eliminating toxic ingredients from our home and wrote about parenting with respect for children’s rights. I then documented our journey from London to New Zealand, sharing my passions and hobbies while trying to draw on the knowledge I had acquired from my studies and professional activism work.
You have a great point on your blog about #metoo and teaching kids that they own their own bodies. Can you tell us a little about this and why you’re passionate about reframing this conversation?
I’m really into the idea that consent starts from birth. Studies show babies as young as five weeks old respond with their body when an adult goes towards them with their hands open, as if they know they are going to be picked up. An extension of that knowledge is to tell the baby you are going to pick them up or change their nappy.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked with a child sexual abuse prevention organisation that also delivers parenting workshops and resources based on respectful parenting. They understand that consent from birth, treating children and their bodies with respect and dignity, is everything when it comes to dismantling rape culture and building a culture of consent.
You took a break from activism. When did you decide to start campaigning again?
When we moved to New Zealand, I put my energy into living as low-impact as possible and focused on local activism, but if I’m honest, it was a bit like burying our heads in the sand. In the last six months, after reading the UN’s climate reports, I decided I had to do everything I could to create systemic change. It was no longer about small acts like going off-grid.
Tell us about the four R’s of regenerative resistance when it comes to sustainable activism.
My blog post about the four R’s (relish, rest, rely and ritualise) was about how to advocate sustainably. I recently decided to throw myself into climate change campaigning, but at the same time, I met an activist suffering burn-out. I wanted to figure out how activism could be life- and energy-giving so I wouldn’t need to take a break.
We can get hung up on winning and losing campaigns, but if we find ways for our activism to be something we love and are gifted at and something that’s community-building, then it becomes life-giving, and we always win in some way.
Tell us what you know about climate grief and how to handle it.
We are in a very fragile and vulnerable time: we know we are destroying our home. Catastrophic things have happened in the past, and many indigenous cultures have suffered extinction, but there hasn’t perhaps been such knowledge that it’s on the horizon and our actions are driving us towards it. It’s terrifying, so people avoid the issue.
We need to find words to communicate the grief we are experiencing and create safe places to face those anxieties. Burying those feelings within our body causes stress, depression or illness, and doesn’t help create the positive changes we need.
Many of us want to make a difference but aren’t sure where to dip our toes in. What’s your experience?
While we should all make small changes, like eating less meat and changing our electricity provider, we need systemic changes. I would invite people to take a tentative step towards Extinction Rebellion or another local cause in your area that’s focused on bringing systemic change. We also need to build strong communities to get through the climate catastrophe together. Third, look at how you can bring more empathy into your relationships with your children, partner and neighbours. While empathy might seem unrelated to the climate crisis, if we model empathy well, our whole society could be different in one generation. And fourth, fall in love with a bit of nature near your home and stay connected with it.
How important do you think resilience is when it comes to the state of the environment?
So important, and that’s where community-building comes in. We should all be looking at how we can bring more healing to ourselves by being really present and mindful, and also how we can build community resilience.
We often stop ourselves from getting together with neighbours and friends because we put pressure on having fancy things. My friends and I have ‘crap dinner parties’ and send out texts inviting families to bring whatever they were going to eat at home and share it together. They’re very random and not pretty but they’re an easy way of building relationships with neighbours, which is all about resilience.
Do you ever question your life choices?
I believe everyone around me is trying to make choices according to what they know and believe, and I want to extend that same grace to myself, so I don’t have regrets.
We try to live as authentically as we can, which gives me a strange surety in what we are doing.
How do you encourage activism within your daughters?
With anything we want our kids to do, it’s essential to model the behaviour. I try to ask questions about what action we could take or give them time to work on something they are passionate about. Primarily, though, I try to provide them with lots of time outdoors, because I believe activism can spring from a loving relationship with the earth.
What are your plans for the future?
We aren’t very good at plans. We could stay on our land forever, but if we feel our children need more access to resources or opportunities as they grow older, then I can see us moving to a city and trying to live off-grid with a permaculture garden. We never planned to be where we are now; rather, we respond to our values as best we can and see what unfolds.
What are your hopes for your children’s future?
My hopes for my girls are what I hope for all the children: that they might have an earth to inherit and be awed by its magic. I hope my children will flourish into whoever it is they are.
*Ed’s Note: A yurt is a portable, circular, sturdy dwelling made of a lattice of flexible poles and covered in felt or other fabric. Yurts have been the primary style of home in Central Asia, particularly Mongolia, for thousands of years.
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