I was a plant mom long before I became “mommy” to two tiny humans. I was that friend that was gifted potted plants over cut flowers, happily fostered plant babies in cross-country moves, and was known to rescue overlooked and browning beauties from the dumpster. Every spring was marked by the tenuous task of gardening on my stoop or in my tiny concrete yard—tomatoes, snap peas and pepper seedlings were tucked into pots while herbs and flowers took root in shallow raised garden beds. In short, I loved the slow and steady task of weeding, watering, fertilizing and generally minding the lives of my silent housemates.
Plants thrive on a different timescale and communicate from a different dimension than their human counterparts. I give my plants a quarter-turn as their leafy bodies begin arching towards the light of the window; there is no set schedule but they tell me when it’s their time. These interspecies lessons revisited me while in the trenches of the first year with my first born, when I heard the cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik speak about gardening as a metaphor for parenting. Rather than having a deterministic approach to what will grow and how and when, the role of the gardener is to create an environment—an ecosystem—for plants (and their co-conspirators) to thrive. Little did I know that my love of tending to plants would be a seed for how I envisioned my path as a parent.
Contrary to what many mommy blogs might convey, it is often far from “love at first sight” when a newborn enters your life. It’s more like high-level, unrelenting event production with a heavy serving of emotional labor to appease a tiny tyrant as a client. I often feel more like a babysitter than someone’s mother. What helped me through the early morning feedings, hormonal dips, death-wish crawler stage, and now the toddler tantrums is the simple truth I learned from Gopnik: that love is engendered through the work of caring.
This idea has been a tiny worry stone lodged in the pocket of my psyche for the past two years. As we fought through the isolation and trauma of the pandemic and imagined new worlds forged by cries for justice, the mutual aid networks, community fridges, and neighborly acts of care that bloomed under these disturbed conditions became a daily reminder to me of the fundamental value of care. The labor organizer Ai-jen Poo has been advocating for dignity and fair wages for domestic workers—nannies, homecare providers, house cleaners—for over 20 years and the flux of last year highlighted that it is precisely this work of caring (often done by brown, female bodies) that enables women to be active in the workplace and families to function under the demands of modernity. It is the labor of brown women that provides the cornerstone for our economy in the United States.
My own work as an editor for MOLD, a print and online magazine about design and the future of food, relies on the work and labor of other women who care for my child and for my family. Whether it’s childcare, cleaning, or cooking nourishing food for my family, women provide the scaffolding for me to be able to do this work—literally, as I can carve out time to write this essay because my toddler attends daycare, and figuratively, as the postpartum meals cooked by a friend have given me the energy, strength and space to envision what might come next for MOLD once I return to work in the fall. Reflecting on the value of care in my own life, I can approach the care I provide for my newborn and my son with more intention, knowing that it's the small, often thankless acts of care that weaves together the ever expanding net of love that we share.
Making MOLD often feels like an act of faith—that the research will find its audience, that the work will resonate with someone who needs to hear it. Although it was founded as a response to a gap I identified around food and food-system design coverage, it has evolved into an independent exploration around the potential of designers to imagine and help build a more just and equitable food ecology. We research and report on topics that spark curiosity and imagination. From the degrowth movement, interspecies relationships, to emergent strategy, we see care as a necessary third tenant of design: the industrial scripture of form and function no longer serve us.
Our relationship with food should be based on practices of care as it has for thousands of years. As the seed steward and activist Rowen White teaches, agriculture was the original covenant between humans and the land: the land takes care of us and in turn, we take care of the land. The industrialization of the food system—from production to consumption—has strangled this covenant and obscured the critical importance of this relationship with food. How might our understanding of the world around us open up if we were to have a relationship with the food we eat, a relationship to the soils and microbes that nourish our food, and a relationship to the hands that cultivate it?
It is these models of care that we learn from our relationships with plants, families (of all shapes), and food that will provide a roadmap for the future we are building together. This future is predicated on care for one another but also care for the earth that nourishes and provides in abundance. An economy based on interdependence, respect, dignity and care might sound like a radical idea, but White’s words remind us that it is actually the original agreement.