A Mother’s Life. A Mother’s Love.

She wasn’t one of my closest friends, and I wasn’t one of hers. We floated in the same circles, had friends in common, graduated from the same college. We attended each others’ celebrations, showers, and, eventually, our children’s birthday parties. She was in my orbit, but she was not part of my daily life.

Two days before she collapsed at work I went to her son’s second birthday party.

It had been some time since we’d seen her, and she’d recently announced her second pregnancy. By my math, she was going to have her baby girl almost two and a half years after she’d had her son, the same amount of time that had passed between the births of my son and daughter. I hugged her. Gestured to her growing belly. Congratulated her. Asked how she was feeling, and she gave an accentuated “Eh!”, rolled her eyes, smiled, and gave me a quick look that I took to mean, “I’m tired, but I’m hanging in there.” I nodded, with a silent, “I know what you mean.”

Kit Lai, with her son.

I suddenly remembered how exhausted I was for most of my second pregnancy, chasing after a toddler, a couple years older myself. The days are long but the years are short, they tell you. Some of those days were very, very long.

A wave of affection for her washed over me, one that almost took me by surprise. I listened to her wrangle her son for candles and cake, and felt her love for him somewhere in me (only registering it later, as her voice calling to him echoed through my skull). I changed my daughter’s diaper on her son’s changing table that day and admired the pristine nature of all of the objects in the room, down to the little contraption I tapped to borrow a wipe. Even the wipe dispenser is classy.

For whatever reason, I hugged her a half second longer than usual as we left, onto another birthday party in the parental whirlwind of a Saturday in June. Just an extra squeeze to say, “This is hard, but you’re doing great.”

There is no earthly reason why I (or any of us) could know that two days later she’d be rushed to the hospital from her office. Or that a few days after that her family would be told she wouldn’t wake up. Or that her baby girl wouldn’t leave the womb, and would instead exit the world with her mother, before really entering it. There is no earthly reason for any of it. There are only words. And even for someone who turns to words for comfort, words seem stunningly insufficient.

Music, maybe. And the echo of her voice calling her son’s name.

I was on eighth avenue when my husband told me the news. She didn’t make it. I cried out, stumbled a bit, going in circles, not able to figure out if I needed to sit down, get on a train, or just keep walking. Phone still to my ear, but not able to form real words. More than one stranger asked if I was all right.

yesthankyouyesI’mfinethankyouI’mfine

She wasn’t one of my closest friends, but after hearing the news that she was gone (But I just saw her), I moved through the following days in a fog, zeroing in on objects surrounding me and focusing keenly on moments that normally rush by, aware somehow every second that I was still breathing. And she was not.

I noticed Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever on my son’s shelf. She’d given it to him at my baby shower because, she said, it was her favorite book when she was little. He wanted to read it every night for months, so much so that I had to hide it for a time.

While washing dishes, my eyes paused on our hand soap. It was Yes to Carrots, a brand she’d introduced me to when it was her job to promote it. She did her job well; I still buy the brand. I was tickled to see they now make hand soap. In grapefruit.

My son’s art box was open and inside were the crayons she’d given him for his second birthday, sturdy big ones with little animal heads. I loved those crayons, even after he snapped off half the heads.

I stared at a garlic head in our kitchen, remembering the evening at her apartment in Little Italy when she roasted an entire head of garlic for us to spread on bread. I’d never seen anyone do that, before or since.

My husband and I took a slow walk in the Botanic Garden near our house. The first time we’d ever been there was to meet her. She introduced us to it, at the cherry blossom festival that year. It was so crowded that day. We go all the time now.

A few nights ago, I scrolled down the invitation list to our daughter’s first birthday, and stopped at her name and email address. I nearly panicked when I couldn’t figure out how to delete it from the list (please, Paperless Post, don’t send an email to my dead friend asking for an RSVP). I figured it out, and breathed. In the time since I’d invited her and her family to our party, she had died. She had. Died.

Shehaddiedshehaddiedshehaddiedshehaddied.

She was all around me, her fingerprints all over my life. And her voice in my head.

A couple nights later, my son’s eyelids drooped while I stroked his back and sang him his night-night song. Once he finally drifted off, I let the tears roll down my face with the thoughts that I couldn’t stave off. She is never going to do this with her son again. And he is never again going to have his mother put him to bed. Stroke his back. Sing him to sleep. 

I peeked in on my daughter asleep in her crib, with the tears still coming, my head aching, letting myself think the other unthinkable thoughts. She is never going meet her daughter. Her daughter will never be asleep in a crib in that room with the pristine objects. 

We were mothers together, exchanging silent nods and knowing sighs but rarely talking much about it. That above all was what was breaking me.

A mother’s love feels too big for just one life to hold. Words are as insufficient at containing the love of a mother for her children as they are in encapsulating grief.

Even as the rest of us slowly grow accustomed to her absence, and the grief gives way to new daily routines, and her family is able to smile again without pain behind it…that all-encompassing love will remain here among them. The care she took to cut his food into tiny pieces will be with him as he enters kindergarten. The nights she laid her hand on his back as he slept just to make sure it was still rising and falling will surround him as he loses his first tooth. The extra layer she dressed him in on the coldest of days will enshroud him like a cloak as he walks with his class. Has his first job interview. Meets his own first love. Her voice left a trail for him to follow; he will hear it even if he doesn’t remember it. Her reflection will shine back at him from the eyes of those she loved who are still here, caring for him like a village. None of this is enough, of course. But it is something.

The Best Word Book Ever. It’s a long book, with a lot of animal families and words for everything on every page. The last page shows Mother Elephant reading Baby Elephant a bedtime story. I used to skip pages sometimes without telling my son, just so we could get to the end a little faster. I don’t think I’ll do that anymore.

 

TO THE WORDS
W.S. Merwin

When it happens you are not there
O you beyond numbers
beyond recollection
passed on from breath to breath
given again
from day to day from age
to age
charged with knowledge
knowing nothing
indifferent elders
indispensable and sleepless
keepers of our names
before ever we came
to be called by them
you that were
formed to begin with
you that were cried out
you that were spoken
to begin with
to say what could not be said
ancient precious
and helpless ones
say it

—Written on September 17, 2001


Dedicated to the memory of Catherine Lai, or Kit, as we knew her.
www.youcaring.com/kitlai

Some Inconvenient Tips on Self-Care from a Mama in the Resistance

This morning, wearing red.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. –Audre Lorde

It feels so apropos that I started this post a couple weeks ago, but am finishing it on International Women’s Day, or rather, International Day Without a Woman. I have time today to finish this because, after a lot of deliberation about whether my schedule could handle it, I chose to strike today. Yes, I’m privileged to work at an organization from which I could safely take a day off. I recognize that privilege, I strike for the ones who can’t, and I also recognize that I’ve been socialized into an unbalanced priority system that had me hemming and hawing over whether I could pencil in a protest to my packed work calendar. Well, I don’t much separate my work and my life, but today I choose to live sans agenda and meeting-free, to commit time to political action, and to nurture my neglected self. What the hell, once I’m done I may even take a nap.

On with the post I started once upon a time….


My kids are perhaps the most lovable inconveniences I’ll ever invite into my life. I’ve heard it said, and I agree, that there is nothing convenient about having children. (Oh, did you think you were going to sleep past 6 today? Nope. Did you expect it to take under two-and-a-half hours for the whole family to leave the house fully clothed? Ha ha. Did you want to try to bring the kids out to brunch? JK, JK.) Having kids is like signing a contract with the universe that you will succumb to near constant inconvenience for at least 18 consecutive years, and the most you can do is get good at being inconvenienced, y’know, to take the edge off a bit.

I would say, for an impatient A personality type like myself, I am starting to get good at it. Slowly. Sometimes. When my toddler closes his hand in a door just as I’m leaving the house to go do school-cleaning duty at his daycare co-op, we pivot and go right to urgent care, because the school can manage without me and I’m not sure he can. (Yes, this is super specific because it happened.) I’m getting adept at fielding the curveballs, and I’m learning what it means to be cool with showering every other day, getting my wispy hair cut every 4-6 months, and saying no to 9 out of 10 invitations that involve doing anything past 5pm.

I say all this not to convince those of you who don’t yet have kids that you should stay in that boat, but to convince my fellow parents that we actually might be better equipped for this resistance business than we originally thought.

Think about how much everyone who has joined the resistance has had to alter their lives more than they bargained for since November 7. The protests and marches, the sheer amount of reading, the renewed obsession with social media, the phone calls, the dozens more emails in your inbox, the donations that hurt the wallet but matter, the dance-like conversations around the eventual discussion of the state of our country. I’ll be honest, between the sorrowful emails to my kids and the tears at work and the news-absorption and paralyzing fear and feminist coalition-building – there’s also a nagging mama voice in the back of my head about what a PAIN IN THE ASS this election turned out to be.

Not that I’m proud of this but if Hillary won, I’d mostly still be struggling just with figuring out how to have two kids, not figuring out how to have two kids and also teach myself Civics 101 and strategizing every day around what this country is going to look like when we come out on the other side of this nonsense. What this election did was not just put a sociopathic despot in the White House surrounded by a neo-Nazi guard – it threw me one more motherf##ker of a curveball. Aw man, now I gotta be all civically engaged? Who has time for that?!

But that’s where my three years of parenthood training comes in.

The hardest thing about having the second kid was foreseen: the last gasps and eventual draining away of any free time we managed to devote to our own self-care or grown-up needs. Just as we started learning how to steal time here and there to take a breath, the country elected that abhorrent man, and it quickly became apparent that “relaxing” into our two-child life was not going to be in the cards for awhile. That as we managed to find the time to devote to things that were not our kids’ bedtime or grocery shopping or laundry or work, that time would be needed elsewhere.

There’s a lot of talk in the air about self-care these days. How to take care of yourself while you charge forth with all the commitment you can muster to resist, to engage, and to not normalize. How people of color and those at the most risk can persevere amid all the incessant trauma. And those are important conversations.

Fortunately, I already calibrated my need for self-care to adjust to my new dual-kid lifestyle, so my threshold for stress was already way up. These very valuable lists flying around about making sure you get enough sleep and go out a take a brisk walk where you’re feeling overwhelmed? Those aren’t directed toward parents – certainly not toward parents of the very young.

Here are some more realistic suggestions for self-care and just keeping sane while being a parent in the resistance:

  1. Find a community with other parents doing the work – those are the folks that are going to operate on your schedule. Our Brooklyn daycare (which has made headlines by closing in support of its teachers on strike today) has been a great resource, hosting child-friendly social justice meetings during the day on Sundays. In November, they provided this list of post-election self-care resources for parents and teachers. A Facebook group has started in my neighborhood for Parents for Social Justice, which meets for brunch on Sundays, and makes sure there are equal parts juice boxes and mimosas on hand. These are all things I can do much more easily than joining a rally by Trump Tower after work, when I need to be tucking my little ones in.
  2. Find a therapist and make time to go. (And consider medicating if you’re super stressed.) This has been non-negotiable for me – therapy is the one item of self-care I haven’t let slide through all of this. It helps to be accountable to someone, and it’s partly possible because my insurance covers a lot of it. But I’ve been going to therapy since long before my insurance; there are resources out there. It also drives me bananas that women, particularly women who are still postpartum or breastfeeding, feel shame around taking anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants – and yet, I know more women on medication than off. The world today is a hard one to cope with, and you don’t need to be a psychological superhero; there is nothing to be ashamed of if you need a little medical help getting your head right, and it doesn’t mean you’ll be on it forever.
  3. Make the work part of your parenting, and bring the kids along for the ride. Teaching my kids, in their tiny people ways, to be allies and making them part of my commitment has been big for me when I feel like I’m not doing enough. I brought my six-month-old daughter to the Women’s March. Today, I dressed my toddler in red and tried to teach him the word “ally.” (We’re not quite there yet.) We’ve started a collection of activist baby books. I haven’t gone as far as talking to them about the administration (I mean, my three-year-old doesn’t really know what a President is) but I just try to make our civic actions fun for them too, even if they have know idea what’s happening. ‘Cause really, it’s for me, and it’s so I can take a picture and tell them later, “You were part of this, and hopefully now, this is part of you.”
  4. Go outside. There is actually something to this whole “taking a walk” thing, but you’ll probably have to bring at least one kid. So take them to the park. To a zoo. To the beach. Run around with them to squeeze in that exercise you don’t have time for. Just go outdoors and get some Vitamin D and watch them be all carefree and goofy in their wonderful innocence and remember that that hasn’t been taken away.
  5. If you can’t join something, start something. My husband and I feel a little trapped by our evening schedule; it’s been tricky trying to make community or action meetings after work and during bedtime. But, even though we don’t have a huge place, we can host every once in awhile. So, we’re starting something called a “giving circle,” or a group of like-minded friends who will gather with us every few months to organize around giving to the same causes, to maximize the impact of our donations, but also to keep ourselves engaged and up to speed. Sound like something you could do? This is a good how-to. If you want to make it only for parents, maybe make it baby-friendly and organize group child care for your meetings.
  6. Make the bed. I know it sounds lame, but it’s a proven thing: the 30-second act of making your bed gives you a lift. It makes you feel more together, more productive, a little lighter. It’s nicer to crawl into at the end of the day. I’m a big bed-maker. If you have time, make your kids’ beds and teach them to make them. It cleans up the room without cleaning the room. We don’t have time to keep everything pristine, but we have time for this. It’s weird, it’s small, but it helps.
  7. Change just a handful of your everyday habits to be just a little bit better of a citizen. We young parents are not going to be on the front lines of most demonstrations these days, but this mama would argue that resistance isn’t just about sign-carrying and phone calls. It can be just about making just a few easy tweaks to any behavior that is antithetical to the beliefs you espouse all over social media. You care about climate change and the pollution of our oceans? Buy a travel coffee mug to replace the disposable ones you use every day. I got a whole list of plastic-ditching ideas here. You’re a parent with a new baby? Try cloth diapers. I did it for six months and then switched over (found it gets harder and not easier), but started making changes in my plastic-using habits to assuage my guilt. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying to walk the walk, in baby steps.
  8. Tell your story, and lift up the stories that need to be heard. I think it was one of my many podcasts that championed the idea that we all need to be writing our way through this mess. Hence why I’m here in a cafe on my strike day, writingwritingwriting out all the ideas I’ve been hanging onto until I found a moment to get them out. Write in a journal. Write a blog. Write on the sidewalk or a wall. It helps. If it’s not your thing, read other people’s stories, and maybe make sure none of them are by or about cisgendered, heterosexual, white males. (Sorry to my friends who identify as such and are amazing storytellers; it’s not about you.) Read in the margins. Read for empathy.
  9. Look into Headspace. It’s a meditation app. And before you stop reading and move on, just give it a shot. It costs money if you subscribe, but there’s a free trial and I think it’s worth it. This is me being a hypocrite because I’ve had a hard time keeping up with it, but there are 10, 15 & 20-minute options for you to use on your commute, while you walk to the train, while you do dishes, etc. If you try you can squeeze it in anywhere, and it reminds you how to breathe, and how to not get all caught up in your dark thoughts about the dystopian reality we somehow find ourselves living in.
  10. Family dance parties. Do not underestimate the power of 90s hip hop. It’s not very feminist but to what other music might you do the running man and Cabbage Patch?

I offer all this to you as a dilettante, friends, when it comes to activism, parenting, and early hip hop dance moves. I am pretty good at self-care though; at least, I used to be. I agree with Audre Lorde in that it’s akin to self-preservation. And I have a lot of opinions about how important some version of self-care is as a parent (the oxygen mask rule, and so on), so you can show up with your best self for your kids. As a parent-activist, that importance only grows. So when the curveballs come and the inconveniences abound and the world feels like it’s on the verge of collapse, dance to some Bel Biv Devoe with your toddler, and remember that you were trained for this.

P.S. For the record, I did not take a nap today.

To My Kids: This Isn’t the World I Wanted to Raise You In, But It’s Still Your World

On November 7 of last year I wrote an email to my kids (who will read it in the distant future) and published it as my last post: Tomorrow We Will Elect the First Woman President. That feels like a lifetime ago.

On November 8, my understanding of the world I’d brought my kids into fundamentally changed. My relationship with my country was derailed. My optimism and excitement for my family’s future was crushed under the weight of an upswell of fear and anger from a population I’ve since been told (by many a journalist) I should try to empathize with. A shadow fell over our home, and a sense of doom began to set in.

i-protectOn November 9, I woke up feeling like a loved one had died. I wept as I nursed Nina that morning, and splashed my feelings all over Facebook. Everyone I know was emotionally vomiting all over social media, or retreating under their covers with comfort food. I gravitated toward the online sphere with near desperation.

At work, we all gathered to watch her concession speech. There were more tears, from many of us. Everyone on the subway in the city looked hollow. My son’s daycare emailed with the activity they were doing that day, talking about who and what they wanted to protect, and making art out of it. And I cried some more.

On November 12, I stood up at an event I helped to produce (and barely made it through) in front of around 200 people from my field, and, knowing I had to limit the appearance of partisanship, I quietly pointed out my safety pin. That night, I read a biting piece from a white liberal man about how safety pins were just a marker of white privilege and not real protest, I suppose with the assumption that those of us wearing safety pins weren’t doing anything else. And we wonder why liberals have a hard time coalescing around the important stuff. And the next day I didn’t wear my safety pin.

On November 13, Nina turned four months.

not-normalOn November 18, I wrote “This Is Not Normal” in big letters on our office white board as a reminder that none of this is business as usual. It’s still there.

On November 19, I wrote the below follow-up email to my kids. I’m still wrestling with everything I was wrestling with that day. Believe it or not, I had the national anthem running through my head as I wrote this.

*****

Kids,

I didn’t know it while I was doing it, but it turns out that I lied to you this week. I titled the last message I wrote to you “Tomorrow We Will Elect the First Woman President.” I told you that I believed a country that is basically good at heart would not vote that man into office. I still had faith, at that moment, that our country was further along than it is. It turns out, many of us were not ready.

Our country is not yet what I thought it was. Many, many things went wrong that Tuesday, and in retrospect, in the weeks (and centuries) leading up to it, and we did not win the election. We did not elect the first woman president right after Nina was born, as I was so excited that we would. My hope is that by the time you read this, we will have gotten our act together and who knows, maybe a woman will be in the White House. But as of the day that I write this, misogyny, racism, complacency, division, hatred, and white supremacy (thinly veiled as “white nationalism” or the “alt-right”) are all alive and well. And in a perfect storm of unforeseen events, they robbed us of our turn. The glass ceiling is in tact, and instead, many of us feel broken. I told you there would be tears; I just thought they would be the happy kind.

Some other things I wrote hold true, though.

One, take heart: this country is still made up of mostly good people. We know this because Hillary won the popular vote, and by a growing margin – a wider margin than two past US presidents of the 20th century, throwing the whole purpose of the Electoral College into question. Who knows, maybe by the time you read this, this College and its antiquated protections will be a thing of the past. Maybe within a month the whole system will implode. Anything is possible now that the unthinkable has occurred. But I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that the actual majority of people did not legitimize this man into office. I heard quoted today that a mere 25% of registered voters voted for him, and that amounts to only about 20% of the country’s population. And only a small percentage of those folks are actual overt white supremacists (the others just passively endorse it for a host of complicated reasons). And if only young voters were counted, nearly every state would have gone blue. That is our future, and my hope is that is your present.

Two, I remain activated. I’ve had my time to grieve, but then that feminist fire I told you about has reemerged and I suspect is here to stay. I am soaking up information, good and bad, through my social networks and news feeds and my hunger for action is being fed. There are many options for how I will act on this, and as always, I begin with writing. Through writing I have come to essentially reject this man as my president, even before it became a meme. He may hold that office come January, and he may spend his term poisoning the country, dismantling Obama’s legacy and reversing years of legislative progress. Because of this, and without actually breaking any laws, I say He Is Not MY President. He does not represent me, and he does not represent us. Our family is not part of that paradigm, but we are still part of this country.

What plagues me now is how I keep our family stable, and you two happy, while actively fighting through what will inevitably be a really challenging, destructive time. It feels like such a violation, that you both now must be raised in this environment. I managed to joke around with colleagues the other day, when explaining that I was considering just shielding you two from our president-elect for four years, and was asked how I would do that when you went to kindergarten, Diego. I said I would give your school a note that you have an allergic reaction to our president, and they should make sure you avoid him like most kids avoid nuts.

My only saving grace is that you will still be too young to be aware of it for these four years; but my heart aches for the families who have to explain all of this to their children, and especially for the families that now fear for their lives as they know them.

In the last couple of weeks there have been alarming upswings in violence. Muslim Americans, women, trans folks, anyone non-white, anyone we tend to “other,” feel a renewed sense of displacement and danger even in places that used to be safe for them. Many suspected this would happen if the tides went this way; it’s just that no one I know thought the tides would go this way. We underestimated the unrest. Since last Tuesday, there has been an outpouring of protests, phone calls, civic action, safety pins as symbols of kindness, liberal infighting, and Democratic resistance to all of this. All of sudden I feel like I’ve taken a Quantam Leap (Google it) into the 1960s civil rights movement. Only with Facebook.

Last night the VP-elect, a snake of a man named Mike Pence who will probably be a footnote in history by the time you read this, attended a performance of Hamilton, which will probably still be the single biggest Broadway phenomenon by the time you read this. It was written by a contemporary of mine, and offers an alternative, diverse vision of American history. After the performance, an actor stepped forward and delivered a respectful, carefully crafted statement to Mr. Pence from the show’s creators, calling for his recognition of the diversity on the stage and in the country, and for a promise to consider all lives in the new administration. Mr. Pence cowered in the lobby to hear these words, having been booed while in the theater. Since then, the sociopath that is our President-elect has publicly called for an apology from the Hamilton folks. Being who they are, they have politely declined. And my hope swells for my field, and for my country, with artists at the front lines.

Amazingly, tomorrow I take Diego to see his first play, one called PAPER DREAMS. The first play I ever directed here in New York was called PAPER HEARTS. It all feels very cyclical, very apropos. Hearts and dreams, so many having been dashed in the last 11 days. Feeling like discarded paper, flimsy and torn. But you will grow up with art in your life, especially theater, if I have anything to say about it. And sappy as this sounds, hearts and dreams come alive in the theater like no other place, no matter what madness the world contains outside the door. Please know that art will always be there for you.

Please also know that I will always, always fight for you, with all the power I can muster. But those privileges that you grow up with, those are your superpowers. And with great power….well, you know.

Love and light,
Mom.

*****

pussyhatIt’s somehow already January 19, two months later and Obama’s last day in office. I’m drinking wine and eating cookies again, only this time wearing a Pussyhat and scouring the web for a glimpse of what my community’s up to tonight. Artist friends are activating everywhere, with theaters in a protest of light, and the photos are making me teary. Like most nights, I chose to be home to nurse Nina to sleep. Even through all of this, I am a mom first.

But, this mom got her “Feminist AF” shirt to wear to the march she’s attending on Saturday. Though many, many women in this country betrayed the rest of us, nearly every woman I know is protesting this president; I’ve never seen anything like it. Women twice my age have never seen anything like it. It’s a special kind of magic, shining through a crack in the dark.

I’m still working out what my holistic response to this election is. I’ve taken Facebook off my phone and begun to control the noise. I’ve sat in many women’s circles. I’ve claimed my new identity as an activist with more pride than I ever claimed my identity as an artist. I’ve read poetry on race and articles on the intersectionality issues plaguing our feminist protests. I’ve gained a keener awareness of my own white fragility. I’ve gotten into uncomfortable conversations with family members about ‘otherizing.’ I’ve channeled my despair into my work as a fempresario, a bringer-together of creative minds. My thoughts have slowly organized around the actions I want to take, of all the actions there are to choose from. My sleep has waned. My fervor has not.

I’ll have more to say in the weeks to come. Less poetry. More lists. But tonight. Tonight I scroll fondly through photos of our outgoing chief and his fierce First Lady, I email my girlfriends and fellow mamas a march plan, and I sit for just a moment in silence, waiting for my fear about what starts tomorrow to wash over me, and off of me, so I can move onto the next thing.

There is, after all, always a next thing.

“Our aim should be to humanize society by bringing the values of a woman’s culture into it…Not simply to put an individual woman into a man’s place. We do want to take our rightful position in this country, and our rightful position means 50 percent of every elected and appointed body that exists…We know, however, that no one gives political power. It must be taken…We have not given up the existing political machinery to the male elitists.
Because we see that there are empty clubhouses and a turned off electorate and a great poverty of ideas. We believe that we can humanize and renew that machinery
so it will respond to people’s needs.”
Gloria Steinem’s “Address to the Women of America” at the opening conference of the founding of the National Women’s Political Caucus in July of 1971

“Human beings are linked, we are not ranked.
The paradigm of society is a circle, not a pyramid.”
Gloria Steinem, November 9, 2016, WNYC

To My Kids: Tomorrow We Will Elect the First Woman President

When both of my kids were born, we started email accounts for them. I write their future selves occasionally with tidbits about our life. Tonight I wrote them this letter about the election.

~~~~~

Westchester, New York, family, photo, portrait, NJohnston Photography, www.njohnstonphotography.com

Photo credit:  NJohnston Photography, http://www.njohnstonphotography.com

Kids,

I’m writing this while watching both of you sleep in our video monitor. You’re both so beautiful. My heart cracks open daily with gratitude that I get to be your mother. And tomorrow your dad and I are going to wake up very jittery, pack the two of you up around 8am, and walk to our polling site a few blocks away. And we’re going to take you into our booths with us while we cast our votes for the first woman to be President of the United States, Hillary Clinton. And after you go to bed, we’ll have some friends over and watch the results pour in. And as my obstetrician told me after you both were born and we headed home, there will be tears.

Eight years ago we watched and cried on the historic night when Barack Obama was elected as the first black President. That’s who was President when you both were born. He’s been a leader with such mojo, such class– he and his indomitable wife Michelle are all light and warmth and grace, and we’re going to miss them like lost relatives.

And Hillary could be President for the eight years of your life when you start to come of age, and will help form your childhood. The idea that you both could be raised with that paradigm in place, with that as your worldview when it’s still so new to us…it’s like an overdue promise that’s so close to being fulfilled. Nina, you may never doubt that you can be anything you want to be, and Diego, you may have a different understanding of your privilege and know that women are your equal, deserving of your respect and humility. I know we can give these things to you no matter who is sits in the Oval Office, but as a lot of citizens of this world would tell you, it would help to know that our government’s behind us.

The risk that you could be raised in the alternative world, the country of hate that the opposing candidate (that hopefully by the time you read this will be a blip on the record of this country) would perpetuate…that’s too great a risk to tolerate blithely. Everyone we know is incredibly anxious about this election tomorrow. The race is closer than we thought it would be. It’s occupied so many of my thoughts lately. They are all tangled up together – my logic and my intellectual arguments intertwined with my pride as a woman and my passion for Hillary’s reckoning. She’s become a symbol for something much, much greater.

I think about what we’d have to do if that man is elected to make you understand that we don’t support the leader of our country because he is a hateful, misogynistic, bigoted, megalomaniacal bully. How would we explain how the country you were born into ever elected him, when nearly everyone in your life thinks he’s a loathsome human being? How would we convince you of the fairness of that world? How would we continue to live in a country that supported him all the way to the White House? How would we shield you from him and those that condone and excuse his behavior and his rhetoric? How would we keep moving forward when all this man wants is to hold us all back?

For tonight, and tomorrow, I’m choosing to believe in us. I’m choosing to believe that, in the words of another formidable female, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” And a country of basically good people will not elect this man.

This woman, Hillary, is universally acknowledged to be the most qualified person to run for the office in living memory, even more so than her ever popular husband who was elected in 1992, my first year of high school (and your dad’s). The Clintons have been around for awhile. They are contemporaries of your grandparents. By the time you fully understand the weight of all this, either one of them could be gone from the Earth. You will have never really known their magnetism and that of the Obamas. All of this will have just been a moment that you study in U.S. history class, the way I studied the suffragists in fourth grade.

But I’m writing you from deep inside this moment. This catastrophe of an American election has consumed the country like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s broken up families. It’s brought out darkness in the nation that I didn’t even realize was so pervasive. It’s lifted up a rock, and out from under it has crawled out a lot of fear, and hate, and violence. No matter who is elected, we’re going to have much healing to do. You can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube. It’s all out now. It’s a holy mess and we’re all going to have to clean it up.

I hope we can do it. I hope this is the struggle that’s needed before real change happens. Though this election quite possibly has given me an ulcer, and made me question my own patriotism, it has done one truly positive thing for me: it’s put me back in touch with my feminism and my activist self. When I was younger, in elementary and high school, I was a politically passionate kid. Long before I could vote, I remember going to marches against homelessness in DC, and wearing head-to-toe Bill Clinton pins as a freshman in a new high school – I was so nervous, but people, even my peers, appreciated my chutzpah and took the pins from me one by one to wear themselves.

Somewhere around college I lost my drive. I got complacent. Maybe a little jaded. I still voted, but just as an obligation, not with any real conviction. When Bush Jr. won the fiasco that was the election between him and Al Gore, the year your dad and I graduated college, I lost my faith for a while. But Obama woke it up. And now, Hillary and the swelling movement that has formed behind her have lit the fire again. As I recovered from Nina’s birth these past months, I paid very close attention to the election news. The biggest group in question are those who are young, complacent, and lacking in conviction, like I was for awhile. I hesitated to be public about my newly invigorated position, but soon I couldn’t contain it. The double standards facing our candidate have been overwhelming. She’s needed an army behind her, so I signed up. I came out of the feminist closet once again, and I don’t know that I’ll ever go back in. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

My job as your mother is to fight for you. My duty as a woman is to fight for us. My charge as a Democrat, as an American, and as a good and decent person is to leave this world better than I found it. I hope I can sustain this throughout your lives, and that you carry on this responsibility and take it seriously.

Your dad has gone to bed. I’ve just finished my third glass of red wine, and my fourth cookie. I’m exhausted, but I don’t know if I will be able to sleep tonight.

I love you both so much that sometimes it feels like pain. I will think of you, and hug you and kiss you tomorrow, probably crying, as I cast my vote, wearing a white pantsuit (look it up). And God, I hope that on the other side of this I will be writing you from a country that has just elected a woman to be the leader of the free world.

I’m With Her,
Mom.

 

“We shall someday be heeded, and when we shall have our amendment to the Constitution of the United States, everybody will think it was always so, just exactly as many young people think that all the privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possesses always were hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past.”
~Susan B. Anthony, 1894

My History of Resting Bitch Face, or Why I’m With Her

I remember it well. Walking through the halls of my high school, and the boys asking me why I looked so mad. I didn’t know I looked like anything; as far as I knew, I was just walking. Some friends told me that I looked unhappy when my face was expressionless. People would ask me what was wrong when I was in a perfectly content mood. Men on the street – older men, younger men – would, unsmiling and menacing, tell me to smile.

I suppose I had learned to set my jaw and cock my chin in a way that conveyed a certain toughness, a “don’t screw with me” self-protective mojo sure to ward off any male predators. But once people I trusted told me I just looked mean a lot of the time, I became self-conscious of what is now referred to as my “resting bitch face” and sought to slowly soften my GI Jane mask, lest I scare the good ones away.

Nowadays my feminist self understands the crappy double standard behind this phenomenon. As has now been well-documented, like in this Washington Post piece, RBF is associated with women much more than with men. The article offers up Anna Kendrick’s struggles with RBF in Hollywood: “When she was younger, directors would say, ‘Why don’t you smile more, you need to smile more, you don’t seem like you’re very happy,’…..That’s something that’s expected from women far more than it’s expected from men, and there’s a lot of anecdotal articles and scientific literature on that. So RBF isn’t necessarily something that occurs more in women, but we’re more attuned to notice it in women because women have more pressure on them to be happy and smiley and to get along with others.”

donald-trump-hillary-clinton-smileyNo woman has received more criticism for her RBF than Hillary Clinton. And as we have all seen in the recent presidential debates, when she smiles, it’s usually in response to a man who looks like a grumpy, aging Oompa Loompa telling the world something like that she has so much “hate in her heart.” Because that’s what 30-odd years in the public sphere has taught one of the toughest women out there: that when she’s at her most uncomfortable, defensive, and injured, the best reaction she can have is to smile. It will make her appear good-natured about all the slander, like it’s just water rolling off her scarred and aching back. And of course, The Donald’s scowl is part of what a lot of Americans love about him. He is the “law and order candidate” after all. He will be our protector, as evidenced by the purse-lipped, pinched glare that Alec Baldwin has satirized to perfection. I wonder if Melania has ever said to her hubby: “You know, honey, it wouldn’t kill you to smile more.”

The RBF critique of HRC is just a small part of what pisses me off most about this election. Much like Barack Obama’s election inevitably called out America’s inherent and systemic racism, the misogyny of the country as a whole has become dangerously palpable with the rise of Hillary Clinton and the otherwise inexplicable popularity of her barfy opponent. We are measuring their performances and their characters with such a nauseating double standard that we’re all well aware of it as we continue to do it.

This could not have been more clear than with the second debate on Sunday night. Coming on the heels of Trump’s gross pussy-grabbing recording controversy, everyone on my Facebook feed tuned in with at least two bottles of red wine on hand to watch her mop the floor with him. A couple of hours later, I listened to CNN commentators grudgingly mumble that “the night belonged to Donald Trump.” Why?? Because he didn’t burst into flames, or crumble into the fetal position under the weight of his own sexism? Because he just wasn’t as awful as we were all expecting him to be?

You know why. Because he gets to be mean. He gets to go as low as he wants, to denigrate the service record of a former First Lady, senator and Secretary of State and call her a liar, blame her for everything that male presidents and a mostly male senate and house decided for the last dozen years, and smear her identity as a wife who didn’t react appropriately to her husband’s indiscretions. The man who’d just been caught bragging about, because of his stardom, being able to treat women however he pleases even if it means assaulting them, apparently won the debate by skulking behind her threateningly and telling her he’d put her in jail.

gothamist_buttonAnd just like the Obamas for the last two elections, she has no choice but to go high. Can you imagine if she went after him in person the way everyone else does on their Twitter feeds? Can you imagine if she let out even a fraction of the rage she must feel toward him? Can you imagine a world in which Hillary is caught on tape bragging to Mary J. Blige about what an expert penis-grabber she’s become since Bill was first elected?

A lot of America would like to see her burned at the stake without any of that having happened. Just as Obama had to keep a Zen-like cool throughout his two elections so he would not be labeled an “angry black man,” we expect Hillary to swallow a lifetime of scapegoating and smile harder as The Donald sells “Trump That Bitch” T-shirts at his rallies. (A side note: in poking around the web for this post, I came across a lot of Trump paraphernalia that I didn’t even know existed, and had to spend a minute with my head in my hands.) She’s the criminal, and he’s just an overgrown locker room jock. And boys will be boys. And it’s just words. Not Hillary’s words, though, because those can’t be forgiven but all the rest of them don’t really matter.

Van Jones takes it home in his video rant “If Trump Were Black” and asserts that Trump would instantly be labeled a “thug” if he were black and engaging in any of this behavior. And if Trump were a woman? He would have been laughed out of the primary and been invited to co-host “The View” so America could watch Whoopi Goldberg rip him a new one every week.

Trump is only in this election because he’s a white man, and he won the debate because the standard for him hovers inches over the ground, while for her it soars over our heads. He can do wrong after wrong after wrong but somehow it’s never wrong enough. She can smile, she can apologize, and she can go high time and time again, and somehow she will still have a “Likeability Problem” – like all of us tough, smart women and our resting bitch faces.

I’m not illuminating anything for any of you who have been reading about the inevitable double standards that American sexism has created during this exhausting, traumatizing election. This is probably the one post I will write about the election before it happens.

It also happens to be my last week of maternity leave. I write this with my daughter resting comfortably in her stroller. Her face is still too young to be judged for its mood and to label her anything but innocent and adorable. She won’t learn to talk for a year or so, but once she does you can be sure I’ll start teaching her how to speak with the conviction of a presidential candidate. And that she’s allowed to use her angry voice when she feels attacked (even with me, God help me). And that she only needs to smile when she’s actually happy, and not so that the world will like her.