April 19, 2017
My son woke up hungry the morning after Election Day, rousing me with a cry in the pre-dawn darkness. I’d only been asleep for a few hours, and fitfully, but for once I was relieved, even grateful to hear him wake up that early. I rolled out of bed, stumbled to his room and scooped him up from his crib, rendering myself hostage to his warm grip and unable to confirm the results I already knew.
Everyone found great comfort in the baby, who had turned seven months old that week. Family members came to see him one after another, like a left-wing New York Jewish version of the adoration of the Magi. We had lox and bagels and fish salad; we joked that we were sitting shiva. Except it wasn’t really a joke. It felt like raw grief, whether we knowingly expected this result or were shocked.
Since then, I’ve often found solace in routine as I feed the baby, change him, put him back down, teach him new skills: scooting across the floor, pointing, or eating real food, cruising along the couch step by step, with a giant grin on his face. At least I can feed this tiny human, at least I can attend to the sometimes numbing demands of parenthood: baths, switching sheets, mashing food, picking up food from the floor, soothing cries, checking temperatures and measuring Tylenol, changing the humidifier water, bundling and unbundling him as we go in and out of the cold, repeating babbling sounds and playing peekaboo, directing him away from grabbing power cords over and over again. It’s such intensely repetitive and exhausting work, and it’s also inherently optimistic and gratifying.
But it’s disconnected from the rage and fear that powers the other work we’re all doing, the phone calls and the demonstrations and the anguished postings online. So one of two things happens daily: I put the baby down to sleep and look at the news on my phone, and my new mom-delight plummets so quickly into doom it creates whiplash. Or, I don’t even make it to bedtime and find my heart rate accelerating when I get home from work as I sing about the itsy-bitsy-spider, trying to beat back my panic so I can focus on the small, sustaining moment, the “at least I can do this” refrain that will anchor me.
These days, I measure life by the coffee spoons of due dates and month-to-month birthdays: Today this infant has a new tooth, someone else had their first ultrasound or felt a kick. My extended social universe welcomed a large crop of new babies before New Year’s, and in 2017, I anticipate a delivery or two every month until July, each accompanied by, knock on wood, the standard email with a picture of a little face poking out from a blanket. These self-delighted “Happy and healthy!” posts, once ubiquitous to the point of being irritating, are now islands of joy as the rest of social media drowns in frenzied despair and furious demands to call Congress and attend emergency protests and marches.
This contrast assaults me every day, and I imagine it’s even worse for my pregnant friends, stuck in a limbo of fear and excitement. How do we reconcile the investment in the future that is implied in this cascade of new life we’re part of, with the reality that the world’s future looks bleaker than it did before—which is saying something.
Our counterparts with older kids are wrestling with the question of how to explain to elementary-schoolers that the bullies won. But for those who are not there yet, the questions we ask are more existential. Our kids aren’t asking us to explain why Trump won; we’re asking ourselves. It’s not a new question facing parents from oppressed groups here and elsewhere, now and in history: How can I bring a kid into a world that threatens his or her existence? The answer is: Because the need to go forward is so intense it defies common sense. “Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby,” Lydia Kiesling wrote in December.
Soon after the American election, Israeli writer Bernard Avishai warned American readers about the way the liberal opposition in his country collapsed: “Since the early eighties, people on the left have admitted having a ‘rosh katan’—literally, a ‘small head—keeping a low profile and focusing on their private lives, because public engagement seemed infuriating and futile,” he wrote. Our situation here is different, obviously, but I thought about that phrase in the following weeks. Spontaneous action is more complicated when you’re tethered to a tiny bundle of needs.
My past existence as one of those annoying people who goes to all the protests and tweets “show up!” has been forced to adapt; it’s logistically difficult to show up with early bedtimes and nursing and bottles and sitters. If I’m honest, a bigger hurdle is my exhaustion, the fact that the baby and I have gotten winter colds in tandem three times in the last two months, the fact that between working and tending to basic needs for my child, I can barely schlep to the corner store or watch TV after dinner. Other concerns are new; I can’t blithely risk arrest the way I may have during Occupy because I am no longer responsible for just myself.
Right after the election, many parents of young kids have said to me, We have to just raise really, really great kids now. People told me I don’t need to do anything to protest Trump yet because I’m a new mother for godsake! But most of those statements came before we were all confronted with the urgency of the kids who are suffering now, whose parents or whose health care or whose refuge is being snatched away from them, or who never had a chance at safety in this troubled country to begin with.
The saving grace in all this hand-wringing is that having a new child or expecting one can have the opposite effect from the rosh katan that Avishai describes: It renders your soul porous. Awash in wonder and worn down by lack of sleep and flowing hormones, you’re more liable to weep at news reports from abroad or injustices at home (or if we’re being honest, sad commercials), to feel attacks on other families as an attack on you. And when children’s health insurance is threatened, or a child is stranded at the airport or gunned down by the cops who are supposed to protect him, that shrill maternal voice you thought you never would assume becomes a constant drumbeat in your head; “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU PEOPLE?” you find yourself saying to yourself. “THESE ARE CHILDREN we’re talking about” And then you end up pumping milk in the basement of a Washington, D.C., hotel during the Women’s March because you want to be able to look your son’s generation, that cascade of new babies on Facebook, in the eye someday.
In D.C, my mom and breast pump and I encountered a group of very young teenagers sitting on a truck above the march route. They revved up a chilled and stiff crowd, eliciting cheers and chants with their enthusiasm. Someone raised those kids, I thought, and now I am being led by them.
Being a mom and an activist, tending your own garden and tending the world’s wounds, is not an either-or choice, even if it involves dozens of smaller either-or choices that feel agonizing as you make them. It’s far from enough to raise good kids, but doing so can be a part your own mode of resistance. Now, my imperative has become turning my sense of outrage on behalf of beleaguered mothers and families into an engine for defiance and solidarity, even in the midst of diapers and bibs and pediatrician visits. As the baby and I grow, and the threat does too, “at least I can do this,” as a mantra must expand week by week into “at least I can do this—and that—and this, too.”