My entire life had led up to election night. I had lived and parented as a fierce advocate for feminism, intellectualism, equality, and inclusion. As a secular humanist, my personal platform was that love wins. I sat with my children, confident that they would see the fruition of all the lessons I hoped they would learn: that the racist, homophobic, misogynistic, unintelligent sexual predator would not win, that a woman could be president, and that their fellow Americans love us.
That all came crashing down as we witnessed hate win. My faith, which is in humanity, crumbled more and more as each state turned red on the screen.
You see, this election is different than any other I have experienced in my lifetime. This is not about any political party affiliation or losing an election. My candidates have lost before – many times. While disappointment in a step away from my own agenda would occur, I never feared for my family, my friends, my planet, and myself on this level. My mind is scrambling to make sense and assign meaning: How did this happen? Who are these people I share a country with? How much can our government absorb this man’s crazy? How can all these leaders just smile and fall in line?!
But I cannot allow my own despair to overcome me because I am a mother to 3 beautiful and hopeful children who are looking to me to make sense of this election in the context of their understanding of the world and the people around them and to provide a sense of security. So I take one breath at a time (in for 4, out for 7), I focus on what is right in front of me (sing, dance, and play with my children), and woman up and be the mother they need in this scary moment in history.
Manage your own despair.
It’s okay for them to see us shocked, disappointed, and angry. Those emotions are honest and authentic emotions should be acknowledged, not denied. But then they need to see us cope with those emotions in healthy ways. That is parenting gold. You are writing the script they will use for the rest of their lives in the face of adversity, fear, and defeat.
For me that looks like allowing the space to feel all those feelings without judgment (a good cry), using coping tools and techniques that resonate a sense of calm within me (breathing, hugs, a hot bath, a soft blanket, time in nature, and a focus on small joy at my fingertips), attempting to learn from the experience (my current state), and tapping into a sense of hope and strong drive to move forward in a direction in which I am passionate (on the horizon).
Answer questions factually.
Every curiosity is a learning opportunity. If they are asking, they are ready for an answer, yet answers should be only as deep as they are able to digest. If my 4 year old, West, asks for a bite of pie, I’m not going to try to shove the whole pie down his throat (because pie is important!). I’m going to offer him the bite he asked for. If he asks for more, I’ll offer more. When he stops asking, I’ll stop offering.
The older the child, the greater the opportunity to copilot their own information gathering and meaning making. This might look like watching the news together, reading articles online, or talking with others with different perspectives (like a friend who is Muslim or a family member who has experienced sexual assault).
Learning how the electoral college works is an example of something my 8 year old, Bay, wanted to know and my 11 year old, Sky, wanted to understand why it was originally set up that way. Throughout the last 18 months they have been slowly digesting the positions of Trump. If your children haven’t and ask why you are concerned, explain why.
“He treats women horribly, including calling them names and touching their bodies without consent. He wants to make lots of people who look and believe different things from him leave our country, like people from Mexico and people who are Muslim. He wants to end programs that help people in need and that protect the environment. That said, our government was designed to prevent any one person from destroying our country. That’s why we have things like Congress and voting. It’s a system of checks and balances that requires consensus. And if that fails to stop hate, I will be there and I know others will stand with me.”
“I don’t know” is an acceptable response. I don’t have all the answers, especially right now. That is an important lesson too: being patient with yourself as you engage in the process of learning, meaning-making, and planning how to move forward in the face of the unexpected.
Try to provide information (and/or a means to find answers themselves), build compassion for the perspective of others (What was behind the vote for Trump among older citizens in rural areas?), and most importantly, encourage them to form their own beliefs and make their own meaning. You can share your view, show them the views of others, and but then ask them about their view, which is neither right nor wrong, but an important step for in their development (even if it’s different than your own).
Respect their limits
Bay asked me to turn off the television. I did. The weight of the world’s upset is heavy on the hearts of children. Hell, I struggle with it and I have decades of practice. They will often absorb all they can tolerate and then seek escape from the input where they can play out their concerns. Carve out the space for this. You might be deep in a complex and important conversation when your kid sees a squirrel out the window and runs outside. Let them. Children are brilliant at this type of regulation when we respect them. Live openly and invite but don’t pressure or coerce – that is a good rule of thumb.
Emphasize that you will keep them safe.
The bottom line is that children need to feel safe to thrive. As much as it may not feel right in the face of certain tragedies (especially with the death of a loved one), the world will keep spinning and our lives must keep going.
“Are we going to be okay?”
“This change for our country feels big and scary right now BUT I WILL ALWAYS KEEP YOU SAFE. We will keep adventuring and playing and loving like we always do.”
This might sound easier said than done, especially if you are not a heterosexual, white man. But it’s true and your children need to hear it. As parents we would lay down our lives for our children. We would fight a wild bear with our bare hands. We would scale any mountain to give them health and happiness. Our future as a country and for us individuals out of Donald Trump’s favor might be dark and uncertain, but today I am going to hold my children’s hands and run with them and play with them and sing with them. I’m going to be their mother, because that’s the job I signed on for when I chose to have a baby, even and especially when it’s hard.
After Sky finally went to bed in the wee hours of the morning after the election, we had this text conversation:
“I love you Mommy.”
“I love you FOREVER.”
“I’m sorry about Trump.”
“We’ll be okay my love.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay, I’m just a little worried.”
“That’s my job. Mommies hold all the worry so you don’t have to.”
“You’re right. Well if anything I am so happy that you are my mommy.”
“You are safe. You are loved. Goodnight Sunshine.”
Channel your upset into productive action
This step is probably the most important and I’m not there yet. Stay tuned.