On Election Night, you went to bed crying, and this time, I couldn't fix it. Like half the country, you thought you would be going to bed with your candidate as the president-elect. I wiped away a big, globby tear from the end of your nose, proud of you for caring so deeply about your country. I said it was going to be OK. I explained that, "politics goes back and forth, and this year it just wasn't our turn. Remember when I was for Obama and you were for Hillary, and she lost the primary, but you ended up liking Obama?" Your thirteen year-old defiance broke through your tears, as you declared, "No, this is different!"
You then spouted off a litany of things I didn't know you thought much about:
"It's different because Donald Trump doesn't have the basic morals of everything our country stands for. He doesn't even have the morals of a normal Republican. It's not that the other side won. It's that the person who won is literally against half of the people in the country. He doesn't like Muslims, Mexicans, anyone who is LGBT, he definitely doesn't like women, or people of color. He doesn't like ME. It seems like he only likes people like himself — white males. How can he be our president?"
He's our president because people voted for him and he won the election. I will be raising you under a Donald Trump presidency until you go to college in four years. But you're right, it is different. I admit I don't know how to talk to you about racism and sexism sometimes, because we haven't had to face it too much so far.
For most of your life, your president was an exemplary family man who treated his wife and daughters with love and respect and never talked about women in degrading ways. For the past eight years, your president had the same skin color as you, and he was raised by a single mom, just like you. His mother was white, and his father was black, just like you. Your skin color is a ridiculous things to even mention, except in our country, it matters.
As your mom, I find it so hard to teach you that something doesn't matter but at the same time matters so much. How do I tell you that Black Lives Matter when you can see on YouTube that they don't seem to? You will be driving in two years. I will need to teach you how to be arrested without getting hurt or even killed. As a white person, how do I tell you what to do when you are treated differently because of how you look? My parents never had to teach me that. I only have until you're eighteen to get this right — when you're old enough to cast your own vote.
It's important to me that you know without a doubt that voting is not the only voice we have in our democracy. You asked about joining debate team at school the other day — I say go for it. You should know how to defend the ideas you feel strongly about. It's also important to learn how to challenge the opinions of others with intelligence, calm, and respect. I know this is not what you see on TV these days.
Racist and sexist people may now feel empowered to express themselves more often and more angrily, now that they have a president they feel represents the same ideas. Racist and sexist things may happen in your life more often. You will hear things on the news, at school, and see things online that I can't shield you from. I have felt the hate from Trump supporters because of who I voted for. It scares me that so many of them will judge you because you are black, or think less of you because you are a woman.
You were three years old the first time you experienced racism, when I picked you up from preschool and you told me a girl said you were the wrong color. You wanted to know what the right color was. I awkwardly tried to explain a horrible truth to your sweet, innocent self, that some people hate others because of what color their skin is. I told you that there is no right or wrong color, but I didn't tell you that in America, that isn't really true. I was so upset driving home I could barely see. I spoke to your school after that incident. I didn't know what else to do.
I read to you a lot, and you loved to read. As you grew up, sometimes teachers and other parents would say how well-spoken and well-mannered you were, or how well you read. But there were times that it was not a compliment, but an expression of shock. They did not expect that from a black girl. I didn't say anything in those instances and I regret it. I didn't know how to confront that kind of racism. But we both need to learn.
I won't always be there when something happens, but I promise to protect you and stand up for you, no matter what, as best I can. I promise to listen when you tell me that you didn't get the apartment, the date, or the chance, because you are black, or that you didn't get the job, the promotion, or the salary, because you are a woman. I promise I will comfort you, but I also promise to teach you how to confront and change injustices effectively — we will be learning as we go along, you and I.
I am sorry the world is like this. I couldn't change the result of the election, or fix the country with my vote. But I can control how I live my life. I will write, share my story and experiences, to help others understand the things I have learned and seen: that being homeless doesn't make you bad; being poor doesn't make you lazy; being black doesn't make you violent; having mental illness doesn't make you an outcast; being sexually assaulted doesn't mean you did anything wrong. We are people. Sometimes we are in crisis or pain, alone and lost, sometimes we need help, but we are all capable of coming through even the most hopeless of circumstances. I know because I did.
I've always been honest with you about my past, my mistakes and challenges, and some people think it is inappropriate. They think that I should hide it from you and be ashamed. I won't. It is one thing I am sure I did right so far as your mom. What I hear most often about you from teachers, parents, and friends — going back to kindergarten — is that you have so much empathy for others, that you will stand up to a bully, or befriend the new kid. That means you can put yourself in someone else's shoes, that you can see another side to things, that you can look at someone different from you with love in your heart. I am touched every time I witness it in you. I saw this when our Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I was so touched at your expression of empathy for the Cleveland Indians team and fans, because of how it must have felt to lose after coming so far. You made me so proud to be your mom.
Having empathy is empowering, because it means you can vote with your life, every day. It is what I love about the Democratic Party. That is why I have been honest with you about who I am all your life — because I wanted to show you that people can change, no matter who you are, that your life can change, no matter how bad it seems. Hiding reality from you would not prepare you for life, and your empathy tells me it was the right choice. It has broadened the vocabulary of your heart, to know the truth.
You know that homeless people are struggling people, not bad, because I told you about the time I was homeless. When you see a homeless person begging, you always ask if we can help. Sometimes we can't. You know that many homeless people have mental health conditions, because we talked about it when I told you I had depression, and what it was. You know I speak very openly about mental health to encourage those that are suffering to ask for help, because I suffered so needlessly for decades, not seeking treatment, because I was ashamed. You have seen me help others by speaking and writing about it.
You know I am a recovering alcoholic and addict, because you have seen me go to meetings all your life. You have seen me work for prison reform. You understand that I do it to help people like me get help instead of given jail time. Now, you even know that I was sexually assaulted, because you asked how I got pregnant with you. That was a tough conversation, but we got through it, didn't we? It is not something to be ashamed of — ever — for either of us. I was amazed that you were able to see it from another perspective, too. You said that if that happened to you, you don't think you would make the same choice I did.
You have an absolute right to make that choice, and always will, even if the law in our country changes, because of who Donald Trump will appoint to the Supreme Court. I will always work like hell to make sure you have that choice, because I know that no one can make that decision for you — and never should. It was so hard I almost didn't survive it, and I only did because I had extraordinary support from family, and from the very government programs Republicans want so badly to cut. Standing up for these things are ways to vote with my life, with my passion, with my work, with what I do for others, what I stand up for, stand up to, and why. I have found that this is the most important way to make a difference, because there are problems, there are things to worry about, there is work to do.
So, when I said there was nothing to worry about, that's not really how I felt. I didn't tell you that I felt like Donald Trump and his supporters just came along and kicked over the sand castle that Obama and people like me had spent eight years building. I didn't tell you I felt upset, scared, hopeless, deflated, and unsure, or that I was afraid of what Donald Trump has brought into our homes and our lives that could hurt us. I didn't tell you I'm not sure I can protect us both from everything. I didn't want you to feel unsafe. I didn't want that happy-go-lucky anything-is-possible quality about you that I love so much to go away.
I'm writing this to keep telling you the truth, and to tell you that no matter how nervous I might get about things, I never give up, because again and again I have seen my life transform from the worst possible circumstances to ones beyond my greatest dreams. Sometimes the most terrible of things happens and we suffer. But I have found so many times, that out of these dark times, so often for me comes something amazing — better than I'd ever dreamed. Sometimes I have to wait for it, and I always have to work for it. But when I look back, I find myself being grateful for times when it all seemed so hopeless, because that's when I found my passion, my purpose, and gave it my all.
Still, I must remind you that things do not always go our way. My job is to teach you to win with honor and grace, which is not what we are seeing from Trump voters right now, and how to lose with dignity and character. I remember when you helped me fill out my mail-in ballot a few weeks ago, looking up all the candidates and propositions together. It was the first time we really talked about politics like that, and we both felt very strongly about many things. We get one vote — an equal say. We have a voice that contributes to the whole — the whole city, state, and country. But if more people decide they feel differently than we do, we go along with it. If we can't go along with it, we need to help people understand why. There are other ways to be heard, to contribute, to change things.
Before you went to bed on Election Night, I told you one person can't change the entire country so easily. Apparently, you're getting a good civics education, because you rolled your thirteen year old eyes at me and said, "Mom, the House and Senate are red, too. Duh." Impossibility and diversity. Defeat and despair. That's where change comes from, that's where seeds of greatness are born — you see it in your history class.
That's why you are doing a project on Rosa Parks and not on the people who told her to move or called her names. She stood up against something that was wrong even though almost everyone else was saying it was right. It was probably the worst day of her life at the time, and look what came of it — her legacy, her greatness, and all that it did to help so many after her. It's the same reason why we celebrated the Suffragettes this week, who fought so hard for a woman's right to vote. History is not kind to those who try to block progress. Their names are not celebrated and rarely remembered.
You want to be a surgeon someday. I hope that you not only realize your dream, but accomplish things you haven't thought of yet. My job is to give your life room to pursue your dreams, even during the times we struggle. That is the great promise of our country and it is still true no matter who is president. But it is also my job to teach you that we are not just what we do for a living, that our greatness is not measured by how much money we have. You are magnificent and worthy just as you are, no matter what anyone else says or calls you. Character is defined by how you treat others — especially those who are different from you, who you disagree with, or who hate you. We do not yell at them, or call them names. I want the experience of having Donald Trump as your president to make you a better person, not angry, resentful, or mean. Those are the things you don't like about him, remember?
I promise to work to keep you safe, to keep you whole. You will see so many others, including Hillary Clinton, and others who lost, doing the same. You will see that people like us, we rise from defeat, we are nourished and inspired by it. We transform it into a unifying power. We always have. Now grab my hand. Let's go.
Maureen Herman, author and musician, is currently writing her first book, It's a Memoir, Motherfucker on Macmillan's Flatiron Books imprint, due in 2017. She was the bassist of Babes in Toyland from 1992 until 1996 and from 2014-August 2015. She lives in Los Angeles with her amazing daughter. She's also known to be activist-y.