Respecting the House that Slaves Built


My friend and I had been comparing bad parenting stories, and, that particular time, she won. Her three year old daughter had been tooling around in her toddler car, leaning on the blissfully mute rubber horn and screaming the above noted expletive. My mortified friend apologized to witnesses as she rushed to demonstrate her firm parenting hand and demanded an explanation.

I’m pretending I’m you driving, Mom.

Years later, when I no longer had to worry that my children would so unwittingly humiliate me in public, one of them — I can’t remember which, but presumably one of my daughters — announced to me that when she grew up, she wanted to be a mom. A mom.

I took it as a compliment, though I was not quite sure why. I was still figuring out who I was back then, always with one foot in a downtown office and the other (along with most of my heart) at home with my children. No matter where I was, I feared making a mistake, although I felt far more able to control that at work, and far less fearful, there, of the consequences. Still, I was constantly changing hats, sitting in faculty meetings by day wondering why any of this mattered and sitting in PTO meetings by night wondering why I had abandoned those tiny reflections of myself just so I could weigh in on whether the school should offer chocolate milk for lunch. At home, I comforted myself with thoughts of going to work, where the odds of somebody giving me a pat on the back for a job well done were higher. (My bar was set very low.)

There is nothing more inspiring than a brilliant and accomplished woman who knows that, no matter what, her most important job is raising her children. Much too late for me, I suppose, but it is what I wish for my daughters as they navigate a world where staying at home full time, even if you want to, is not a realistic choice. Where the pressure to excel, to stand out, is so great. Where the temptation to be anything but present is everywhere, and I wonder whether the babies of the future will ever know what it feels like to listen to mom talk — to them — as they get wheeled through the neighborhood.

Even without constant access to every thing and everybody else, we in my my generation of mothers set our fair share of bad examples and made more than our fair share of mistakes. Exhibit A, the toddler with the road rage, whose mother was among the most meticulous I had ever encountered. What I like to think about my own experience, and what I hope I have passed on to my daughters, is that I was aware of the pitfalls and I tried my best — some days more than others.

This year, I have become inexplicably wrapped up in politics. I have never cared all that much, and have always assumed that politicians are even more imperfect than your average human. It goes with the territory. Last night, Michelle Obama, our brilliant and accomplished First Lady and quintessential mother on display, made me realize why I have strayed so far from my apolitical self. Sure, I care about the issues. Most folks do. But what I really care about is the world we are handing over to our children and grandchildren, a world that is confusing and overly filled with horrible examples.

What I realized, as I listened to her, is that what matters most is what we do, not what we say. Don’t get me wrong. I love words, I appreciate beautiful prose, and I get moved by inspiring speech. We can talk and write until we are blue in the face, but our legacy gets passed down through our behavior, how we model the values that make up our inner core.

My interest in politics has arisen with the rise of a candidate who is, on an average day, unfit to sit at a dinner table with children. A candidate who behaves in public in a way I would find unacceptable in private, even after a few drinks. A candidate for whom bad behavior is the norm, and for whom good behavior is a rare accident. Bad parenting, on the grandest scale.