Our love for our children is being weaponized for the worst possible purposes
Some questions for parents (especially White parents) in this moment when hate and division is being proffered in our name
Welcome to THE WHITE PAGES SPRING PLEDGE DRIVE WEEK (*AIR HORN*) which is mostly me using my birthday week (this Thursday, baby!) as an excuse to offer a discount on paid subscriptions. The “pledge drive” of it all is a tribute to the public radio fundraisers on which I was raised. Pretty White, right? That’s the point. But yes, there are (Barnraisers) tote bags and sweatshirts to be had for folks who can pitch in a bit more. And pretty sweet discounts for folks who can’t. What’s more “pledge drive” than that? There may also be some bonus content later in the week, but that’s still TBD.
The pledge drive conceit aside, I know that I often use this space to pitch paid subscriptions. If you’ve ever wondered why I do so, where the money goes and how I think about the financial side of my justice work, I put together a FAQ/transparency document. It was fun to write (and I hope fun to read!). If you don’t have time, though, the Cliff Notes version is that about 7,200 folks subscribe but only about 6% of folks contribute financially, which is enough for me to keep this up (because I’m not the primary wage earner in my family), but not so much that I don’t mean it when I ask this community for your support/investment. As always, thanks for considering and if the pledge drive branding makes you nervous, rest assured, I promise not to read your name on air. We will return to non-pledge-drive programming on March 15th.
I have two kids. The oldest will be ten in May. That means that my wife and I have spent nearly a decade thinking what feels like a million distinct, frenetic thoughts about another human being. My daughter is six-and-a-half years old, which, in turn, is exactly how long we’ve been thinking twice that many thoughts about twice that many human beings.
On any given day, my wife and I think our two million thoughts about our children and feel energized and inspired and confused and frightened and exhausted and deeply in love. We have immense belief in the lives they will build, both for themselves and in community with others. We are also so, so afraid for them. Just profoundly so. We fear that they may be held back by our limitations and imperfections as parents. We fear for the ways they’ll be hurt and the ways that they’ll hurt others. We fear that our generation (and our ancestors) have left them with a pretty big mess, one which they won’t have enough time to clean up.
There is more than just hope and fear, of course. We laugh louder and harder than we ever thought was possible, have our breath taken away on a regular basis by their wisdom, and also feel perennially guilty because one of them invariably tries to tell us a meandering-but-still-beautiful-in-its-own-way story during this— the blessed window when they WANT to be a part of our lives— and we squander it because we get a dumb notification on our phones.
Every day we love our children, and every day we worry that we’ve made one of a million real or imagined mistakes: We haven’t supplemented the literacy instruction they’ve received in their Title I classrooms, we’ve tied their shoes for them instead of making them do it themselves, we’ve given in and let them eat buttered noodles too many nights in a row. Some days, my wife and I feel overwhelmed by all of those maybe-real-maybe-imagined-mistakes and some days we feel self-righteously proud of our ability to be un-bothered by trends and judgements. Most days, we just admit that we have no idea what we’re doing. I mean, what should we be serving them for dinner— Kale? Sushi? Phonics? Whole language learning? A smoothie through a straw (better to free up their hands to practice shoe-tying)? Probably not! But the point is, we don’t know!
We are flooded with these two million thoughts and who knows how many logistical and spiritual stressors, even though my wife and I are cocooned by every imaginable form of societal privilege and advantage. We’re a college educated White couple with a savings account, a healthy, loving marital partnership and two White, neurotypical kids who aren’t feared or misunderstood by the world.
And still, the millions of conflicting thoughts and questions and joys and worries are always there— poking us, prodding us, reminding us how long it’s been since we’ve gotten a decent night’s sleep.
This past week, my fourth grader came home from school with a lot on his mind. Another kid had stolen the pack of Pringles that he received for winning the class spelling bee. He’s a verbal processor, so he needed to talk through it out loud. He’s also a pacer, so there was a lot of that as well. Eventually he landed on something to the effect of “whoever did it must be having a ton of weird stuff going on in their brain right now, since we (his cohort of fourth graders) all feel like our brains are going hay-wire right now.”
I listened. I tried to focus just on him, just on the moment. But the million thoughts kept flooding in:
My pride at what sounded like an immensely mature reflection— one far more measured than I would have had as a ten-year-old.
My parental protectiveness (“who stole my kid’s chips???”).
My confusion that we’re giving out family pack Pringles for spelling bee wins these days (?!).
My guilt that this was a long conversation and I didn’t give my daughter an equitable amount of attention that evening (was that patriarchal, dude-centering parenting on my part or just another in the long line of indignities faced by younger siblings? Probably both! And in the meantime, neither is all that good at tying their shoes!).
My dread that my son is right— he and his friends are growing and changing and their brains are starting to fry and frazzle and not for nothing, but suddenly they’re SO BIG and oh my God he’s going to be a teenager soon and (a). how did that happen and (b). I only even half-know know how to raise young children. Am I actually equipped to raise a teenager? I heard that teenagers don’t want to alternately cuddle and pace around the room and tell their parents everything that’s on their mind any more? Am I emotionally ready for that?
We talk about how parenting is exhausting but rewarding and beautiful but confounding and how parents (mothers especially) are “not okay” because of how much they’re asked to bear and how this moment in parenting is poisoned by racism and patriarchy and capitalism and heterosexism and ableism and fat phobia and how “the days are long but the years are short.” We don’t, however, talk about how dizzying it is that, as a parent, you experience all of those things (and so much more) all at once, all the time.
I am not saying anything that any parents or caregivers or children of parents and caregivers don’t already know. There is nothing I have ever done in my life that is more universal, more shared, more connected-to-the-rest-of-humanity than the act of parenting. Why then, is it that this is the part of our lives that makes myself and my spouse feel the most alone, the most isolated, and the most disconnected and distrusting of so many other whom we should be supporting right now?
Across the country, power-hungry politicians and reactionary media moguls have been eager to take advantage of the eternal miasma of confused parental emotion (particularly White parental emotion) for their own craven purposes. This isn’t new, of course. If the story of American racial capitalism is of an economic order maintained through the constant re-establishment of racial and gender hierarchies, it is parents (White mothers especially, for reasons deeply embedded in the relationship between those multiple hierarchies) who have long tended to that Devil’s garden. It is White parents for whom our nation built Jim Crow, and White families for whom we cleared the frontier by any means necessary. It is White parents who fled to the suburbs and pushed their kids into “gifted” classes, White parents who attacked the desegregation buses, White mothers who tipped off the lynchers to their next target and White fathers who made up the lynching party.
And while it isn’t just White parents who have always been called on to defend heterosexism and transphobia and patriarchy, it’s traditionally been White parents who’ve led those crusades as well— from the Anita Bryant Save Our Children wave of the 1970s through the current witch hunt that has sought to tag any trans-and-Queer affirming adult role model (teachers, physicians, etc.) as a nefarious “groomer.”
It may not be new, but that doesn't mean that we’re not in a moment right now. If you are a parent in a state that has a Republican controlled legislature, you have been invariably assaulted this year with a slate of legislation purportedly enacted in your name: Book bans, attacks on trans kids and adults, public school-eroding vouchers for increasingly wealthier and Whiter populations, assorted anti-Critical Race Theory nonsense. And even if you’re a good liberal White parent who wouldn’t be swayed by all that far-right red meat legislation, there is no shortage of appeals to your self-interest as well: Article upon article about how the “defund the police” movement went too far and how your kids now aren’t safe, the whispered assurance from friends that you’re not really selling out if you enroll your kids in private schools or in a ritzy suburban district, the pervasive (but implicit) myth that parenting while privileged is all about maintaining your own family’s class and racial position.
It is all too much. If there’s anything about contemporary discourse that causes me true despair, it’s that we’re asked to compress our love for our children into such small, fearful containers. Again, parenting is such a lovely and such a lonely art. We need each other— us fellow parents and caregivers—so much. We deserve public policy enacted on our collective behalf (paid family leave, universal childcare and healthcare, free college, etc.), and we should be fighting together to attain it. But instead, it is precisely this part of our identity that we are told, directly and indirectly, should be weaponized in order to keep an unjust system humming and to elevate the most craven among us to the heights of power.
So often, when I see my fellow parents taking that bait— particularly in its most hateful, divisive forms, I just want to shout and yell and declare my comparative right-ness. I want to stand on the other side of the school board meeting and out-scream the witch hunting “Moms for Liberty.” And there is a time and a place for that, I suppose. But I also know that at least part of why I am so good at judging other parents for taking the bait is because I fear all of the ways that I still take it myself.
The other week, I went to a parent engagement council meeting at my kids’ school. The crowd was 60% White parents, at a school with a 10% White student population. I spoke up at that meeting, likely for a good reason (there have been a lot of issues in fourth grade, ones that go far beyond the occasional Pringles theft, and nobody else was talking about them). A whole lot of other White voices talked as well. Everybody had a justifiable individual reason to talk. But the pattern was both obvious and discomfiting. Nobody did anything wrong, but it still looked and sounded like another space colonized. I left feeling deeply unsure of when I’m operating in community vs. when I’m just fighting for my kids’ piece of the pie or even how to know the difference.
I realize, in those moments of doubt and shame, that even if I’m in the wrong, it isn’t a strident lecture from another parent that will help me get unstuck. Rather, it’s a set of questions. In these moments, I need questions that are empathetic but challenging, that see me and my wife and our fatigue, but that also ask us to consider a bigger picture. They are similar in spirit to the questions we needed when we couldn’t decide whether to sleep train, or when we were afraid we weren’t managing our daughter’s allergies correctly. That spirit doesn't change now that they’re about a higher set of stakes.
So if that’s what I need, that’s what I have to offer. These are for other parents and caregivers, but especially other White parents and/or cis-het parents in the United States. They are both for the parents who are most likely to vote for a reactionary conservative culture warrior and for those who say “Hate Has No Home Here” but still make a set of choices that prioritize their kids’ spot at the front of the line above all else. They’re for you, but they’re also for me.
What was a moment when your children absolutely shocked you in the most beautiful possible way— when something about their kindness or talent or insight or humor or genius just took you by surprise, and you realized “oh my goodness, this human being is so much more incredible than I ever imagined?”
What does it feel like in the moments when you fear that the broader world won’t love, accept or provide a place for your children to thrive?
What do you notice about what triggers those fears? Which of them come from your or your kids’ identity— their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their disabilities? Which of them come from lived experience: From watching them get bullied, from seeing something delightful in them that the rest of the world doesn’t, from hearing teachers talk about them in ways that break your heart?
Which of those fears don’t come from any specific place at all, but are just there? Why do you think they are there? What purpose do they play for you?
How many of your own stories of growing up— what worked about it and what was painful about it— are intertwined in those fears? If you’re co-parenting, how much of your spouse’s story is at play as well?
How exhausted are you right now? How unseen do you feel? How unsupported… in your partnership (for those of you who are co-parenting), in your community, in your country?
How deeply frustrating is it that so many of those root causes of your exhaustion (particularly for mothers and non-binary parents in a patriarchal system, for parents of color in a racist system, for working class parents in capitalism, and of course, for all of you for whom those identities intersect) are structural, and yet you’re never offered meaningful structural solutions? How does it feel to always have to go it alone and then to feel blamed for how you went about going it alone?
Why do you feel like you have to fight just for your own kid? Are you afraid that, if you don’t, you and your kids will be left behind? And if so, what does “being left behind” look like for you and your family?
Are you afraid that your kids will grow up to reject you, especially if they end up having different political values than you? Why is that a fear for you? What would that rejection look like?
Do you have a specific, set-in-stone understanding of your kids’ gender identity or sexual orientation? What is behind the rigidity with which you hold that vision? What are you afraid you’d lose if you’re wrong?
Again, how hard is it to be a parent? How confusing is it? How alone do you feel?
Knowing how hard it is to be a parent, why would you choose to make it harder for other kids and parents, especially kids and parents for whom our society already creates so many extra barriers (because of race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, etc.)?
Knowing how much you love your kids, why would you choose to make life harder for anybody else’s kid— somebody else’s Queer or trans kids, somebody else’s Black and Brown kids, somebody else’s poor kid?
What lessons do you hope your kids learn from watching you operate in the world— not from your statements, but how you show up, what you prioritize, how much of that is just for your family vs. for all of us?
What would you need to feel less alone in this?
What can you offer to help all of us feel less alone?
Is this why you became a parent? To make your world smaller and smaller? Or were you hoping for something more expansive, something more connected, something more communal?
Do you honestly believe that the politicians telling you to hate or fear somebody else right now— A Black Studies Professor, a non-binary teenager, a beloved social studies teacher— love you and your kids? Or are they using you?
Do you truly think this is the best we can do?
Song of the week:
Have I really never picked an Ethel Cain song? There are a bunch of layers that make this track (“American Teenager”) a good match for this week’s essay, but truth be told Ethel Cain is mostly on my mind because we were talking about her on The Flyover Politics Discord, which of course you all have access to if you get a White Pages subscription (was that a hamfisted segue? Of course, but that’s just the Pledge Drive spirit!). Catch that fever!!
As always, you can find the collected song of the week playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.
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Sometimes when I run through my city of Oakland, CA (and the elite enclave of Piedmont wholly surrounded by it), my mind wanders and I get to wondering what the ranking would be of the most destructive forces in Oakland's history. There are many. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the choices made by many, many White parents in their kids' best interests through the decades to be easily in the top 5 — choices that I can sit back and judge as a childless person and not have to grapple with. As I lose new-parent friends to Denver and Salt Lake and other places that aren't here, it seems impossible to balance what's good for kids with what's good for the world. I'm very thankful that some parents are trying.
I'm not even a parent and these questions gave me chills! well done garrett!