“In the booth, I'd watch my soft-spoken mother take full advantage of her voice with the press of a button”
My first #selfie w my mom @HillaryClinton back stage at #CGIAmerica. #ProudDaughter http://t.co/84sEBHsRGn— Chelsea Clinton (@Chelsea Clinton) 1371233865.0
Last week, Louis C.K. told Conan O’Brien he was voting for Hillary Clinton mainly because she’s a mom: “A mother’s just got it… She feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of sh*t.” While I wouldn’t vote for someone just because she’s a mother, motherhood offers a skillset no American president thus far has ever had. In this election, more than any other, I’m reminded of how linked motherhood and politics are for me. I wasn’t raised in a family that sported bumper stickers on our cars or campaigned door-to-door. But my mother has always been an informed voter, reading the newspaper and watching the news each day. And on election days throughout my childhood, whether it was for metro council member or president of the free world, I found myself in line with her at the polls.
The first time my mother took me with her to vote was on November 6, 1984. She voted for democratic nominee Walter Mondale. Reagan won. It was the day after her 33rd birthday, and she was just a few weeks pregnant with me.
During Reagan’s presidency, I was transitioning from diapers to big-girl underwear, and though trickle-down economics, “Just Say No,” and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall happened within my lifetime, the first president I can actually remember is George H.W. Bush.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I would hover around my mother and pick up on new words like Iraq and Kuwait while she sautéed ground beef for taco night.[/quote]
Every afternoon, after my mother picked me up from elementary school, she would watch Oprah, then start dinner as the national news came on. From a small black and white television in the kitchen, Tom Brokaw would report the news from around the world. Always in my mother’s shadow, I would hover around her while she made dinner, picking up on new words like Iraq and Kuwait while she sautéed ground beef for taco night.
Images of tanks in a wind-swept landscape rolled across the screen and into my bedroom at night, and I would lie awake imagining the Gulf War unfolding on our quiet, suburban street in Nashville. Even though I was afraid, I believed my mother when she said those kinds of things wouldn’t happen in America, and definitely not on our street. Though I can still hear Bush Sr.’s voice in my head from those days, I can’t tell you a thing he said—but I understood that Saddam Hussein was bad, oil was precious, and I could swing on the swing set after I cleared my plate. I also knew that the Nightly News belonged to my mother. The show informed her world, one in which she was raising two young girls.
Bush turned into Clinton and Clinton turned into Bush. The Gulf War became the Kosovo War, which then became the Iraq War. The Monica Lewinsky scandal surfaced while I was in middle school. The Twin Towers fell during P.E. my sophomore year of high school. Curled up in my mother’s bed, I watched the Iraq War start in real time the day after my father’s birthday in 2003. By the time I was in college, I rushed home from my classes to catch Tom Brokaw’s final broadcast with her. It felt like losing a member of the family.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]By mom's side, I watched local church rec rooms and middle school gymnasiums transform into centers of democracy.[/quote]
Through it all, I accompanied mom to the polls. By her side, I watched local church rec rooms and middle school gymnasiums transform into centers of democracy—senior citizens wielding temporary authority as they checked IDs and directed voters to booths. In the booth, I'd watch my soft-spoken mother take full advantage of her voice with the press of a button.
We cast her vote together. From behind the closed curtain of the voting booth, we were in our own little world. Pressed close together inside, two pairs of legs peeking from beneath the curtain, my mother would point out on the large, low-tech screen the name of the candidates she was selecting. A red light illuminated her selections. When it was time to submit her choices, she would let me press the giant green VOTE button. As I sunk the button into the machine and let it rebound, there was always a great sense of satisfaction.
I voted in my first presidential election in 2004. My candidate didn’t win and I got my first taste of what it was like to be on the losing side of America’s greatest group conscience. It smarted for a few days and then it passed. It felt a civic duty to keep moving forward. In 2008, I moved to New York, and for the first time in my life, I lived in a blue state. The night President Obama won, people ran down Union Avenue in Brooklyn, blaring music and waving American flags. Four years later and a move back home to Tennessee, Obama lost the state but won the election.
Now self-employed, I work from the public library several days a week. As one of Nashville’s early voting sites, the past few weeks have meant fewer available parking spaces, campaigners hovering around the 100-foot boundary line, and voting lines that snake through the aisles and carrels. Since early voting opened on October 19, county after county across the state has broken voter turnout records. When early voting closed on November 3, more than 1.5 million Tennesseans had already cast their votes.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Whatever the outcome of this election, I don’t feel afraid. There is so much more to believe in than fear.[/quote]
I’ve watched countless parents—even today, it’s mostly mothers—stand in line with their children to vote. Toddlers run down the new release and fiction aisles, babies loll about in strollers, and elementary and middle school children pass the time on their phones while they wait for their parents’ turn. There are no longer curtained cocoons at the polls, no private worlds for mother and child to slip into to have an experience that feels more like church than state. Now the polls are more open, candidate selections guarded by large open wings protruding from the voting machines. Elderly volunteers still pace the floor, democracy’s fiercest first line of defense. Giant green buttons have been replaced with touch screens.
This year, just a few hours apart, my mother and I cast our votes on the day the polls opened in Tennessee. We haven’t voted together since I was in high school. She still watches the Nightly News every night and votes in every election. Tom Brokaw became Brian Williams became Lester Holt. George W. became Obama and Obama will become—we don’t know yet. Time marches on.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]There are no longer curtained cocoons at the polls for mother and child to slip into to have an experience that feels more like church than state.[/quote]
Even though I wasn’t with my mother last month when I voted for a woman—a mother—for president for the first time ever, she was with me. We were still voting together. Whatever the outcome of this election, I don’t feel afraid. There is so much more to believe in than fear: I believe forward motion cannot be stopped. I believe we are always making history. I believe that one person cannot be our collective undoing. I believe that goodness is great but love and tolerance are even better. I believe in quiet voices like my mother’s. I believe in Tom Brokaw and taco nights. I believe in civic duty. I believe in full parking lots and long lines. I believe in magical voting curtains and giant green buttons. I believe in mothers who take their children to the polls.