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Trust Issues

New Motherhood in the Age of Trump

Learning to trust myself as a parent has been one thing, but I don’t trust the world with my son

Illustration by Thoka Maer

In October 2016, I found out I was pregnant. In November, I felt a thrill upon taking my unborn child into the booth with me to vote for the first female president of the United States.

After voting, I arranged the Hillary paraphernalia I’d collected over the years on the coffee table, like a kid at show-and-tell. I cooked black bean burgers for dinner, floating happily around the kitchen. My husband and I settled in on the sofa as if we were about to watch a favorite movie, one we’d seen a dozen times before. As the returns came in, he kept trying to make the math work: Okay, we lost Florida, but if Pennsylvania goes blue, there’s still a chance.

More than a year earlier, while visiting my mother-in-law in Des Moines, I saw my first pro-Trump sign planted on someone’s lawn and massive crowds waiting to catch a glimpse of him at a college football game. I had a sickening feeling. But as the election drew closer, my ritual of checking the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight polls first thing each morning helped assuage my fears. The experts assured me all would be well, and I took them at their word.

On election night, we stayed up watching TV until the bitter end. Both of us cried when the Trump family walked onstage, looking just about as stunned as we were. I was furious at myself for not doing more, for ignoring my intuition.

I was pregnant at the Women’s March and at JFK Airport to protest the detainment of immigrants there. I wanted somehow to convey to our child that this was not the world he would inherit, that we would insist upon a better one.

I feel sad to leave this little cocoon, where there is no world but brand-new babies and their parents.

As the opinion pages bemoaned the polarized state of national politics, I got my first glimpses into how parenting decisions are often just as divisive. Some friends said it was essential to swear off caffeine. Others said a large coffee each morning was the only thing that got them through the exhaustion of being pregnant. We learned we were having a boy and were told to decide if we wanted him circumcised. This, depending on whom you asked, was either unspeakably barbaric or essential for avoiding future embarrassment on dates and in locker rooms. I agonized over whether to have a natural birth or the epidural I’d always planned for. People on both sides had me convinced that their way of thinking was the way.

My son was born on a beautiful blue-sky day in June. The morning we were sent home from the hospital, I wrote for the first and only time in the line-a-day journal I’d been given as a shower gift. I feel sad to leave this little cocoon, where there is no world but brand-new babies and their parents. I find myself so excited to see you, every time, even at 3 a.m., walking groggy down the fluorescent-lit hall with a diaper full of ice cubes in my pants.

The day after we brought him home, we were told to bring him back. A blood test showed a potentially deadly infection, though the doctor admitted there was a 99 percent chance this was the fault of an error in the lab. We brought the baby in to be examined. He was fine. But the doctor strongly suggested he be admitted to the ER for 48 hours of observation, with an IV port in his leg should he need antibiotics and a warning that any unusual behavior would be met with a lumbar puncture. I asked a string of questions, including what constitutes unusual behavior when a person is two days old. I asked if, instead of exposing our son to emergency room germs, we could keep him at home and take him each day to our neighborhood pediatrician to be monitored. I refused to let him be admitted, even as a roomful of medical professionals looked at me like I was crazy.

On my son’s behalf I could be a warrior.

One older nurse approached as we were leaving. “You did the right thing,” she said. “You know what’s best for your child.”

I’ve always been indecisive. I have a problem with authority, in that I really like pleasing people. Most days, I’d sooner quietly choke to death than make a scene. But I knew that evening, driving home, that on my son’s behalf I could be a warrior.

When you have a newborn, this spark of fresh life, you think more than ever about death. Death might or might not be the consequence of letting your baby sleep in a swing, of failing to notice he’s rolled onto his stomach in the bassinet, of dozing on the sofa while he naps on your chest.

In those early days at home, I hired a doula who came once or twice a week to offer guidance. My milk supply was low, the baby’s weight dropping, but the doctor said to hold off on giving him formula. I saw not one but two lactation consultants. At their urging, I took 40 herbs a day, breastfed every two hours around the clock, and pumped for half an hour after each feeding. This meant I never slept for more than an hour at a time. They suggested a prescription medication that might increase my milk supply, though it had the pesky potential side effect of suicidal ideation.

I began supplementing with the smallest possible amount of formula, feeling guilty. My reaction surprised me: I myself was barely breastfed and had never put much stock in it. (My own mother, upon seeing me nurse my eight-week-old, said, “You’re still doing that?”) But some kind of primal shame had risen up in me. I was determined to make it work.

One day, overwhelmed by conflicting advice, I asked the doula, “Who is actually in charge of what I do in this situation?”

She responded with just a look.

“You know what’s best for your child.”

The doula confirmed what I was already thinking — it was too much. She urged me to increase the formula, skip pumping in the middle of the night, and get some rest. I realized then that I was paying her to give me permission to follow my instincts.

The other new moms in my life were a saving grace. In a way, we were all going through the exact same experience at the same time. But we were also each raising an individual, and so we sometimes did the same things and sometimes did not. There was never a hint of judgment from these women, only support and love and laughter at the absurdity of the topics that now occupied our minds and conversations. More-experienced mom friends had their own way of putting me at ease. For every problem that arose, they had been there, done that, and their children had emerged unscathed. I trusted these mothers, my friends, more than anyone.

The strong opinions of others kept appearing in different forms — whether to try sleep training and baby-led weaning, whether being in the room when the television was on was detrimental to an infant’s brain development or really no big deal. When my son was six months old, I hired a nanny at the recommendation of a colleague, only to wake up the next morning with a strange feeling. After hours spent in full-blown Nancy Drew mode, my husband and I discovered that the family this nanny said she had worked for didn’t exist; the effusive reference I’d spoken to on the phone was not a former employer, but her best friend. I’d always found it annoying when someone advised me to trust my gut, since much of the time, when I tried to tunnel down and listen, I didn’t hear anything. Motherhood was beginning to teach me how.

Illustration by Thoka Maer

Despite the worry and fear, having a new baby was heaven most of the time. He brought so much joy and distraction that, for those first few months, I could almost — almost — shut out the news. It felt a little selfish, considering the world was on fire. Some days it seemed like everyone I knew, myself included, was depressed about the state of things. But only I had the antidote of a new sound uttered or a handful of chubby baby fingers wrapped around one of mine. I got to be there the first time he heard “Hey Jude,” the first time he saw the ocean.

It’s impossible, though, to ignore reality for long. I remember waking for a 3 a.m. feeding. My husband stirred in bed as I took the baby into the living room. After he latched on, I looked at the news on my phone and saw headlines about the Las Vegas shooting. A lamp flipped on in the bedroom. “Don’t look at your phone!” I yelled, as if I might be able to spare my husband. But it was too late. He was already watching the video. I could hear the gunshots from two rooms away.

Learning to trust myself as a parent has been one thing, but I don’t trust the world with my son. I dread having to explain to him how cruel human beings can be. I find it impossible to reconcile the fact that I can do everything to the best of my ability and still he might get shot to death at school. The experience of being a mother gives you something in common with so many other women, whose children you must also defend. I think about black mothers, who fear the loss of their children at the hands of police. I think of refugees, trying to raise their kids with no solid ground beneath their feet. I think of immigrant mothers separated from their children at the border, and I wonder why the whole country hasn’t taken to the streets in their defense.

My son’s first year of life has been marked by a time of massive uncertainty, when even people we thought were on our side have turned out to be monsters. Bill Cosby is not who we thought. Eric Schneiderman is not who we thought. Donald Trump might be even worse than we thought. The pollsters whose word we once took as gospel were, it turns out, capable of getting it wrong. I’ve now heard so many people — reporters and local campaign workers across the country — who saw what was evolving with their own eyes, just as I did on that trip to Iowa, but convinced themselves that their own best guess couldn’t possibly hold up against hard data.

My fears aren’t specific to this moment, even though it often feels that way. I’m certain mothers have always borne children only to worry that the world isn’t good enough for them. And these mothers have all come to the same conclusion: If we want the world to change, we’ll have to do it ourselves. When I was growing up, Mothers Against Drunk Driving transformed policy and behavior. Earlier this year, I joined what I hope will be our modern equivalent, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. On this issue and so many others, politicians have proven themselves gutless. Impassioned groups of individuals are our only hope.

As humanity seems ever crueler and harder to comprehend, my trust in my own small circle grows.

Years ago, I worked as a researcher in the editorial department of the New York Times. A great perk of the job was getting to sit in on editorial board meetings. One day, the board interviewed a coalition of mothers from Israel and Palestine, divided by so much yet united by the fact that none of them wanted to see their children harmed. I thought of them one recent night. My baby was crying in his crib. I was trying to be strong enough to let him learn to soothe himself. Sitting in my own room next door, I scrolled through Twitter and saw a photograph of a Palestinian child, dead in her mother’s arms. Without thinking, I plucked my son from his crib and rocked him to sleep. I didn’t let go until morning.

My baby boy will soon turn one. He’s speed-crawling now, pulling himself up on the furniture and trying to jump off, biting and pinching us, laughing when we tell him no. It’s nearly impossible to believe that not long ago, he was so fragile we thought he might break at any moment.

As humanity seems ever crueler and harder to comprehend, my trust in my own small circle grows. As does my trust in myself. There’s no time to be wishy-washy. Every day, I see the world through two sets of eyes: my own skeptical ones, and the bright eyes of a brand-new human who is amazed when he discovers the most simple joys — flowers, pizza, petting the dog. Holding all of this at once is perhaps the best definition of motherhood I know.

New York Times bestselling author of the novels Commencement, Maine, The Engagements, and Saints For All Occasions.

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