Like many middle-school kids in America, Claire is hyper-aware of the upcoming election. She may not understand all of the nuances, but she does get that the adults around her are on edge. She knows that the stores in DC are getting boarded up. She hears about the election every day at school from her peers and teachers and she also observes a lot when I’m teaching my government classes. She’s still a child, but she’s too old for me to shield her from much.
The other day she turned to me and said, “what if something bad happens after the election?”
“Claire,” I said, “I understand your concern, but you don’t need to worry about anything. You’re going to be okay.”
She looked right at me, tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. The skepticism from her preteen face was obvious. “That’s what you said last time.”
I stumbled over my response, because I knew she was right.
Shawn and I had let her stay up, that night in November four years ago. She was only seven, but she had gone with me to vote that day and she was excited to watch the first woman become president. We thought it was important that she see the results come in, even though she would be tired the next day.
And then of course things went in a totally different direction. Around midnight, we left our friend’s house and came home with all three kids. Shawn was supposed to start work on Clinton’s transition team the next day. I thought he’d be bereft about his future career. Instead, he looked at me and said, “what are we going to say to Claire?”
I didn’t know. We put the kids to bed and stayed up for a while. Eventually, I went to sleep too, but Shawn stayed up most of the night.
In the morning, when Claire got up, she came halfway down the stairs and looked right at her dad. “Who won?” she asked, expectantly.
We explained to her that Trump had won the election, and that news was a bit sad for her parents, but that everything would be okay.
“How do you know that everything will be okay?” she asked her dad.
“Nothing in your life will change,” Shawn said. “You will still have the same friends, and you will still go to school. You will still have your mom and you will still have me. You will still go to choir and you will still cheer at your brother’s basketball games. So you don’t need to worry too much about this. Let the adults do the worrying.”
She smiled, ate a bowl of cereal, and we took her to school. But I’ve thought about those words a lot over the past four years, and so has Claire. She remembers little about her young childhood, but the election of 2016 stuck with her. And she definitely remembers what her dad said to her.
And she remembers how wrong he was.
She’s not physically in school right now and she also isn’t doing any sort of after school activities. She can’t see her friends and hasn’t connected with many of them since March. Most significantly, her dad is dead. Almost everything in her life is different than the vision Shawn laid out for her four years ago. The future that her father imagined has not come to pass.
And yet, while Shawn got almost all the details wrong, I don’t think that he completely missed the mark.
In his attempt to relate to a 7-year-old, I think he simply got the wording wrong. No – everything wasn’t going to be okay, and honestly, everything wasn’t going to stay the same….not in our world and not in Claire’s world. But I think he was trying to say something more fundamental about life and love and a world that we can’t really predict.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to talk to my kids about this election. I don’t have any good answers, except to present the truth and talk through it with them. But what I’ve realized is that living through the past three years without Shawn has been pretty good practice for discussing uncertainty and heartbreak. I’ve also realized living through the past three years has been pretty good practice for finding hope in all of it as well.
We talked about the election again this morning. Claire was worried that Chris and I would be sad if things didn’t go the way we hoped. I thought about her dad and his words in 2016.
“We don’t know what will happen,” I told her, “but we know that sometimes life doesn’t go our way and we also know that bad things can happen. Some important pieces of our lives – and the world – could change. There could be real hardship sooner or later and we can’t really know the future. But we will still be okay. There are so many people who are working hard to make the world a better place and there are so many people who love and support you. Remember that when you feel nervous.”
Do I worry about the election? Yes, I most certainly do. But I also know that the message that Shawn gave Claire on the staircase that morning in 2016 is one that should still be a source of strength and comfort for her. In our shifting world – one where she sits with different people at the dinner table and learns from a screen – she can still draw strength from the love she gets from the people around her.
And that, more than anything, I hope will guide her as she moves forward.