The Day After The Election, I Told My Daughter The Truth

I am devastated. I am furious. And I am sorry, because you deserve better.

It wasn’t the talk I wanted or expected to have with my 8-year-old, who beamed with such delight the day Hillary Clinton secured the Democratic nomination; who wanted to send money from her own piggy bank to Hillary’s campaign; who begged me to buy her Hillary T-shirts (Run Like a Girl, A Woman’s Place Is in the White House); who tagged along with me when I voted on Tuesday, saying, for the hundredth time, that she wished she could vote. Her faith in her candidate’s victory was rock-solid, and it never occurred to me that it might be misplaced.

Tuesday night, when she pleaded with us to stay up late and watch election returns, I shrugged at my husband and said, “This is historic! Think of the memories she’ll have.” So we kept pushing her bedtime back, and back, until her questions and worried comments gradually slowed and she curled up next to me under a flowered quilt, electric-blue glasses askew, her carefully filled-out electoral map long discarded. When we finally sent her to her bed, I promised I’d wake her up and tell her if they called it for Hillary Clinton. “I hope it’s soon,” she said with a tired grin, as she padded down the hall to her room.

She still had hope, and so did I, but I was also afraid; my heart, which had been racing all night without pause, now felt faint. My husband and I would remain up for hours, alternately swearing and reaching for each other’s hands in bleary and increasing panic. This will turn around, I kept thinking, it has to, and when it does I’ll go wake up our daughter and give her the good news.

As my husband and I sent texts and emails, refreshed site after site, our daughter kept sleeping. She slept all through the night.

I can’t pretend this election hasn’t felt achingly, frighteningly personal. A vote for Trump was always going to be a vote against black Americans, Muslim Americans, immigrant Americans; against women and LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. Since Tuesday night, I have been grappling with the sadness and terror I feel as the parent of two girls who are not white, one of whom has a disability; as a woman, a child of immigrants, and a person in a multiracial, multicultural family. I have enormous privilege, and I am also one of millions of people who now feel less safe here.

“Whiteness always wins,” one of my (white) friends said to me last night. She wasn’t shocked; why, I wondered, was I? Why hadn’t I seen this coming? While I’m never especially surprised by white supremacy or misogyny or bigotry — while I thought the election would be wrenchingly close, and always expected to feel depressed by the sheer number of my fellow citizens, including many people I know and love, who cast their votes for Trump — I never actually thought he could win.

My shock now seems further proof of my privilege, a misplaced faith I find utterly mystifying. The question unspooling in my mind as I watched the returns come in last night, the question I kept asking my husband and our equally horrified and bewildered friends, was how on earth we would face our children and clear the breakfast table gauntlet the morning after. How could we possibly explain to our daughter that, given the choice between a hardworking, imperfect, eminently qualified stateswoman and a reality-television star running on a platform of hatred and fear, so many people — including many of our neighbors, friends, some of our family members — chose the latter?

I thought we were better than this. I was wrong.

Rationally, I know that all of us have far more to fear than these wretched conversations we’ll have, over and over for the next four years, with our children. But I can’t help but feel as though I let both my kids down; that I lied to them when I said I was sure our country wouldn’t elect a man who’d shown himself to be so utterly unqualified, who campaigned and won with grandstanding displays of vicious contempt for so many Americans. When I told them I thought he couldn’t win, what I was really telling them was, In spite of everything, I still believe this is your country, and I want you to believe it too.

Though the outcome of the election was in little doubt by midnight, I stayed up until nearly 4 in the morning, reading the first postmortems alongside texts from friends and desperately trying to cobble together what to say to my older child, come daylight. What I kept coming back to, over and over, seemed too devastating to tell an innocent and hopeful 8-year-old: I thought we were better than this. I was wrong.

Our older daughter asked us as soon as she woke up. Trump won, we said, and Hillary lost. She looked crestfallen, and we resisted the urge to try and make it better, cheer her up. The worry and disappointment and anger you feel right now — all of those feelings are okay, we told her. This is terrible news, and nothing can make it better.

We pointed out that we — our family — will be all right for now. We are an interracial family; every once in a while, we might not feel 100% welcome in a given space. But we live in a blue state, and we have more than our share of advantages. If the worry isn’t chiefly ours, we told our daughter, the responsibility is. We need to be ready to help others, defend their rights and stand with their families.

We tried to explain why this happened. A lot of men do not respect girls and women, whatever they might say. A lot of white people in this country are afraid of those who don’t look like them, or believe all the things they believe. They feel left behind; they are looking for people to blame. They have a vision of how this country should be that is, was always, false. Our child nodded along as we told her this; she’s heard it from us before. Yes, people are angry, we said, and some of them have cause. But it doesn’t matter how justified your frustration is — you do not take what power you do have and use it to hurt others, or make them feel less safe.

Our daughter, who is a lot like me and therefore always wants to know The Plan, asked what she could do. Well, we said, you’re already doing something. You can try to be an especially good friend. Be compassionate. Be angry when your friends are angry for a good reason. Be the kind of person someone might reach out to if they are sad, or scared, or lonely, or being bullied. Look out for everyone — especially the kids who seem a little out of place, who might not have many friends.

This election, we told her, proves that you can’t listen only to the things people say about who they are and what they believe. You have to watch them and see what they do. Respect has to be earned; not everyone in possession of authority deserves it — and that includes our new president-elect. The day after we elected Donald Trump, I told my daughter the truth: This was the wrong choice. I am devastated. I am furious. And I am sorry, because you deserve better.

When my daughter asked me yesterday if we would ever leave the country, I said I was still glad to be raising her and her sister here, as opposed to a place where everyone looks the same, talks the same, believes the same things. Maybe it’s something I told her because I wanted to offer her some comfort. It’s almost something I have to tell myself, because we have nowhere else to go. But this slim and slippery thread of hope seems real enough when I follow it to its source: Many people in our country believe that our differences do not have to make us strangers; that they do, in fact, make us stronger. I hope that one day — in my kids’ lifetimes — those who know that will outnumber the people who don’t.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension between anger and hope in this strangest, most stressful of election years, and how I’m glad my child has managed to absorb some of both. But on the dreadful day after, it was hard not to feel guilty as I dropped my kids off at school. Maybe it was a mistake telling my older daughter so much. Maybe I built up her hopes too high. Maybe, now that she has learned this latest terrible lesson about America, the hope she does have will wither before it can take root, flourish, and bear fruit.

I know that I can only give her the truth, and what she does with it is her choice. 

But then, I know that I can only give her the truth, and what she does with it is her choice. She could never have remained unaware, in any case: We’ve never shied away from discussing the hard things with her, and kids are always aware of so much more than parents think. Our child came home with questions about why Trump didn’t like immigrants weeks before he’d even clinched the nomination. She was annoyed that in the lead-up to her school’s mock election, the teachers told them facts about Trump’s family and business, but “nothing about the bad things he’s said.” She is thoughtful, and curious, with a stubborn and growing love of justice. This election year and its horrific aftermath would not have escaped her notice, no matter what her father and I chose to share with her.

None of us who parent or play a role in kids’ lives can afford to flinch or look away from the ugliness of this election, because its consequences will play out in the lives and communities of those too young to vote. I believe they need to hear the truth from us — now more than ever. They must know what they are up against, so they can plan; see what their friends are up against, so they can stand with them. If this election’s results have betrayed their trust, withholding the facts in the interest of “protecting” them would be another kind of failure.

My daughter and I talked some more about the election and her friends’ shock and worry when she got home from school yesterday. The girls were all sad, she said, because “they really wanted a woman to be president.” She added that one boy in particular seemed “a little worried.” His family is Muslim, and he had been one of the kids she talked with most often about the presidential race, one who seemed aware and genuinely anxious about what would happen. “I didn’t say anything to him about the election,” my daughter said quickly, as if to reassure me before I could ask. “I just sat next to him at lunch, and asked how he was.”

Today, she sat next to me in her messy, book-cluttered bedroom, wearing her Run Like a Girl shirt with the Hillary Clinton logo, watching yesterday’s concession speech on my laptop. I wanted to show it to her because of what Hillary had said directly to her and others like her: “To all of the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

When it was over, my daughter looked at me and said, “I’m still sad, but I feel a little better. We’ll try to stop Donald Trump from doing all the bad things he wants to do. And I think there will be a woman president someday.” For all the worry and anger I’ve known since Tuesday night, all the moments when I’ve felt myself slide into despair, I still want to believe she’s right.

Nicole Chung is an editor at Catapult and the former managing editor of The Toast. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, The Atlantic, and other publications. She is working on a book about adoption.

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