The Political Divide Between Mother and Son
When a teen son tells his mom he's on the opposite end of the political spectrum, she does some soul searching.
“I have something I need to tell you, and you may not like it,” my then 17-year-old son H. said to me.
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I was prepared. I am a tolerant, cosmopolitan person, I told myself. The problem didn’t seem to be drugs or alcohol—as far as I could tell, H.’s only addiction was to protein powder. See, my handsome, sinewy son spends much of his free time in the gym, and, no, he wasn’t about to come out to me; he’s building himself up because he thinks it will give him the courage to talk to girls. So it’s also unlikely he was about to confess to an STD. Whatever it is, we’ll get through this together, darling.
“I think I’m a Republican,” H. said.
“Why can’t you just have herpes?!” I blurted. OK, I didn’t. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it. Because at this point, “I am a Republican” was the one thing this liberal parent was not prepared for.
I began shouting like crazy and said the most hackneyed phrase I never thought would emerge from my lips: This is not how I raised you.
“Your parents were Republicans,” he pointed out. When I explained that, in my opinion, the meaning of being a Republican has changed since then—that people like my parents, whom I simply disagreed with, espoused conservative values and there’s nothing wrong with that—he twisted the knife: “I think I’m a Trump Republican.”
I left the house and walked to the nearest bar. For an hour I stared at my glass, asking the eternal parental question: Where did I go wrong? How could it be that H.—who had proudly gone to elementary school in his “My Mama Loves Obama” T-shirt—was refusing to walk down the street with me in my “We Are All Immigrants” hoodie? (And, incidentally, about half of his close friends are first-generation Americans.)
He had happily volunteered for the campaign of a Democrat during the 2018 midterms. At least I think it was happily. Fine, maybe I had done a little nagging. I suddenly had a flashback of my mother forcing me to attend a motorcade for Richard Nixon when I was 11 and hissing at me, when I was reluctant, that it was an honor to shake his hand.
I had always assumed that no child of mine would need to rebel because I was the world’s most understanding, accepting person. Yeah, I was all loving and accepting—as long as you agreed with me.
Years ago, I had a golden retriever who, like most goldens, loved to fetch. Only the thing he loved to fetch most was my dirty underwear from the hamper—usually when I had guests visiting. This, I realized, is what it’s like having teenagers. They will find that one thing about yourself you’d prefer not to face, and present it to you proudly. Here you go! Now deal with it. In this case, the dirty underwear was my own rigid belief system—that Democratic values were good and
Republican values were bad.
Sitting at that bar, I realized I needed to go back home, and I needed to listen. This was harder than I liked to admit. In the past, if anyone on my Facebook feed showed the slightest support for Trump’s policies (never mind Trump himself): unfriended. I’d stopped talking to Republican-supporting friends. I completely cut off contact with one family member. In short, I was in a bubble just as impenetrable as any far-right Republican’s.
When I sat down to talk with H., I can’t say I liked what I heard, but it was more nuanced than I expected. There were positions he shared with the party today and many he didn’t. More than being a Republican or a Democrat, he was, like so many 17-year-olds, a contrarian. And when I talked to him without flouncing out of the room, I made a few inroads. It was comforting to agree, for example, that climate change is real, and that we could wear our “Science Doesn’t Care What You Believe” T-shirts.
I made less headway in our tariff chat. But I could see that in some areas my boy was considering what I said. I could also see that I was doing something I, like many in my bubble, hadn’t done before: I was coolly talking—and listening—to a Republican.
And now this Republican is saying, “Mom, you’ve got to stop telling people I’m a Trump Republican. I just want to be able to think for myself.”
Where had I heard those words before? Oh yeah. When I told my mother I was a Democrat.