19 January 2017

A Letter to My Toddler Daughter on the Eve of the Presidential Inauguration

The morning of November 8—election day—my wife and I and our one-year-old daughter eagerly wore our Hillary for President shirts. The H-with-an-arrow logo seemed to embody our daughter’s nimble, energetic, hopeful spirit. We even had a t-shirt for her teddy bear, and as she hugged it, she flashed a gap-toothed, triumphal smile.

I thought about the letter to my daughter that I’d recently begun. I was going to finish up that night, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected our first female president. I was going to talk about strong women. Sojurner Truth. Susan B. Anthony. Fanny Lou Hamer. Thanks to all their hard work all of us alive today have more opportunities, and though there’s more—way, way more—to be done, the future’s bright.

And the election results came.

Platitudes drained away. Words failed. The document with my notes stayed untouched for days, weeks, months. I didn't know how to say something that didn’t devolve into swearing and bitterness. I’ve never felt such writers’ block, or such a mental block, period.

On the cusp of inauguration, I’m still trying to make sense of it all, but I also understand that I can’t just sit here processing. And this, I’ve finally realized, is what I want to say to my daughter:

* * * 

Dear M,

The stories you know end “Happily Ever After,” and what a joy that is. In real life, it’s possible, achievable. Savor that hope, that vision for the future. Never let it go.

But the truth is, my love, things do not always work out, despite our best efforts, our best intentions, our dearest wishes. Saying this out loud feels like both a breach of the parental contract to soothe and comfort, and also a fulfillment of parental obligation to prepare you for the world.

The lives we lead do not always follow a tidy, predictable, cheery narrative arc. The monsters and villains and bullies—people who brag about assaulting women, say things that even their friends agree are racist, use power to line their own pockets, take pleasure in belittling and causing physical harm to other people—sometimes win, even when we stand up to them.

In a better world, this would not be so. In a better world, the long arc of history really would bend toward justice. I’m still enough of an optimist to think that maybe, in the longest of long terms, that’s where it’s heading. But in the meantime, it sure takes a lot of detours toward turmoil.

Nothing is promised.

Yet nothing is impossible, either. And there’s not even a chance for a better world unless you work for it.

So do that.

Work for the core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone, even when it feels inconvenient or awkward for you. For racial and economic justice. For the health and well-being of your community. For gender equality, for clean air, for safe streets. For a better world, as wishy-washy and naïve as that may sometimes feel.

Climate change is real; black lives matter; immigrants make our communities immeasurably better; a free press and voting rights are essential to a functioning democracy--these are all truths that I feel obligated to write down for posterity, because in our topsy-turvy moment, too many people are denying them.

Know that you are never alone, in the dark moments of despair or in your forward-looking efforts to be the change. Build your community—and work to expand it. Be kind and compassionate, even to those who seem odd or with whom you disagree. Put yourself in their shoes, listen to their arguments, dig deeper to understand both the facts in question and the common ground of opinions.

Seek truth, knowing that it can be subjective, but having zero tolerance for those who try to twist it. Strive to make the world a better place for everyone, not just yourself.

Let me repeat that: Strive to make the world a better place. For everyone. Not just yourself.

It’s not always easy or fun. It doesn’t always help you get ahead. But it’s the right thing to do, the only way for us all to get ahead together.

Finally, understand the limits of all of this. Sometimes you will need to take care of yourself and curl up in a blanket and hide from the world. These moments are human and necessary.

Other times, you will sometimes run out of empathy and listening. Sometimes fighting for what’s right requires you to be belligerent, to stand your ground, to give no quarter, to tell people, “You’re wrong, back off.” That is sometimes the appropriate response. Be confident and independent and trust yourself.

Moving forward is a struggle—sometimes awkward and stumbling. But the fight’s the thing.

And know that I’m always rooting for you, with all my love and admiration.




  1. M is definitely lucky to have a father like you; someone who is realistically idealistic in their hopes for the future of humankind and also wants to lovingly prepare his daughters for the highs and lows of life. There are a number of us still recovering from election night but recover we will. Just ordered your new book, "The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories & Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA" and am so looking forward to reading it. Blessings to you and yours:)


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