My mother was nothing like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama—or even like their mothers, who struggled with their own hardships but managed to pass on lessons of strength, independence, and resistance.
My mother, born in Poland in 1913, the daughter of a fearful and superstitious mother and a father who essentially abandoned them, the wife of (what we used to call) a traveling salesman—my father—who by the time I was born was away much of the time, wrestled with anxiety and depression virtually all my growing up years.
I know she was happy once, because my older sister has told me so and I caught glimpses myself—as she glammed herself up for the occasional wedding or company events my father was required to attend, or sang Yiddish songs, her body swaying as she puttered around the kitchen, or schmoozed with her younger brothers on the rare occasions when my father (reluctantly) took us all to Brooklyn to visit her relatives, or bested my father at Scrabble (very hard to do), or cheered for a horse she’d bet on at the track. I could see, in those moments, that she was capable of deep enjoyment in life. But by the time I was old enough to go to school, these snapshots of my mother laughing, singing, dancing, teasing, were just that: snapshots.
When my younger sister was born (It was 1951 and I was four) she had a deep dive, which we now would recognize as postpartum depression. In those days, though, no one knew what to make of her fears, her sadness, her various physical symptoms. They gave her Valium and for a time she was in some sort of therapy. But my father was scornful of such “weakness”—there were constant nasty comments about the psychiatrist—and eventually she gave up the therapy, kept up the Valium, and settled into a life of chronic, untreated anxiety.
I know she must have done some things with me that required leaving the apartment without my father or a close friend, but I don’t remember them. She cooked for us, kept the house clean, and was warm and sweet and generous with her hugs, sympathy, and anything else she was able to give. But she never walked me to school or attended any “parental” functions. I don’t remember going clothes shopping with her, or to the movies except when my father, who was a film buff, was home. There were certainly no “life lessons” dispensed—about how to deal with bullies, the “importance of education,” or how to stay strong in the face of disappointment or rejection.
In those days, kids were left more to their own devices. But my mother didn’t accompany us places just because she was unafraid for us, and we knew it. As she sat in my father’s armchair, smoking Kents, watching soap operas, dozing, waiting for him to return from his out-of-town trips, leaving the house only to buy groceries or, now and then, visit a girlfriend, we knew she was barely hanging on to her own feeling of safety in the world.
Later, in recovery from my own debilitating descent into panic, which kept me housebound for two years in my early twenties, I came to believe that my mother and father represented two distinct sides of my personality: the bold, adventurous me who ultimately would go on to have a very public life as a teacher, writer, speaker, and the fearful me, who, even after recovery, remained unable to fly, drive across bridges or through tunnels, and was sure that every time I went to the doctor, a dread disease would be diagnosed, as if in punishment for learning to leave the house while my mother never did.
But if my mother represented the private, diminished, retreating Susan—someone who I was terrified would drag me back onto the couch, watching “General Hospital” with my mother, all dreams of a career as a writer abandoned–why then did I find myself writing a doctoral dissertation which was, at least in part, an ode to the “maternal” world of inter-connections and “empathic” knowledge that the scientific revolution had replaced? And why did I feel that in doing so, I was recovering a part of my mother—and myself—that did not fit neatly into the category of the fearful self? The Susan that I was beginning to discover was neither the traveling salesman father or the agoraphobic mother, but someone who saw the road to her liberation, her wholeness, was in bringing the values of warmth and connection to her “public” life in what was in those days the most masculinist of disciplines–philosophy.
Writing that dissertation, I remembered that my mother, even when she was most anxious and depressed, would smile at passers by, strike up conversations with people who looked like they needed a sympathetic word, flirt with shopkeepers. She couldn’t accompany me on the 107 bus into New York City, but she wasn’t afraid of strangers. She was also the least judgmental person I knew, quite the opposite of my father, who in his own chronic depression and resentment—he had wanted to be a journalist, but had to quit school during the depression—found flaws in everyone. Had my mother been able to get an education, it’s easy to imagine her becoming a gifted social worker or therapist. She knew how to be warm.
Once in a crowded supermarket, I felt a panic coming on and tried a technique my therapist had taught me. I imagined that everything that was frightening—the noise, the crying children, the pushing and shoving—was a warm, colorful blanket. Mine, I discovered, was all green and gold and burnt sienna, colors that I recognized as those of a throw my mother had knit me, rustic colors that still bring my mother to me unexpectedly as I pass by sunlit trees in autumn. I put that blanket around me with a great effort of imagination, and immediately felt calmed and enveloped rather than invaded by the chattering people in the store. At the same moment, I felt my mother’s presence strongly, and I realized there was a terrible flaw in my picture of her. Her capacity for human connection, her warmth, was not some compensating factor, to make a limited world bearable. It was big. It was strong. It was powerful. It was a gift.
This past week, I watched all the nights of the Democratic Convention, from start to finish. There are many things I could say about it—but most of them have already been said, or written about. What I haven’t yet heard commentators mention—amazingly, because for me it ran right through the convention, from Michelle Obama to the mothers who had lost their children to police violence to the 9/11 victims, the disabled, the disenfranchised, and ultimately to Chelsea Clinton and Hillary herself–is the unprecedented, paradigm-busting focus on the (often unseen, often unacknowledged) power of mothering.
By “mothering” I don’t mean something only women do. Is it any accident that the organizers of the convention, in deciding how to introduce Barack Obama, focused on Obama’s role as consoler-in-chief? Isn’t one of the things we love most about him his sympathetic intelligence? Sure, he’s “cool.” And he’s brilliant, and funny, and a whole lot else. But this convention chose to emphasize his compassion. “I wish everyone could get a hug from Barack Obama,” said the woman who introduced him.
As for Hillary, we learned at that convention that quietly, behind-the-scenes, she has spent most of her career doing one version or another of mothering work. Both on the “micro” level and the “macro,” her personality and politics have been centered on that work. Yes, her policy focus has been children. But that’s just the most visible, literal piece of it. Less acknowledged–largely because she hasn’t exploited it (the “service” part of “public service” has always been easier for her than the “public” part)–is her engagement with individuals in need. Listening. Noticing. Soothing. And watching, keeping track, of how her charges are doing. It’s definitive of who Hillary Clinton is, and why she does what she does. If you wondered about that (something Hillary herself admitted was a legitimate issue) you got an answer at this convention.
But you had to be listening. And you had to see that defining Hillary was not the point of her acceptance speech but the “argument” of the convention as a whole, building day-by-day through the countless stories of people who were cared for by Hillary and culminating in the beaming testament of a daughter radiating personal gratitude for her mother’s attentiveness as a parent (compare to Ivanka’s Trump’s polished and false advertisement for her father) and an acceptance speech that few commentators “got” because they were so inept at reading the text of the convention as a whole. Of Hillary’s speech: It “didn’t soar,” said Dan Rather. “She did what she had to do,” was the grudging comment of most commentators, contrasting her with Barack and Bill.
My father, too, was a genius with words. A spell-binding story-teller. I would never diminish that talent. But “soaring” speech-making isn’t, despite the pronouncements of commentators that this was “the most important moment of Hillary’s life” (!!) the chief work of a president–or a parent. And from my point of view, the DNC wasn’t “just” about the nomination of the first female candidate for U.S. President (although that was major enough). From start to finish and taken as a whole, it enacted a transvaluation of the notion that the work of caring and connection (and conversation and compromise) belong to the less powerful, intimate, “female” side of public service. Appropriate for an assistant, a helper, or a lesser level of office. But POTUS?
Hillary’s appearance was not meant to “soar” into the heavens–or to win our “trust,” a GOP/media concoction that the commentators can’t let go of, and thus perpetuate–but to be the embodiment and summation of everything and everyone that had gone before, during the nights that preceded her appearance.
She let the others tell you who she is. If you didn’t get that, you weren’t paying attention.
For more of Susan on Hillary Clinton see