My mom and I live very far apart: 9,929 miles, to be exact. It’s a 24-hour trip, door-to-door, from my place in New York City to my parents’ house in Sydney, Australia.
I don’t live that far from where she grew up, though; she was born with the 1950s, on Long Island, where my 102-year-old grandmother still lives. Mom moved to Australia more than 30 years ago, a happy fate that often befalls those who fall in love with Australians. My sister and I were raised there; we grew up freckled and muscly from swimming outside all year round. And then, we both left home for college. I came to the east coast of the US, and I stayed. I’ve been here for 11 years now, living, working, voting, becoming a barely adequate cook.
There are predictable days when I wish my mom were here with me. Birthdays, breakups, particularly bad weepy days in my menstrual cycle. Those are days when I wish she could be there for me – to soothe me, to buck me up, to stick her head into my nearly empty fridge and somehow throw together a delicious meal for us both.
Then there are the moments when I wish we could be together so that I could be there for her. When she has setbacks at work, when she misses her faraway daughters, when she’s tired and run down and overwhelmed. There have been more of these as I age, as our relationship shifts from mother and child to mother and adult daughter, as I am no longer separated from her by adolescence and the teenage insistence that I know more than she does. We are not friends ― this is not “Gilmore Girls” ― but we are both women now, far more similar than we’ve ever been.
There have been few periods in the last 11 years when I have wished more ardently and more often to be with my mother – physically with her, not just talking to her on the phone or exchanging daily emails – than during the ascension of Hillary Clinton to the top of the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket. Over and over again, I find myself thinking, God, I wish my mom were here.
My mother is almost of Clinton’s vintage, with her slight relative youth making a few crucial differences in her life path. She graduated from high school in 1968, beginning her adulthood at a legendarily tumultuous moment in American and world history. It was also the moment when America’s most prestigious universities were beginning to open their ivy-wound gates to women; my mom transferred as a sophomore and became of the first few hundred women to earn an undergraduate degree from Yale. From there, she went to graduate school, in the newly created and not-yet women-heavy field of public health, and then to the State Department, where she was one of very few women. A petite and pretty New York Jew, just 25 years old, she was sent around the world for USAID, including a three-year stint in Panama, with my father, by then her husband, in tow. She worked, mostly with men, to improve the health of people in developing countries, most of them women. After 10 years, she and my father moved to Sydney, where they’ve lived ever since.
There are many people who cannot relate to Hillary Clinton, who cannot see themselves or anyone they care about in her. She’s a wealthy, straight, white woman, a mother, an ambitious career woman ― and there are some people to whom she simply does not speak, with whom her experiences and views of the world do not resonate. I’m not one of those people. Simply put, Hillary Clinton reminds me of my mom.
When I look at Hillary Clinton, I see a woman who is almost always the smartest person in any room she enters, and who, for a long time, knew that when she walked through the door she’d be assumed to be less intelligent, less informed and less qualified than most of the men who sat at the table with her.
I see a woman who has perfected the art of tolerating questions that insult her intelligence and that seem to bristle at the fact that it occurred to her to be in the room in the first place.
I see a woman who, after decades of being subject to sexist beauty standards, is now also subject to ageist ones ― who, in addition to doing her difficult and substantive job, has also had to fight tooth and nail to ensure that her face fits the requirements we impose on an aging woman who dares to show hers in public.
You know that smile Clinton smiles in a debate, when her opponent is insulting her to her face, and she has to respond firmly but sweetly, forcefully but genially, in a way that both counters the argument and also draws the audience toward her? I know that smile. I have seen my mother form that smile. I have practiced that smile ― in college classrooms, at work, on OKCupid dates ― never realizing until this year who taught me how to do it.
When I listen to Hillary Clinton, I hear the careful and considerate algorithm that runs through my mother’s head before she answers a question. I hear the mental flowchart she conjures as she thinks about how to be correct while also avoiding hurting a single feeling or raising even one hackle. I hear the cautious tread of someone who knows that her mistakes will be punished far more than her successes are rewarded ― and who also feels pressure to conceal that caution, to appear natural and comfortable. You know, “authentic.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that watching Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign has reshaped my relationship with my mother. As I’ve thought and written – and raged – about the ways that sexism and ageism play out in our politics and media narratives, I’ve begun to see my mother’s life through a new and more compassionate lens.
Last year, when Clinton’s campaign had just launched, the matter of her age was repeatedly raised: was she just too old to be President? Leaving aside the comparable ages of her rival in the primary and of her eventual rival in the general, this question caused a spike of rage in my chest every time I heard it raised. Of course she’s old, I’d think. She had to spend an extra 15 years convincing everyone that she was qualified enough. And now that she has, now that she’s arguably the most qualified non-incumbent person to ever contest the presidency in more than 200 years of presidential contests, she’s being discounted because she’s now OLD? This is bullshit.
It’s the same bullshit, not coincidentally, that I’ve watched my mother go through in the last few years. Over the phone, I’ll tell her about the colleagues or clients who discount my ideas, who assume I’m less worthy of their time, because I’m young and I’m a woman. She offers me a glimpse at my future, where colleagues or clients will assume I’m less worthy of their time because I’m old and I’m a woman. Her decades of work and experience ought to be rewarded the way they are for men, whose age is perceived as wisdom, whose graying temples are marks of distinction. Instead, I’m hearing her frustration on the other end of the phone line as she tells me, yet again, that she didn’t get the position, that it went instead to a man her age or a woman 15 years her junior. At one point, during the last presidential election, we were both dyeing our hair darker ― her to conceal her gray roots, and me to make myself look a few years older.
When I look at and listen to Hillary Clinton, when I think about the road that has brought her to this moment and the hurdles that were thrown up in front of her along the way, I’m also thinking about my mother, and about her life. Perhaps this is how men feel all the time when they consider presidential candidates – this man reminds me of my father, of my grandfather, of my brother, of me. This is the first time I’ve been able to look at a would-be President and see someone who looks like my mom, sounds like my mom, gives awkward and ungainly high-fives like my mom. Like I inevitably will one day. It’s the first time I’ve been able to listen to a would-be President and know that she can empathize with my mother, and my best friends, and my grandmother, and me. It is an unexpectedly emotional experience.
The night Clinton secured the pledged delegates required to make her the mathematically presumptive nominee, I sat on my apartment floor with my laptop on my coffee table, fighting and failing to hold back tears, trying to save face in front of my boyfriend and his sister. Here in Philly, I watched the roll call vote from my hotel room and, when I saw the counter tick over 2883, I started to weep. I’d stop, and then I’d think about my mom, and her mom, who’s 102 ― she was born in 1914, six years before the 19th Amendment first gave large numbers of American women the right to vote, and she cast her first vote for FDR in 1936 – and I would lose it all over again.
In a few hours, I know I’ll be crying again. From here in the convention hall, with a direct sight line to the podium, I’ll watch Chelsea Clinton introduce her mother. And then I’ll watch Clinton officially accept the nomination. And I will wish, with all my heart, that my mom were here.