On the night of the most controversial U.S. presidential election in modern history, I went to bed early.
I never planned to watch election returns this year. I couldn’t even watch the debates. Too much was at stake to witness the electoral count volley back and forth like a tennis match, or follow the news with the fidgety anticipation of a horror movie. Nothing about this campaign season was entertaining. I am an African-American woman married to an immigrant man and the mother of black boys, one of whom has a disability. Our family represents everything the President-elect and his surrogates have mocked, disparaged or villainized. I knew the outcome of the election could change the trajectory of our lives and I was prepared to find out in the morning who won, the equivalent of ripping off the bandage all at once, rather than peeling it off over the course of several hours. Besides, even if the candidate I wanted to win had been successful, I knew I wouldn’t be in a celebratory mood, just a state of relief.
Before bed, my eight-year old, his skin shower-fresh and face bright from canvassing in Pennsylvania with me earlier that day, came into our bedroom just as I was sharing with my husband my anxiety about the Republican candidate’s potential victory. My voice cracked and my son’s face shattered.
“Mommy, I’m afraid of what will happen if he wins,” he said.
My husband, a Christian solid in his beliefs that faith and hard work lead to success, and never one to worry about something that *might* happen (probably because he knows I’m already concerned) quickly jumped in. “It will all be fine, there’s nothing to worry about.” More softly he added, “Yet.”
While we waited for our oldest son to put on his pajamas, I snuggled with my youngest and opened up the laptop to channel my anxiety into education. We reviewed the electoral college, looked at the electoral map wins for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 and talked about swing states. After doting him with a barrage of tickles, then cuddling and singing with my oldest who has autism, both boys went to bed. So did I.
It was not the first time I sought sleep to avoid reality. To be certain, I’m not a bury-my-head-in-the-sand kind of gal. Quite the opposite. As a mother, artist, and person of color, I spend my days walking through the world with eyes at attention, then expend all of my mental energy trying to balance the joys of my life with figuring out how to address the problems I see: managing our bills when expenses are up but our income is not; maintaining a positive outlook when my child with autism regresses and wakes up in the middle of the night for weeks on end; witnessing children of color treated more harshly in school and on the playground; supporting my children while trying to regain my career; guiding aging parents who aren’t always interested in my guidance; helping a sibling with a progressive, debilitating illness make life-altering decisions; staying healthy when there are so many things to worry about and you just want to lie down.
I live in New Jersey, and when the weather starts turning cold, like now, I crawl under the covers as soon as my physical responsibilities as a mother have ended for the day, exhausted and warmed by the dinner — and often dessert — I’ve just eaten. It should come as no surprise that I gain a lot of weight in these cold months, adding one more issue to the list of worries. In January I decided to do something about it — I started exercising and changing my eating habits. By the end of August, I was down 20 pounds and felt great. By October, the chilly days were filled with crises and I stopped exercising and started tucking myself in after eating again.
This month, I can’t bear to check the scale.
I wake up at 1:30 a.m., unwilling to check my laptop. Turning on the television is not an option, harder to pick and choose what I want to see. My husband, a news junkie, hasn’t come to bed. An omen? When he finally comes to our room at 2:30 a.m., he lingers over my side in the dark, as if he wants to say something. I pretend to be asleep. Once he’s in bed, I say, “I don’t know anything and I don’t want to know yet.”
“Okay,” he says. “Go to sleep.”
I sense a spark missing from my optimistic husband. His internal light has gone dim, and I need to turn on the bedside lamp as if to be sure. Studying his face, his eyes closed but his mind not at peace, I make him tell me.
“I’m in shock, I think,” he says after. We think about how this will affect us, our family, our nation, the world. We think about how to tell our son. After some time, he goes to sleep, exhausted from two consecutive nights of staying up late. But I’m wide awake, restless.
I fill up my water bottle and then go downstairs to exercise. In other times, I might have checked social media or finally looked at online newspapers to go deeper into the why or how or angst of it all. I was sad and fearful when my husband told me the news, but had no desire to commiserate in the company of 1,000 of my Facebook friends (or less – only God knows who everyone voted for). Grateful that my husband was finally getting some rest, I gain a searing focus.
Maybe it’s because I know I have to be strong for the person who has been my perennial rock, who now needs a moment to draw comfort from his comforter. Maybe it’s because I know I have to be solid for my children, especially my youngest, who will be distraught once he finds out the news and will read my own emotions in order to gauge his. Maybe it’s because after reaping the benefits of the Civil Rights Movement and feminists before me I always knew that one day I’d be called to fight against oppression, racism and sexism in ways I’d only read or heard about. And for that, I will have to be strong, mentally and physically.
I get on our old, creaky elliptical machine, thinking about the one million people who joined the pro-Clinton Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, my Republican friends who decided to vote for Hillary Clinton, my straight, white, male friends who were disgusted by the way the President-elect and his surrogates spoke about people of color, women and the LGBTQ community, wealthy business leader friends who believed that the Affordable Care Act should be improved but not abolished or were concerned about the global economy tanking under someone with no experience. Many of these folks might have successful lives under this new administration. In fact, some of his future policies might even make them wealthier in the short term. Will they still fight for moral justice in the face of this new government when it could require they sacrifice their money, reputation, relationships or more?
I pray that they do. I pray that we’re still in this together at a time when it’s so easy for some to go back to their corners and grieve or forget. I don’t have a choice. If want to do well for myself and my family, I have to fight to make it happen. The battle is just beginning.
The sweat pours out of me as I bob up and down, the elliptical squeaking loudly in protest. After 20 minutes, I’m tired but can’t stop, and put on new music to keep me motivated. I can’t afford to rest too soon. There is a long cold season ahead of us, and I have to keep pedaling forward.
Doreen Oliver is a writer that has been published in The New York Times, on NBCNews.com and at Brain, Child, among other outlets. In August, she debuted a one-woman show, EVERYTHING IS FINE UNTIL IT’S NOT, at the NY International Fringe Festival. She’s currently working on a book of the same title.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.