I was sitting in the back seat of our beat-up old minivan when she said it.
“What did I do wrong to raise three children who are liberals?” my mother asked. I don’t think she realized the weight of her words, but in that moment my heart sunk far into my chest.
I was raised in an aggressively conservative household and it was not news to me that my mom disapproved of my political beliefs. There were enough heated debates around the dinner table over the years when I began studying government and politics to convince me it was better to keep my mouth shut most of the time.
But despite my better efforts, those debates continued in my absence when my younger brother and sister began to advocate for the same things I did. It probably never helped our case that my entire extended family sided with my mom. We were outliers, forever defending our right to differing opinions despite relentless attempts to “correct” our misshapen ideals.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear the words come out of her mouth, but the fact that I made my mother feel like a failure felt like a punch in the face. I wondered for a moment if I was justified in holding my beliefs, if those beliefs were worth making my mother distressed. That thought quickly disintegrated, though, as I considered the basic human rights I feel are owed to all citizens that my mother was never hesitant to oppose—rights like marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose.
What concerned me most about her thought process was that while she considered herself a failed teacher, I had always felt exactly the opposite.
When my siblings and I were children, both she and my father had rarely talked politics in the house. It was only recently that our dinner table conversations had begun to turn into dinner table arguments. Consequently, we had been forced to explore a range of ideas, rather than blindly align ourselves with words just spewed from the mouths of the people we trusted most. After years of school teachers pounding the importance of finding reliable sources into our heads, we read articles—both academic and news—took advanced placement courses, and watched politicians debate and promote policy on the evening news.
That was one of the things about my parents I respected most—they allowed us to form our own opinions, despite their disagreement. I can’t say for sure that many of my cousins formed their opinions straight from the minds of their parents, but I’ve spent many Thanksgiving meals being bombarded with comments from aunts and uncles whose own children left them unconcerned.
Wasn’t it a testament to my mom’s success—not a failure—that we had not only the intellect to consider and analyze political arguments, but also the courage to stand alone in those beliefs? Not to mention that the three of us leaned to the left more often when it concerned social issues. Didn’t she realize that in our minds she and my dad raised us to be open-minded, more accepting of diversity and infinitely more conscious of the struggles that faced others without the privileges we had grown up with?
I considered mentioning this to her, but we soon pulled into the driveway and I let the thought escape my head.
A few months later, we were back to a routine argument debating the necessity of separation of church and state, when I brought it up to her. She paused for a moment before responding. Her voice was much softer when she told me that of course she was proud of us. I must have struck a nerve, that maternal instinct that said she needed to be more concerned about our feelings than whether we agreed or disagreed that most moms seem to have.
We still argue on occasion, but I see her making an effort to listen more and correct me less. She may never think I’m right, but this Thanksgiving when I was once again bombarded by family members, she sat across the table from me and said adamantly, “Stop bullying my daughter.”
Donna Fanelle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.