I’m not sure exactly when I stopped talking politics with my parents, but it was probably around the time healthcare policy was up for debate in 2009.
My sister was getting married, and our family was gathered in my childhood home tying ribbons on favors, admiring centerpieces, and packing boxes of paraphernalia to take to the reception. As the exchange got heated, I remember feeling a sense of loss that our busy camaraderie and excited wedding anticipation were dampened by tension.
After we enacted our unspoken rule about political talk, visits with my parents were friendlier and more relaxed. The arrival of grandkids enhanced our familial ties; babies bring out the love in everyone. But the gains in equanimity have come with losses of their own, and this year I have felt them acutely.
Presidential politics captivated me throughout much of 2016. Like many people, I invested significant mental and emotional effort digesting the news. My vote felt personal, and for many weeks before and after the election, I talked almost incessantly with like-minded friends and colleagues about our perceptions, feelings and understandings of what was happening in our country. In some ways conversations with my parents—about the kids, about my work, and about the details of their daily life—were a welcome reprieve. But never had I felt so disconnected from them. I found myself yearning to know what they were thinking. In intentionally avoiding politics, I was hiding a significant part of myself from two of the most important people in my life. And I wondered what I was missing about them.
One of the most helpful mantras of parenting that I have learned so far is: “You can’t control someone else’s emotions.” I repeat this in my head during toddler tantrums. When I argued politics with my parents, my intention was to change their worldview. I believe people’s beliefs grow and evolve throughout their life. And I believe that individuals speaking out on issues that matter is how society changes for the better. But in my observation, our current political discourse is not fostering growth or change. Instead I see people attempting to metaphorically bludgeon one another into a new worldview through snarky memes, accusations, name-calling, condescension, and fear-mongering. While political debates with my parents were always civil, I lost my appetite for a power struggle over their worldview many years ago.
Today, however, I have an intense desire to reopen the lines of political communication with my parents and with others in my life who think and vote differently than I do. I do not presume I can change their worldview, but I want to know what they think. I want to understand them better. And I want them to know and understand me, my perceptions, and the way I see our country.
The next time I talk with my parents about health care reform, perhaps we’ll be baking cupcakes for a kid’s birthday party. I anticipate we will have many differences in the way we understand the problem and its solutions. It will be awkward. But I believe that if we practice talking and listening, it will get easier, our bonds will be stronger, and we will grow and change.