I’ve had a line from “Hamilton” stuck in my head on and off for months: “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are/to be alive right now.”
It’s an ironic earworm, one that squirms in response to our new Administration’s every threat to civil rights, social order, logic and freedom. But it’s also a secret mantra of mine. I’m nearly 39 weeks pregnant, and I when look around, what I see is my swollen belly on the one hand and our frayed democracy on the other. How lucky, indeed.
In early summer, not long after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination, I suspected I was pregnant. A few months later, Clinton was leading in the polls, and I’d made it through the first trimester. These dual developments brought relief. The future, though still unwritten, now had a crisp outline.
Oh, and I found out I was having a girl.
I appreciated the symmetry of these events: 2017 would be the year my daughter was born, and the year our country elected its first female president. It aligned with the American promise that each generation will surpass the one preceding it. I’ve had more opportunities than my parents, who had more opportunities than their parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life.
My grandmother, a seamstress, refused to teach her daughters to cook and sew so they wouldn’t be “slaves to the needle” and would pursue careers. Four generations later, I assumed I wouldn’t have to feed my future daughter empty platitudes about how she can do anything she wants, because a woman in the White House would prove it.
I failed to imagine an alternate scenario, that during the course of my baby’s biological unfurling, our country would hurtle backwards. Naively, I saw progress as inevitable, built into our nation’s DNA. I was lulled, or lulled myself, into believing that the sort of bigotry currently on display in our highest level of government was past tense, existing mostly in fading film reels and outdated textbooks.
Now, when I read on a daily basis about the burning of mosques, the discrimination against immigrants and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, I recognize that prejudice and the capacity for authoritarianism were there all along, simmering beneath the surface. I watch myself with surprise and horror as these flames of hate forge me into a different mom-to-be than I ever imaged I’d be.
In the foreboding limbo between election and inauguration, I felt those first baby kicks. Pundits, historians and the President-Elect himself painted a dark picture of our nation; I googled girl’s names meaning “light” and “strength,” seeking ways to resist on behalf of someone not yet here, not yet born.
And as the world changed, so did I. I’m more concerned and less hopeful. I’m focused on concrete actions over good intentions. For one, I know I should be more deliberate about cultivating my future daughter’s Jewish identity than my Jew-ish self knows how. I grew up in Chicago’s Northern suburbs, buffered from the aftershocks of anti-Semitism. When my father spoke angrily about how neo-Nazis marched through Skokie not far from our home, not long before I was born, I rolled my eyes with disinterest.
To me, Skokie was the home of the Meyer Kaplan JCC, where my sister and I spent many Sunday afternoons playing racquetball with our father. The fact that our father-daughter excursions took place at the JCC seemed very tenuously linked to our already loose connection to Judaism. At the J, where our father never feared for our safety, much less our lives.
After our workout, while my sister and I waited for our father to finish his “good long shvitz,” I’d watch people emerging from the men’s locker room. They were recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, young Orthodox fathers with sons in tow, and older men like my Dad, who grew up in the immigrant community on Chicago’s West Side before moving here. These men had little in common besides their 70s-style duffel bags, post-shower comb-overs and their Judaism, whatever form it took.
These Sundays (followed by dinner at Barnum & Bagel) didn’t carry any special meaning for me then. Now, they seem significant precisely because they were so banal, so easy.
I was wrong to think the weight of history would propel the next generation toward progress — I recognize I’ll have to do much of the heavy lifting myself. I suspect all parents realize this sooner or later, but it’s a bit deflating when I’m supposed to be swollen with hope.
Post-inauguration, I attended the Women’s March in New York. Walking along Avenue of the Americas, I imagined the positive energy of the people would cross the placenta, giving my baby a dose of justice. I hoped my pregnant body might somehow be subversive, protruding belly as giant middle finger.
In part, I was motivated to attend by thoughts of my daughter asking me what I did during the early days of Trump’s administration. Maybe I’m planting seeds for explicit conversations about justice and equality. Maybe I’m trying to create some kind of order, making connections between why massive protests and Sundays at the J are both forms of resistance.
Which brings me back to “Hamilton.” The line stuck in my head is from the song “That Would Be Enough.” Eliza is pleading with Hamilton to focus on his family while their marital dilemma boils down to this: To what extent can familial personal stability fulfill us when the world is calling for — demanding — change? I don’t know the answer. I do know that I continue to be amazed by how life and love not only continue, but insist on pressing forward. Each time I think my body, and our nation, has reached capacity, they create new space for growth beyond what seemed possible.
So I try to remind myself that progress isn’t necessarily steady forward motion. It’s simply being able to create new space. That, I suppose, makes me lucky to be alive, and creating life, even right now.