The Kids Are All Right

What I Learned From My Radical Midwestern Mom

Among other things, she taught me to never be ashamed of having opinions and ovaries

Childhood can be a lonely place when you're the only eight-year-old on the playground who's concerned about the outcome of the Michigan gubernatorial elections. I learned this the hard way, when I asked my classmates what I thought were perfectly reasonable questions about their parents' voting patterns.

I also learned this when I tried to have my Desert Storm Barbie reenact Middle East policy debates. Needless to say, my teachers loved me, but my classmates were somewhat less enthusiastic. However, this was not a tragedy. This was simply what happened when you had a mother who listened to far too much NPR.

When people think of my mother, the first phrase to come to mind is not "liberal firebrand." If you were to look up "Midwestern grandmother" in Wikipedia, you would likely find a photo of my mother, alongside her impressive collection of festive pins. My mother doesn't have a particularly abrasive or confrontational personality — I mean, the woman goes to knitting conferences — so she never explicitly told us what to believe or used labels like "feminist," "liberal," or "progressive." But this didn't matter, because my political education wasn't didactic. It was immersive.

Whenever my mother shuttled me around in her Pontiac Grand Am, she'd always set the radio on Michigan's NPR affiliate. My instinct would naturally be to change the dial — immediately. Because why would I possibly want to listen to a bunch of old people discuss the evolution of voting laws when I could be listening to the dulcet tones of Seal or Chumbawamba? But NPR often won out, and I'd inevitably find myself discussing redistricting policies with my math teacher the next day. So, despite my protests, something was clearly sinking in.

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Not only did my mother listen to NPR but she also liked to stage NPR reenactments in our living room. If I were watching television with my father or eating with my three older sisters, my mother would likely be somewhere nearby with a newspaper. And whenever she came to an article she found particularly infuriating — attacks on public school teachers, incursions on women's rights, gross economic inequality — she'd read the story aloud, making sure to sigh and gesticulate in all the correct places. It didn't matter if we pointed out that we were fully capable of reading the newspaper ourselves. The lady just wouldn't listen.

She also wouldn't listen when I asked her to drop me off at home before heading to a polling station. Because my mother voted in every election. And I'm not just talking about national or state elections — which were actually interesting. If there were a local vote on a millage, my mother would be there. And she would be enfranchised. Although I just wanted to go home and watch reruns of "Saved by the Bell" and eat Frosted Flakes, she'd make me stand in line with her as she explained the concept of a millage. So I'd leave the polling station slightly more informed and even less likely to ever date in high school.

But my mother made me realize that spending all of my teenage energy trying to date some skinny high school boy who thought "The Matrix" was the greatest movie ever made was probably not an excellent life choice. And, unsurprisingly, focusing on AP U.S. History turned out to be a lot more useful. So my mother didn't just teach me to be politically aware by force-feeding me "All Things Considered" and Diane Rehm. What she was really teaching me was that I should never be ashamed of having opinions and ovaries. They actually go together rather nicely.

I now spend approximately nine hours a day listening to NPR. My alarm wakes me up with "Morning Edition." I listen to podcasts on the subway. I stream WNYC in my office all day long. And, more importantly, I usually repeat what I hear to my mother. Whether we're haranguing Congress for its ineptitude or discussing another lousy Supreme Court decision, we're an outspoken set of nerdy ladies with a whole lot of thoughts. And it never occurs to me to check with the nearest available man before expressing one of these thoughts. My mother taught me better than that.


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