“I don’t understand why anyone lives in Los Angeles,” my mother-in-law said to my husband over the phone a few months ago. “It’s full of immigrants.”
This offensive “observation” was not a stand-alone comment. It was only the latest in a series of bigoted sound bites from my in-laws. Both in their 70s, they live on Florida’s Gulf Coast in a predominantly white, older community saturated by conservative talking points. They see themselves as tolerant, life-loving Catholics. But their tolerance extends only to people they know and understand ― and those people are white, straight, “American” people.
Actually, it isn’t just racism that muddies the water in my relationship with my in-laws. It’s sexism and homophobia, too. Sometimes, it’s even veiled anti-Semitism. (Note to non-Jews everywhere: Telling a Jewish person how much you love Jewish people is, on its face, a message of marginalization.) My father-in-law once had to leave the room when two men kissed on TV. “Disgusting,” he whispered under his breath, within earshot of my son.
My in-laws have always been conservative. They have always been Republican. But, before 2016, they were Catholics devoted, specifically, to the “problem” of abortion. That was the issue they cared about, and it was the issue that ignited their ballot box passion. What my husband and I have witnessed, however, has been an ideological shift, from a relationship with religion to blind idolatry.
In the past two years, fueled by a president who “tells it like it is,” my in-laws have said a spate of problematic, objectionable and, often, straight-up hateful things. My sweet mother-in-law, who cries at the very notion of a dog’s death, wanted to know why Senate hopeful Roy Moore’s teenaged accusers didn’t come forth with their claims sooner, thereby dismissing their claims. When my 1-year-old threw a tantrum and I accused him of being a “drama queen,” she gently corrected me: “It’s drama king.”
My father-in-law clucked when, in a scene in the movie “Moonlight,” an impoverished Black drug dealer pulled up in a decked-out low-rider. It was an expensive car, and my father-in-law wanted us to know that people of that sort were always spending above their means. “That’s just what they do,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s just what they do.” He meant Black people ― all of them.
“In the past two years, fueled by a president who 'tells it like it is,' my in-laws have said a spate of problematic, objectionable and, often, straight-up hateful things.”
For a while, my husband and I tried to rationalize — if not excuse — my in-laws’ beliefs. They’re older, we told ourselves. They don’t know that the world has changed. But eventually it became impossible to keep exonerating them. For the most part, my political contact with them was passive-aggressive ― heavy on the aggressive. I directed Facebook posts at “any and all Trump supporters, including family members,” but I didn’t single them out specifically.
That was before.
Then, shortly after Heather Heyer was run down and murdered by driver spurred on by fellow white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and after the president said that there were “good people on both sides,” I sent my mother-in-law a text. As a Jewish woman with half-Jewish children, I wanted her to know that her support of a president who says incendiary, race-baiting things affects people like me. It affects my kids.
In a winding, wending message, I told her how Jews have been targeted since the dawn of time, and how the particular brand of hate espoused by white supremacists, and, tangentially, the president, was pretty familiar to me; I had experienced it my entire life. It was likely her grandkids would, too. I was hopeful that a human connection — that the world through the eyes of a real, live liberal (and her daughter-in-law, no less) and not just a Fox News caricature — could convince her that words and actions matter. I was hopeful that she might show courage in the face of an obvious wrong.
“Thank you for your note,” she wrote back. We never spoke of it again.
This was probably when I started to believe that my in-laws would never change. Once it occurred to me that this problem was going to haunt me forever, I started brainstorming solutions in hopes of not having to cut them out of our lives. Except, in the case of this deep kind of intolerance, there is no solution. I believe it has to be vanquished, entirely. I can’t just pretend they aren’t who they are. They have become completely indoctrinated, and, what’s worse, they don’t really seem to care. They know, fully, that there are consequences to all of this. But still they pursue a course of belief that seems at odds with morality.
And that means that I can’t just go on pretending that we’re a normal family. It’s not like I can just leave them with the kids for the night and hope they don’t say something awful about a marginalized group of people while I’m out enjoying a martini with my husband. That safety has been stolen from both of us.
“My in-laws have become completely indoctrinated, and, what’s worse, they don’t really seem to care. They know, fully, that there are consequences to all of this. But still, they pursue a course of belief that seems at odds with morality.”
When I asked them to stop watching right-wing cable news in the living room of our home (“You’re afraid of the truth,” my father-in-law snapped back), they rerouted to their computers. They now take solace at the kitchen table, laptops kissing, where they sift through whatever degradation the right happens to be pushing at that moment. Tucker Carlson drones on, and then Sean Hannity. They cannot get enough, and they will not stop. Days fade from bright to bruise as they sit at their computers, happily held hostage by alternative facts.
Their hatred is expanding, and it’s expanding quickly. These days, it manifests itself through conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein and the Clintons, antifa and Black Lives Matter. My in-laws oppose abortion in any and all circumstances, but they appear unbothered by the idea of migrant kids in cages at the country’s border. The media sources they ingest, of course, are intentionally dishonest, and our conversations with them reveal a view of the world that’s disturbingly removed from reality.
Recently, my mother-in-law sent a doctored video in an email to my husband, along with a message in which she told him that she didn’t want her grandkids surrounded by Muslims. We’ve asked that they broaden their perspective and that they stop watching cable news altogether (although that won’t remedy the persistent fake news internet problem). I’ve told them that my policy is to tolerate none of this around my children.
“You’re choosing politics over family,” my mother-in-law says when we bring these things up. But she’s wrong about that. Really, I’m choosing my own family over her politics, over her intolerant behavior. Exposure to racism, or sexism, or homophobia is dangerous for young children. As a mother, I’m obligated to protect my kids’ physical health. I’m obligated to protect their mental health, too. And exposing them to bigotry is simply not healthy.
My oldest son is 2½ now. He repeats everything, from the complex to the inane (I’m proud he knows the word “gargoyle” but less proud that he has learned to swear). This newfound brain-awakening of his means that he also has newfound understanding. He understands that adults are figures of authority. He understands that the people in his life make decisions because that’s what adults do in relation to children. It’s true that my children are still very young and that they may not know what’s going on, but these things matter more and more.
With that in mind, how can I explain to him that not all adults are right? What if the next time my mother-in-law or father-in-law says something racist, or sexist or homophobic, my son hears it — and what if hearing something like this from a person he loves and trusts means that he accepts as normal something that should absolutely not be normal? The moment of action is upon me now.
“What if the next time my mother-in-law or father-in-law says something racist, or sexist or homophobic, my son hears it — and what if hearing something like this from a person he loves and trusts means that he accepts as normal something that should absolutely not be normal?”
I realize I cannot chase down and defeat every demon my children might encounter. No mother can do that. At some point in their lives, my tender children, who trust me to filter their world for them, will encounter the evil that I have tried to delete. I can’t prevent that. I am committed to ensuring, though, that the rhetoric they hear, whenever they hear it, won’t be coming from people they know, and love and trust. They are malleable now. They are impressionable now. The moment of influence is now. And while I still have the power to prevent this kind of thinking from seeping into their minds, that’s exactly what I feel compelled to do.
When it comes to raising children, it’s our job to call out the things that are terrible. My job as a mother includes teaching life lessons — and I can see no larger life lesson than confronting bad things when you see them. If you don’t, you’re complicit. And being complicit in the face of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism leads to far worse things than an awkward family Thanksgiving. And though some may warn against seeing the world in black and white, I believe that there are very definitive beliefs that separate good and bad people. If my in-laws want to support exclusion ― and the hate that fuels it ― that isn’t something I can justify to my children.
I don’t know what a perfect parent is, nor do I have a definitive answer as to how to negotiate the waters of parenthood when the sharks are related to you. I don’t want my boys to grow up without their grandparents, but I also don’t want them to grow up thinking that children belong in cages or that “Go back where you came from” is anything short of a dog whistle to Nazi revivalism.
I also don’t want there to be any ambiguity in my home when it comes to who we are as people and what we will — and will not — accept. And I don’t want my husband to suffer, either. He is more hesitant to cut his parents off than I am, even though we share the same set of values, because, at the end of the day, these are his parents, not mine. At night, when it is only the two of us, he tells me that what he feels most prominently is disappointment in his mother. He feels like she allowed herself to be hijacked by ideas that were never really hers. He feels like she didn’t stand up for herself. He is reluctant to let go — completely, that is. But he seems less sad about it all the time. And, on some level, he has already extinguished the true flame. Each time she revives an ember of bigotry, it reminds him of what we cannot continue to tolerate. That’s a mission we share.
I can tell my children, definitively, that the man we call president is a bad person. Can I say that about their grandparents, who support the same ideas? But what if it’s true? Perhaps this is a pat rendering of a real-life conundrum. We talk about good and bad guys in the movies, but actual people are dynamic and complex. In real life, I like my mother-in-law. She’s unintentionally funny, and says “darn” and “fudge” and “shoot” instead of swear words, and she can’t remember her email password, not ever — even though I know hers by heart. My father-in-law and I share a lifelong love for the Yankees. He’s a former runner, and while I still like to say “current,” if I’m being honest, I’m a former runner, too. But I also find their politics — and how they manifest in what they say and share — repugnant. This is a matter, now, of fundamental human decency.
“You can break up with a boyfriend. You can end a friendship. But how do you stop a family member from being a family member?”
So the burning question remains: What do we do? And how do we do it? Day after day, week after week, month after month, my husband and I have put off any kind of real conversation with my in-laws because they live far away, and we don’t see them much, and because, honestly, just thinking about how that conversation will probably go is stomach-wrenching. My husband speaks to his mother on his drive home from work, and lately I rarely — if ever — answer the phone when I know it’s her because my anger has not yet peaked.
My own family, who long ago branded me a hothead, advised me to do no more than limit the contact my children have with their grandparents. How much damage could be done in small doses? they posited. That’s not really a solution, of course; it’s more or less a way of continuing to avoid the problem. Our friends have been mostly noncommittal. Mostly people shake their heads sympathetically or pat my shoulder. They don’t know what to say. What advice would I give to someone else, after all? What advice would I offer myself? Would it be to cut all ties? And how does one even go about doing that?
You can break up with a boyfriend. You can end a friendship. But how do you stop a family member from being a family member? It feels like my family has reached the end of this road, and the end of this road is where we decide if, as parents, we would rather create humans who have every possible chance of turning out to be good people and who, therefore, may not see their grandparents because their grandparents just can’t seem to understand why it’s not OK to say that Muslims are bad people.
I’ve also struggled with the decision to air my dirty laundry in such a public manner. Yes, I’m an essayist, and the nature of my job is largely confessional. I believe that it would be disingenuous to keep the things that are difficult off of the page. I also believe, firmly, that the current illness this nation faces fully depends upon so-called “decent people” doing nothing in the face of grave moral perversity. I consider myself a decent person, and I believe this dilemma is one that many other decent people are grappling with in our fractured country. Maybe this piece will help others to consider and confront their own similar circumstances. Maybe not. I doubt, even though she has left the White House, that Sarah Sanders sleeps peacefully at night. With hope, I will be able to.
The truth is, my husband and I have no real answer, not to any of this. Our current answer is to put off having to make a decision because we know two things for certain. The first is that we want to do the best thing for our kids. And the second is that we don’t necessarily know what the best thing for our kids is. I don’t know that any good parent ever does. I can’t say, with any level of certainty, what the future holds for the relationship we have with my in-laws.
What I do know is that, as my in-laws’ bigotry grows more entrenched, fomented by American radicalism, the idea of them in our lives seems less and less possible. And what I need to be sure of, 20 years from now, when I look at my grown children down the telescope of their lives, is that I did everything to protect them from evil, everything to make their lives bright and happy and productive. I need to be sure that I didn’t contribute to a worse world, that I left things a little better off for them. How we all arrive there, in a better place, is up to no one but ourselves.
Hannah Selinger is a freelance food, wine, travel and lifestyle writer based in East Hampton, New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Kitchn, Eater, Glamour, The Independent UK, Wine Enthusiast, and numerous other national and regional publications. You can find her on Twitter @hannahselinger or at www.hannahselinger.net.