Hope and Inspiration

How Barack Obama inspired Jonn Elledge, a former Hillary supporter.

I need to confess something. Five months ago, I couldn't stand Barack Obama.

During the primaries I was rooting for Hillary. Partly this was because of her character and intelligence, but mostly it was simply because I have rose-tinted memories of the last president who wasn't chronically incompetent. From that point of view, Obama was an irritant: an upstart who clearly didn't have enough experience for the job, and whose name was too funny and whose skin too dark to win an election.

Once he got the nomination, I fell in line, if only because of a heartfelt desire to see the Republicans suffer for eight years of incompetence, ignorance and greed. (You know Sarah Palin thinks Africa is a country, by the way? True story.) And as I learnt more about his biography, his policies, his intellect, I began to come round to the idea that Barack Obama might just do a good job of this.

But any lingering doubt I had about whether he was the right choice would have been erased by a conversation I had two weeks ago in Pennsylvania.

When we pulled into a gas station in Erie, Luther, its elderly black owner, was hunched over three huge boxes stuffing envelopes. His eyes unaccountably brightened when I told him I was a British journalist.

'You wouldn't be the journalist who wrote that piece saying that Americans should vote for Obama to show how much progress they've made, would you?' he asked. I wouldn't. Boris Johnson would. Luther had photocopied the mayor's Obama endorsement two hundred times and was sending it to everyone he could think of. Because he wanted to believe the claim that - with hard work and intelligence and perseverance - his grandchildren had as much of a chance of being president as the white kids next door.

Because for the first time, being black didn't exclude him from the American dream.

President Obama will inevitably prove a disappointment. No one could live up to the huge expectations placed on him, and in six months time the thousands of t-shirts bearing his face will be completely unwearable. (What, after all, could be less cool than to go round with a sitting world leader on your chest while he ducks questions about the budget deficit?)

But his campaign promised change, and it promised hope. And if he achieves nothing else, he's already delivered those.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.