By Michelle Valiukenas, Executive Director
2021 long felt like a reprieve, a breath of fresh air, a cleansing of the craziness that happened in 2020, and symbolized hope and change. As we got closer to the date though, I started feeling like it was just going to be more of the same, with only the changing of the year we wrote. But, never, ever in a million years could I have expected to see the events strewn across our TVs this week as Americans violently stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to overturn a free and fair election, the hallmark of our democracy.
I will never deny who I am—mom, activist, wife, liberal, but I have been very careful in my role as the leader of this organization to not be too political. The reason for that is two-fold: (1) I never want to alienate those who may seek assistance from us because difficulties in pregnancy, childbirth, infancy, and loss do not fall along party or belief lines; and (2) because I think there are serious institutional changes that need to be made to keep moms and babies safe and they can only be done with bipartisan action and support. But, I have strayed from this before—to share some perspectives on the Black Lives Matter movement, which I support and which comes very much into play in our work with black women dying during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum at four times the rate of white women and the prematurity rate among black babies being an average of 13.8% as compared to 9.1% among white babies. I now will also stray from this to address the terrorism we saw this week.
In May 2019, I attended Mom Congress, an annual event that brings together moms from across the nation to learn, connect, and to advocate with legislators for change that will make families safer. It was an honor and an amazing experience. I met incredible women from all over the country, made such good friends, and really talked about some issues that families are struggling with. Being able to walk the halls of the Capitol Building alongside so many other moms and to talk to legislators and their staffs about bills to pass and changes to enact was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I knew before leaving Washington D.C. that me going would be an annual event. I was changed as an advocate, mom, and woman by that experience.
When 2020 and the Covid-19 shutdowns and worries meant that Mom Congress did not occur in person, I was so sad to not have that experience. While the organizers definitely did a lot to try to connect us virtually and to try to still enact change, I missed that feeling of being in the Capitol Building, walking the same hallways as so many of my heroes walked. It was precious and as we got pregnant again and brought our child home, I thought so much about being able to bring him along as so many other moms had done and exposing him from a young age to the incredible democracy we have in this country.
But, that very democracy was attacked yesterday in a violent, destructive, disrespectful manner. The pictures of these people, who I believe should all be brought up on sedition or treason charges, scaling such an important and historical building, callously sitting in the chambers and offices and photographing themselves, lifting items, and causing destruction made me angry and made me sad.
I am angry that so many of these individuals took direction from the man who lives at the White House and attacked our democracy. I am angry that the current inhabitant of the White House should be a leader and support the core and soul of our nation and democracy, and instead spewed vile words, refused to condemn white supremacists, and instigated and directed supporters to this violence. I am angry that although each of us needed to go through security and have items like waters and snacks thrown away, that they just pummeled past security and created destruction. I am angry that instead of having awe for the democratic process and the symbolism behind the building, they felt that the best way to inhabit this building was through violence, destruction, and general disrespect.
I am angry that instead of being able to focus on truly important issues in this country, instead of passing the Momnibus package of bills that would improve maternal health and family life in this country, there were 147 Republicans who felt that their time was better spent on objecting to a free and fair election, where absolutely no proof other than baseless statements and claims, have been offered to say otherwise.
And I am sad. I am sad because as the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants who came here from communist countries as their home nations were being torn apart, I never expected to see a scene like what we saw in the United States. I am sad because both my maternal and paternal families came here to escape violence, destruction, and upheaval to provide a better life for their children and grandchildren, only to have this scene play out. I am sad because I cannot help but think of my paternal grandfather, who after bringing his young family here from Cuba, became one of the biggest believers of the American democratic system and how much his heart would have broken to see the scenes of this week. I feel like for the first time since he died nearly 26 years ago, I was not thinking in the back of my head about how I wish he could be here, but instead, how glad I was that he did not live to see this in his beloved adopted country. I am sad because this week, for the first time ever, I honestly felt what my grandparents must have felt when they made the decision to leave their home countries because I looked at my son and wondered if we should be doing the same now. The fact that I even had that momentary thought is scary and sad.
I am sad for my son and for other children who witnessed this and do not understand why. As an adult, I cannot explain this and can only imagine what our kids are thinking. I felt relief this week that Elliott is only six months old because then I have time before I have to explain this dark period in our country’s history. Even my husband turned to me this week and said, well, there is one good thing about Colette not being here. Confused and taken aback, I said, what? He responded with, well, she would have been old enough to understand some things and we would have had to figure out how to explain it to her. While I can never actually find “good” in Colette not being here, I did feel that relief that I did not have to do what so many parents have had and will continue to have to do to explain what happened this week.
I am moving on, I will not let actions and words filled with hate and disrespect to cloud my life. I will continue to advocate for change, equality, and justice for all, those who would agree with me and those who would completely disagree with me. I know that in writing this, I will alienate some people and it is a risk I am willing to take because standing up against this is that important.
And for parents, I am providing this resource of some good articles I have seen on how to talk to kids about this. I hope that if you need the support or even somewhere to start, that you find something from this list that helps.
Wishing you all the best in 2021 and beyond. May our collective humanity and empathy rise to the surface instead of hate!