Your New Bicycle

Beto, childcare, and the cool

I’m writing this essay, like everything else I write, on stolen time.

When my husband and I moved out of Brooklyn, and into upstate New York — not the cool upstate, the vacation homes and weed-dealing farmer’s markets and artist’s communes an hour or so out of the city, but true upstate, rocky foothills and pine forests and industrial devastation — the only thought on my mind was childcare. We had earnestly believed we would be able to afford day care in Brooklyn; we were wrong; I had signed a deal for a book when I was eight months pregnant, and that book — along with the weekly columns I’d signed up to write, which comprised most of my income — had to be written frantically, and fast, in stolen two-hour spurts when the baby was napping.

The situation was untenable, and although I never missed a deadline (it is a point of pride, for me, that I could be bleeding to death from multiple stab wounds and still make deadline) I didn’t turn in my best work, either. Pieces started getting killed. The first draft of the book was unreadable. My husband and I started fighting. Eventually we were able to hire some babysitters off a website, the kind of janky gig-economy bulletin board that routinely gets busted for letting registered sex predators sign up to watch people’s babies, and though each of the women we worked with was a lovely human being, and can be credited with saving both my job and my life, they were also just picking up part-time work on the side. They were dancers and college students and aspiring doctors taking a break before med school, not childcare workers in any long-term, full-time sense, and they weren’t always available. So my two-hour writing shifts turned into four-hour shifts, which was better, but that still wasn’t enough for a person who had two or three full-time jobs. 

What can I say? We got an opportunity to move to a smaller town, and we took it. I saw phrases like “reasonable cost of living” and “good place to raise a family” in the write-ups. I am hours and miles away from every friend I’ve made in my adult life, and every landmark I know. I bake a lot, and I garden, by which I mean I am way too invested in the health of the one lavender plant I got from Trader Joe’s. But my daughter goes to day care, three days a week, and when our pediatrician heard the name of the place, she nodded and said “they’re very good.” 

It’s still not enough time. It never will be, I’m realizing. I still woke up this morning and had to go back and forth with my husband on whether I was more behind on my projects, or whether he was more behind on his projects, negotiating and haggling our respective work time — I get the morning to write, he gets the afternoon to work, our beloved daughter gets tossed back and forth like a little human volleyball over the net of our professional engagements — and I will have to keep doing this, over and over, until she’s an adult. I will have to bargain for each moment I get, taking it away from someone else in order to give it to readers, or myself.

So, anyway, how’s Beto O’Rourke doing? 

Henry, age eight, weighs in from the back of the Toyota Tundra.

“Dad, if you run for president, I’m going to cry all day,” he says.

“Just the one day?” asks O’Rourke, hopefully.

“Every day,” says Henry.

*

O’Rourke’s family politics — how he talks about them, how he treats them, what his obligations to them are — have been hashed out thoroughly at this point. He’s even apologized for some of the most problematic stuff, like a “joke” (repeated at least twice) that his wife Amy is raising their children “sometimes with my help.”

I don’t think Beto is the worst candidate running; he’s able to admit his mistakes, and, unlike most of the white men expected to run in this election, he actually seems thoughtful about the advantages his whiteness and maleness confer. (Though not so thoughtful that it keeps him from running.) But he is, at bare minimum, revealing something about what it looks like to be driven; to be ambitious; to have a calling. To do all that, and still be cool. 

There are other candidates in the race, whose stories and priorities look more like mine. Kirsten Gillibrand, who’s running on family leave, brings her children along to speeches and provides free childcare at her events. Elizabeth Warren, who’s campaigning on universal childcare, has spoken about the fact that her career would not be possible if not for the childcare she picked up from her aunt. She can get on stage and talk about being unable to afford child care, or unable to find a reputable provider on her budget, can remember the funny smell at the day care or mention her “then-husband’s” lack of help with an instantly legible glare. 

But neither Gillibrand nor Warren has the option of being cool: Free, loose, unentangled. They can’t cruise through life, Beto O’Rourke style, on their bikes, haplessly falling into punk bands and/or the Presidency, surprised by yet accepting of their own charisma. If you shot them for a magazine cover, you wouldn’t put them alone on a dusty road, propped on a pickup and calmly gazing off into the distance, as if to say: My, what a free-wheeling guy I am. You don’t shoot women that way, and in particular, you don’t shoot mothers that way. (Unless they’re Tori Amos.) That quality, of being blown through life by the winds of vision and desire, able to simply try things, to fail or abandon people without guilt, to wander… it’s not a quality we allow women to cultivate. A woman who went on an On-the-Road style journey of personal discovery to determine if she should be President would be dismissed as a flake, if she were single, and would inspire mass outrage if she had a family at home, with adorable children threatening to “cry every day” if she dared prioritize her political ambitions over their time with Mommy. 

This is how we want women: Embedded in family, in community, in place, responsible primarily to others and not to themselves, having to haggle every minute of work time away from children or husbands or both. Then we want to dismiss them for not being engaged enough with the world, for not being free enough, for being too consumed with their petty personal affairs. Suburban soccer mom, some Bernie Sanders supporter hissed at me on Twitter, no doubt believing he supported universal childcare as he did so. The forces that transform someone from a person into a mom, the economic factors that get women to leave major cities or drive them out of full-time work, were not part of his political calculus. All he knows is that I’m doing what women do, I have the sort of life women have, which makes me contemptible. Makes me uncool.

*

“Cool” shouldn’t matter to decisions we make in a Presidential election, but it always does. It is with great cringing — and the realization that even remembering this makes me an old person — that I bring up the Internet sensation of fall 2008, a website called “Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle.” How well it’s aged is probably indicated by how well you understand its title — a reference to a very specific subcultural moment in which bicycles were Cool, but only single-speed bikes, and above all it was desirable to have a fixed-gear, the Coolest of bicycles. (This hierarchy must be completely illegible to anyone younger than thirty or older than fifty, but anyway, the dream of the late aughts is alive in Beto.) BOIYNB was an entire website that generated random “cool” facts about up-and-coming Illinois legislator Barack Obama, several of which fill the contemporary reader with dread, such as “BARACK OBAMA SANG YOU THE HAPPY BIRTHDAY SONG ON YOUR VOICEMAIL” and “BARACK OBAMA LEFT A COMMENT ON YOUR BLOG.” 

Now, ten years later, what you have to do to be Cool is hate Barack Obama, and also sometimes Beto O’Rourke. No-one leaves, or wants, voicemails. But the people who deplore the Bicycling of Obama still do it for the candidates they like — everyone makes fun of the cramped-calves Beto tweet, but in 2016, n+1 published, in full seriousness, an essay on “the erotics of Bernie Sanders,” featuring thoughts on the “nice lips” of a nine-thousand-year-old man who primarily uses his lips to yell at people. (Perhaps I am being unkind to the author, who tries to do a lot more in this piece than talk about how cute Sanders was before he turned into the swamp turtle from The Neverending Story, but try imagining an essay on “The Erotics of Hillary Clinton,” and how well that would go. The author would probably be in Witness Protection by this point.) Skip a generation or two back, and my mother can still remember when all her coworkers had crushes on Bill Clinton. 

Every generation thinks they’re forging a unique, once-in-a-lifetime, surprisingly-sexy bond with their candidate, but in fact, that’s just what supporting a candidate feels like. When someone manages to convince you that they’re a vehicle for your values, that your own dreams of virtue and justice and right and good are nestled in their heart, that they, you know, get it, it feels like falling in love. It feels like wanting to get a voicemail or a blog comment, something to show they’ve noticed you. It doesn’t feel like respect or admiration, which are chilly, cerebral reactions you could create just by reading a resume. It’s the intense, visceral feeling a teenager has for her favorite pop star, that unthinking bond of identification and affection and needing to become a version of the other person because you understand, on some level, that they are already the best version of you. It’s celebrity. It’s fantasy. It’s eros. It’s everything we sum up with the word cool. 

Beto was cool, once, and now he is uncool, as evidenced by the fact that he has gone from giving women boyfriend feelings to giving them ex-boyfriend feelings. I don’t judge; both are valid ways of expressing an essential truth, which is that Beto’s whole indie-band-vision-quest-skateboard deal just gets tiring after a while, that his freewheeling, tumbleweed-blown-by-the-breeze aesthetic is in fact incredibly high-maintenance, and that a woman has to do all the maintaining. After you’d sampled his wares, heard all the stories about playing with Cedric, watched him be toothy and charming and end his statements with “man” for a thousand dazzled audiences, you would get bored with Beto, bored and resentful; tired of being expected to maintain silence for four solid minutes while he talked about himself. Tired of being at home with three demanding, crying kids while he searched his soul in the desert and updated his Instagram story. You would begin to suspect, at the end of the day, that fixed-gear bikes aren’t that cool any more, and that even if they were, a 46-year-old man with three children shouldn’t care about how cool his bike is. He shouldn’t have time to care. He should put the goddamn iPhone down, come home, and take the kids to the park or something so you can work.

So Beto, having lost the crowd, will probably not be President. But whoever is will have found a way to create that same charge — they will be flattering lifestyle accessories for their supporters, they will foster that creepy blend of identification and eros in a way that never becomes uncomfortable, they will be someone’s new bicycle, or the 2019 equivalent of what a bicycle was. They will be a boyfriend and not an ex-boyfriend; they will be Cool.

Which means that it matters that women aren’t allowed to cultivate that style of engagement. Women can never be clear mirrors for other people’s desires — at least, not without some sexualized violence and contempt coming into the equation. Gillibrand and Kamala Harris have both been portrayed as ruthlessly ambitious schemers (and, in Harris’ case, as having slept her way to the top). Elizabeth Warren, the best candidate on policy by a mile — in a field full of people running to win, Warren seems like the only person running to govern — is portrayed as a dull, over-earnest pencil-pusher. None are polling as well as the two white men at the top of the field. We can’t identify with them seamlessly, can’t make it fit, can’t generate the uncomplicated and instinctive adoration that makes someone feel cool.

I can identify with Liz Warren; I can understand the sheer brute desperation of needing to either toilet-train your one-year-old in five days or drop out of law school and spend the rest of your life as a housewife. I know that, although she makes it sound funny, it probably wasn’t, and that her marriage was broken in the process of trying to hold onto her independent life. She lost a husband; I lost a city; you lose things, when you’re working on stolen time. Because mothers don’t have callings, they have childcare hours, and the expectation that they can blithely sacrifice their spouse’s calling to their own does not apply.

What I don’t know is whether people care. Men will show up, over the course of this election, consumed with the fire and vision we’ve come to see as Presidential; they will rage against the machine like Sanders, deliver the insult-comic cruelty of a Trump rally, charmingly half-ass it like Uncle Joe Biden, or declare, Beto-style, that it’s just what their heart moved ‘em to do in this wild ol’ journey called life, man. Each of these has a chance of connecting with the crowd, of being cool to someone, somewhere. They seem like someone you’d want to be. The guy talking into the camera, not the woman smiling pleasantly beside him as he talks; the man at the podium, dazzling thousands, not the woman crouched over a potty, frantically hoping her kid takes a shit on command.

That woman is the one actually dealing with the injustice of the world. That woman is the one who deserves a chance to fix it. We just don’t like to look at her, or think about her. We want something beautiful to work for, some bright future, and all the while, women work in the background, holding up a bright light so their men can shine.