On Friday morning, my husband, a journalist, woke up at 2am and rushed to work. It looked as if Britain was, in fact, going to vote itself out of the European Union.
It was a decision that would soon rock global markets, unravel British politics, deeply damage an already fragile EU, and radically alter the UK’s position in the world. I woke up two hours later to listen, report, and, write. So much to cover; so little time.
By 7am, I had another problem.
“WHY ARE YOU WATCHING TV?” demanded my daughters as they wandered downstairs, sleepy-eyed and hungry.
“Because Britain voted to leave the EU, and I need to watch the news and write,” I responded.
“DOES THAT MEAN WE HAVE TO LEAVE OUR HOME?”
“WHERE’S THE SHREDDED WHEAT AND CAN WE PLEASE HAVE SOME PORRIDGE?”
“We don’t have to go anywhere, but I need to listen. You can have anything you want for breakfast and here’s the iPad. Watch anything you like.”
“WHAT?!” shrieked one, overjoyed. (They have never been allowed to watch the iPad at breakfast.)
“THIS IS AMAZIIIIING!” said the other.
I am toggling between two stories: one about the pound, which is getting crushed alongside other markets worldwide; another about the fact that the “leave” campaign seems surprised—and a little scared—that it won.
Plenty of Brits are fed up with the establishment, its uneven austerity, stagnant wages, and poor social mobility. Immigration, some voters feel, has made their lot worse. Their fears are legitimate, their solutions less so—how does leaving the EU create more jobs, lift wages, or even limit immigration?
“MOM I CAN’T FIND MY JUMPER!”
“MOM I CAN’T FIND MY READING RECORD!”
“MOM THERE’S NO TOOTHPASTE LEFT.”
I overhear a pundit on the BBC say, “We’ve made a bit of a dog’s breakfast of this, haven’t we?” I am typing, my kids are yelling, the kitchen table looks like a bomb went off. They have taken me at my word and eaten crumpets and donuts for breakfast.
“Guys, I need you sort yourselves out this morning. Please.” I text a mom down the street to ask if she can take one of my daughters to school.
The conversation is turning accusatory on TV. How did Boris Johnson (full name: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson), an erudite, Eton- and Oxford-educated graduate become the standard bearer for this anti-establishment movement?
Was it simply a bid to secure more power for himself? Did he consider that markets would dent retirement funds, that the economy would shrink, or how uncertainty and confusion would now hang over Britain for months, if not years?
My neighbor agrees to take my daughter, but I have to drop her off down the road. I tell my kids they have three minutes to brush their teeth, do their hair, and get their bags packed. This process usually takes 30 minutes.
“MOM CAN I PLAY YOU MY PIANO PIECE?” asks one.
“MOM, ON MIA AND ME, THE GOOD UNICORN NEEDS TO GET THE RINGS FROM THE BAD UNICORN TO BRING THE DEAD UNICORN BACK TO LIFE. THE DEAD UNICORN IS THE BAD UNICORN’S FATHER. IT’S REALLY SAD MOM.”
“Huh? Get dressed we have to go now!”
Cameron is giving s statement. There are whispers that the prime minister, whose party unexpectedly won a majority in parliament last year, is going to resign. The referendum was his idea, but he campaigned to stay in the EU.
We race to the neighbor’s house. The mom is Swedish, her husband is Scottish. They look shell-shocked. “We didn’t think it would happen,” she says. “I am devastated.”
My kids attend two different schools. At each, more than half of the parents are not British: they are French, Russian, Italian, German, Uzbeck, Iranian, Nigerian, Dutch, American, Canadian, Colombian, Ecuadorian. The Brits we see over the course of the day are ashamed; the foreigners are angry—they complain about the weather, but love the country which has just rejected them.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, unsure why I am apologizing. I look at my phone. Cameron is about to speak.
“We gotta get back,” I say to my second kid, whose drop-off is later. “Run.”
“WHY ARE WE RUNNING?”
“Because I don’t want to miss Cameron!”
“IS HE COMING TO OUR HOUSE?”
We make it back, race down the stairs, and plant ourselves in front of the TV (the novelty of this has not worn off; all TV is amazing to her.) Cameron is walking out of 10 Downing Street.
“MOM I HAVE A SPELLING TEST. WILL YOU TEST ME ON MY WORDS?”
“You know those words cold. I have to listen to this! Shush!”
Cameron says he will respect the will of the people and the choice they have made. But “fresh leadership” is required to carry it through.
“MOM THIS IS BORING! AND I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SPELL NINETY, OR FEBRUARY!”
“Then study them. And you do know them.”
Cameron finishes (and is finished). My daughter is annoyed, and we are late, again. We dash out the door.
“WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?” she asks.
“Because some people are very unhappy with the way things are.”
“WHAT’S AN IMMIGRANT AND WHY ARE THEY SO MAD ABOUT THEM?”
“We are immigrants. Your babysitter is an immigrant. Many of your friends are immigrants. We’ll talk more about it later,” I say.
“WAIT… THEY DON’T THEY WANT US?”
“No, no. That’s not it. We have to talk about this later, okay? Everything’s fine. Really. We are not going anywhere.”
“OK MOM, LOVE YOU.”
“Love you too,” I say, oddly aware in that moment that she, and every kid on the playground, could be cut off from a messy, but rich, broader Europe. And that’s down to a huge share of older voters turning out to reject cooperation and integration.
In the next hour, Johnson gives a speech void of aspiration and reeking of hypocrisy. He extols the greatness of the prime minister he just helped to defeat, decries politicians who ”play politics with immigration,” and stresses that ”we will always be part of Europe.”
At his urging, stoked by a relentless emphasis on reducing immigration, Britain just basically voted itself out of Europe. And in the aftermath, leaders from the “leave” campaign began backtracking on claims they made before vote.
First minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks eloquently for Scotland, which voted by a large margin to stay in the EU. Another referendum on declaring independence from the UK is now “on the table,” she said.
By noon, the country has ended its 43-year marriage to the EU, lost its leader, and witnessed the first steps of the break-up of its own union. Reporters and editors are trying to keep up with the news.
At 4pm, I race to pick up one daughter and a friend.
On the way home, my daughter asks her friend, “DID YOUR PARENTS VOTE IN OR OUT?”
“In or out of what?” she responds.
“I am moving back to France when I am 11,” she says, unsure of the question. Then they talk about whether they will play Top Trumps or soccer when they get home.
“I HAVE AN AMAZING HULA HOOP,” my daughter notes.
We have assured our kids that nothing will change. But we too aren’t telling the whole truth. Everything will change: their Australian and Italian and French friends may go back sooner than they hoped; the richness of what they gain every day in school, such as learning about Persian new year and Ramadan, will inevitably be diminished as a result. The economy their parents work in will probably shrink, and jobs will be lost. Stress will rise locally, and globally.
“CAN WE HAVE A SNACK?”
They play while I finish a story about Donald Trump telling Scots how proud he is of their vote for Brexit. The pound continues to tank.
I take the girls to a birthday party. The mother who is hosting is also American, and also married to a Brit. She has given up her US citizenship, and toyed with voting “leave” out of exasperation with the EU. A protest vote, a chance to stick it to the status quo. She didn’t, but it makes me wonder how many people didn’t have the same change of heart.
Who isn’t annoyed at lying politicians and empty promises? But how is this the answer? Should there have been a referendum on such a complex issue with such far-reaching ramifications? We elect officials to grapple with difficult questions and carefully consider the trade-offs of their policies.
By 7pm I have picked up both kids. They are tired, and unsettled.
“IS DADDY HOME YET?”
“ARE YOU STILL WORKING?”
“WHY ARE YOU STILL ON YOUR PHONE?”
“CAN WE WATCH EPIC?”
Friday nights are movie night at our house. We hunker down after busy weeks, eat popcorn, and escape into silly, fantastical alternate worlds.
Epic is a story about a secret world of fairies and leaf men, slugs and birds who live in the woods, and who have to save their civilization by escorting a pod—a bud with a new queen—to safety.
It is a celebration of the mystery and beauty of nature and the power of cooperation and truth to defeat the bad guys.
It does not feel like the story we are living in.
“There’s not enough time for a whole movie,” I say, conscious of their bedtime, and mine. We watch the end of Mia and Me, a mindless cartoon about a tween who can transform into a fairy with a pet unicorn.
My husband comes in, looking undone. We tune into the fantasy, hoping it can take us far away.