IN THE SPOT­LIGHT

As her hus­band’s pres­i­den­tial bid gath­ered mo­men­tum, Michelle Obama’s quest for a work/life bal­ance shifted to pol­i­tics and pro­tect­ing her daugh­ters. In this ex­tract from her mem­oir, we join her in Mon­tana.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - BOOKS -

So much of the last decade had been about try­ing to strike a bal­ance be­tween my fam­ily and my work, fig­ur­ing out how to be lov­ing and present for Malia and Sasha while also try­ing to be de­cent at my job. But the axis had shifted: I was now try­ing to bal­ance par­ent­ing with some­thing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent and more con­fus­ing – pol­i­tics, Amer­ica, Barack’s quest to do some­thing im­por­tant. The mag­ni­tude of what was hap­pen­ing in Barack’s life, the de­mands of the cam­paign, the spot­light on our fam­ily, all seemed to be grow­ing quickly. Af­ter the Iowa cau­cuses, I’d de­cided to take a leave of ab­sence from my po­si­tion at the hos­pi­tal, know­ing that it would be im­pos­si­ble, re­ally, to stay on and be ef­fec­tive. The cam­paign was slowly con­sum­ing ev­ery­thing. I’d been too busy af­ter Iowa to even go over and box up the things in my of­fice or say any sort of proper good­bye. I was a full-time mother and wife now, al­beit a wife with a cause and a mother who wanted to

guard her kids against get­ting swal­lowed by that cause. It had been painful to step away from my work, but there was no choice: My fam­ily needed me, and that mat­tered more.

And so here I was at a cam­paign pic­nic in Mon­tana, lead­ing a group of mostly strangers in singing “Happy Birth­day” to Malia, who sat smil­ing on the grass with a ham­burger on her plate. Vot­ers saw our daugh­ters as sweet, I knew, and our fam­ily’s close­ness as en­dear­ing. But I did think of­ten of how all this ap­peared to our daugh­ters, what their view was look­ing out­ward. I tried to tamp down any guilt. We had a real birth­day party planned for the fol­low­ing week­end, one in­volv­ing a heap of Malia’s friends sleep­ing over at our house in Chicago and no pol­i­tics what­so­ever. And that even­ing, we’d hold a more pri­vate gath­er­ing back at our ho­tel. Still, as the af­ter­noon went on and our girls ran around the pic­nic grounds while Barack and I shook hands and hugged po­ten­tial vot­ers, I found my­self won­der­ing if

the two of them would re­mem­ber this out­ing as fun.

I watched Sasha and Malia these days with a new fierce­ness in my heart. Like me, they now had strangers call­ing their names, peo­ple want­ing to touch them and take their pic­tures. Over the win­ter, the gov­ern­ment had deemed me and the girls ex­posed enough to as­sign us Se­cret Ser­vice pro­tec­tion, which meant that when Sasha and Malia went to school or their sum­mer day camp, usu­ally driven by my mother, it was with the Se­cret Ser­vice tail­ing them in a sec­ond car.

At the pic­nic, each one of us had our own agent flank­ing us, can­vass­ing the gath­er­ing for any sign of threat, sub­tly in­ter­ven­ing if a well-wisher got ov­er­en­thused and grabby. Thank­fully, the girls seemed to see the agents less as guards and more as grown-up friends, new ad­di­tions to the grow­ing knot of friendly peo­ple with whom we trav­elled, dis­tin­guish­able only by their ear­pieces and quiet vig­i­lance. Sasha gen­er­ally re­ferred to them as “the se­cret peo­ple”.

The girls made cam­paign­ing more re­lax­ing, if only be­cause they weren’t much in­vested in the out­come. For both me and Barack, they were a re­lief to be around – a re­minder that in the end our fam­ily meant more than any tal­ly­ing of sup­port­ers or bump in the polls. Nei­ther daugh­ter cared much about the hub­bub sur­round­ing their dad. They weren’t fo­cused on build­ing a bet­ter democ­racy or get­ting to the White House. All they re­ally wanted (re­ally, re­ally wanted) was a puppy. They loved play­ing tag or card games with cam­paign staff dur­ing the qui­eter mo­ments and made a point of find­ing an ice­cream shop in ev­ery new place they went. Ev­ery­thing else was just noise.

To this day, Malia and I still crack up about the fact that she’d been 8 years old when Barack, clearly feel­ing some sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity, posed the ques­tion one night while he was tuck­ing her into bed. “How would you feel if Daddy ran for pres­i­dent?” he’d asked. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“Sure, Daddy!” she’d replied, peck­ing him on the cheek. His de­ci­sion to run would al­ter nearly ev­ery­thing about her life af­ter that, but how was she to know? She’d just rolled over then and drifted off to sleep.

That day in Butte, we vis­ited the lo­cal min­ing mu­seum, had a wa­ter-pis­tol bat­tle, and kicked a soc­cer ball around in the grass. Barack gave his stump speech and shook the usual num­ber of hands, but he also got to an­chor him­self back in­side the unit of us. Sasha and Malia climbed all over him, gig­gling and re­gal­ing him with their thoughts. I saw the light­ness in his smile, ad­mir­ing him for his abil­ity to block out the pe­riph­eral dis­trac­tions and just be a dad when he had the chance. He chat­ted with [his sis­ter and her hus­band] Maya and Kon­rad and kept an arm hooked around my shoul­der as we walked from place to place.

We were never alone. We had staff around us, agents guard­ing us, mem­bers of the press wait­ing for in­ter­views, on­look­ers snap­ping pic­tures from a dis­tance. But this was now our nor­mal. Over the course of the cam­paign, our days had be­come so pro­grammed that we’d watched our pri­vacy and au­ton­omy slowly slip away, both Barack and I hand­ing nearly ev­ery as­pect of our lives over to a bunch of 20-some­things who were highly in­tel­li­gent and ca­pa­ble but still couldn’t know how painful it could feel to give up con­trol over my own life. If I needed some­thing at the store, I had to ask some­one to get it for me. If I wanted to speak to Barack, I usu­ally had to send a re­quest through one of his young staffers. Events and ac­tiv­i­ties I didn’t know about would some­times show up on my cal­en­dar.

But slowly, as a mat­ter of sur­vival, we were learn­ing to live our lives more pub­licly, ac­cept­ing the re­al­ity for what it was.

Pho­tos: Cal­lie Shell, Aurora Pho­tos; Anne Ryan, cour­tesy of the Obama-Robin­son Fam­ily Ar­chives; cour­tesy of the Obama-Robin­son Fam­ily Ar­chives; Of­fi­cial White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.