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How a Family's Divorce Impacted Obama and Other Presidents

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When Barack Obama is inaugurated next Tuesday, he will be the first African-American and interracial president in our nation's history. However, he is a product of another blend as well: a blended family. Obama is a child of divorce, and grew up with a stepparent and a half-sibling. This experience, as it has for millions of other children of divorce, highlights the way he sees the world. Now that Obama will be President, sensitivity towards non-traditional families and the roles o f single moms in our country is sure to undergo a change and gain a renewed respect.

This change alone is worth celebrating.

After all, 9.2 percent of households are run by a single mom and 28 percent of children are raised in single-parent homes.

Obama is not the first president to be touched by divorce. Ronald Reagan was the first president who had been divorced. It is a testament to the man's likability that his ex-wife never badmouthed him. Isn't an endorsement fired from an ex-wife far more credible than from the NRA?

When Gerald Ford was born in 1913, he was named Leslie Lynch King Jr. His mother divorced the abusive King Sr. soon after their son was born. In 1917, she married Gerald Ford Sr. and changed the future president's name to his stepfather's.

Can you imagine being four-years-old and then being told, "Your name isn't Leslie, dear, it's now Gerald."

Ford only learned of his true past at 17 when his biological father found him and told him. (Ford remained loyal to his stepfather whom he adored and later also married a woman named Betty, who had had a divorce which was kept quiet before their marriage).

In those days, divorce was hidden or considered a source of shame. Not anymore.

Barack Obama's mother, Ann, was divorced twice and had two children from separate marriages, Barack and his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. In this family scenario, Barack had to learn to navigate divorced family dynamics with a stepfather who may have naturally favored his own child, and also deal with the emotional sting of an absent father. As is common in divorced families, Obama also lived with a single working mother with reduced economic resources and rationed time that made him become, as his half-sister later recalled, a child who took on a "paternal" role as her big brother.

Except in this scenario, he is Father Knows Best, though not in the Republican mold. It's as if the kid on The Wonder Years grew up to be Daddy. Obama is a new kind of Daddy. He hugs his daughters, sends heartfelt letters to them, jokes about Michelle being in charge and can still seem like the rock solid person who can reassure us that all will be alright.

What may he have learned from his divorce experience that will help him in the White House? Plenty.

Don Gordon, an Ohio University professor and creator of the "Children in the Middle" program for divorcing families, notes that Obama is likely to have learned resilience. "Being president is a piece of cake compared to going through a divorce," he said. "This resilience serves [children of divorce] well in dealing with lengthy stressful situations" since divorces take an extended amount of time to be resolved. "They can tough it out no matter how bad it gets."

Indeed, most divorces require negotiation, compromise and agreeing to disagree. You learn the importance of being reserved and reflective vs. being rash. And why perhaps he likes being No Drama Obama.

Another bonus: Obama is more likely to be sensitive to governmental policies that protect children. He is more likely to make family health care coverage a priority, since many divorced women lose their health coverage.

In 1998, the median income for single mother households was $18,000; for single father households the income was $30,000. The median income for married couple families with children was $57,000.

Jeannette Lofas, the president of the New York based Stepfamily Foundation and my mentor, hopes that Obama will support federal funding to measure the impact of divorce and remarriage on American life which the Bush Administration didn't want to address. "No research is adequately measuring stepfamily life in America," she says. "In stepfamily life, children reside in one house and visit another. This impacts the economics of both households as well as the family relationships."

Perhaps now a discussion could take place on tax breaks for these families, since a dependent is usually claimed by only one household.

From experience, I know that a divorced household is like living in two countries, with two different sets of traditions, rules, and expectations. Brokering peace becomes a necessity. Therefore, a child of divorce will be more open to different opinions and may not be as rigid in his/her thinking. Gerald Ford understood intimately the concept of forgiveness and did pardon Richard Nixon despite public outcry.

However, being a child of divorce -- especially when the father is absent -- also creates a yearning. Yes, our parents teach us who we want to be and who we don't want to be. It also instills a desire for stability as well as a desire to be the agent of change.

So it is really no surprise that Obama picked a woman like Michelle as his wife. Michelle is the product of a stable, loving, two-parent household, and this must have been appealing to the young Barack, who was shuttled to different homes and also lived a long stretch with his maternal grandparents.

In a recent interview, Obama said, "A part of me was wondering what a strong, reassuring family life would look like ... while Michelle, in a way, wanted to break from that model. In a way only, because she's very attached to family values, but I think she sometimes sees in me a more adventurous way of life, more exotic, and in that respect, we're complementary."

"I think that in a certain way, I've tried all my life to fabricate a family through stories, memories, friends, or ideas. Michelle's family life was different, very stable with two parents, a stay-at-home mom, a brother, a dog, that kind of thing. They've lived in the same house all their lives. And I think that in a certain way we complement each other, we represent two common models of family life in this country. One very stable and strong, another that frees itself from the constraint of a traditional family, travels, separates, is very mobile," Obama said.

This blend, as he describes his relationship with his wife, gives me cause for optimism. Yes, the President and First Lady truly complement each other, and this fusion of experience will surely shape their policies and their approach in defining and inspiring American families.

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