For any single divorced mother hoping that her child will succeed despite the drawbacks of having to carve out a career while organizing grocery shopping, school work, penny pinching and getting enough sleep to combat exhaustion, may I present President Barack Obama as the poster boy for possibility.
After all, Ann Dunham's son did become President.
Sadly, she died in 1995 before seeing her son achieve his full greatness, but on this Mother's Day, it is worth noting her influence on the man who has dazzled the world with his mental calm, stealth-like focus and Herculean endurance to get the job done. Fortunately, we also have Janny Scott's new book, "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother" to shed light and insight into what shaped our 44th President.
For a long time, I was mad at Obama for minimizing his mother's influence in his life and for what seemed like the ultimate slap in the face, writing "Dreams From My Father," a book about the man who not only abandoned the family but betrayed his mother.
Consider this: Ann Dunham was a white 17-year-old sheltered girl who had never had a boyfriend when she met Barack Obama Sr. at the University of Hawaii. Within weeks, she became pregnant. When they married, she believed he was separated from his wife in Kenya -- a fact that later she learned was a lie. Ouch. Soon after, the couple divorced, and she was left with the responsibility of raising her bi-racial son in a country where nearly 24 states frowned upon mixed race marriages, and later in Indonesia where it was not much easier. But Ann never minded outsider status and embraced adventure.
So why did Obama lionize the absent father instead of the mother who was in the kitchen making breakfast or sending him off to school or to his grandparents to help raise him?
Of course it is a classic script in many divorced families with absent parents. The child -- even if he is as gifted as Barack Obama -- will naturally mythologize the parent who isn't there. The parent who has to do double duty, who may yell to clean up the room or say she can't afford to fill the fridge, just isn't as glamorous.
Scott says that, in Obama's case at least, there was good reason for this: "Dreams From My Father," she explained, was begun in the aftermath of his 1990 election as the first non-white president of Harvard Law Review. "You have to put the book in context that there was curiosity about this milestone and an agent encouraged an exploration of that part of him," she told me.
Still, from personal experience coaching many parents, it stings when the other parent is discussed in such a warm light considering their lack of day to day involvement. In fact, many parents are bewildered sometimes in how the child will sugarcoat all faults and blindly love. What I try to explain is that some instincts are primal, and since the parent is still part of their biological makeup, the kid must create a myth to manage the loss. Then, later in life, that child will process it more objectively as an adult.
While researching her book, Scott discovered that Obama's mother may have intuitively understood that, and didn't seem to mind being passed over in this way. "Her friends commented on how she had been marginalized or reduced to a minor character but Ann never discussed being bothered by it," said Scott.
Nor did she seem to mind that her mother had become such an important role model in her son's life while she chose to pursue her career.
That ability to accept what is and not dwell on what isn't was a great gift that she gave her son, along with an open-mindedness to explore different viewpoints, the importance of impeccable manners, and an abiding respect for and interest in education. That was a driving force in the Dunham family -- and why, as Scott told me, the grandparents were so willing to raise Obama after the age of 10 since his mother felt Barack would have better educational opportunities in the U.S. and she would have more opportunities in Indonesia. Turns out Ann's mother had wished she had pursued her own education before marrying.
There is a story making the rounds about how, when in Indonesia, a friend overheard Barack Obama being taunted for being black and wanted to intervene. "No, he's okay," his mother said. " He's used to it." Some would say that's a callous response for a mother to have. But as Scott revealed, "In Java, there is a culture of teasing, used in part to make children strong. If a child allows it to get to them, they have lost. Ignoring it shows inner strength." What great training for his future life in politics.
However, despite the many gifts his mother gave him, Barack Obama did yearn for familial stability and building roots in one place vs. being a nomad. I think it was a great deal of the appeal in marrying Michele Obama: he chose an independent thinker just like his mother and maternal grandmother.
Like many of us this weekend, Obama is likely to be reflecting and toasting the spirit of his mother and paying tribute to her as all of us do with deceased parents.
Nine years after "Dreams From My Father" was written, Obama ruefully did finally write that, in retrospect--since his mother died of cancer that year after its first publication--his focus might have been "less a mediation on the absent parent, more of a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life." But have no doubt that her impact is visible. It was his love for her that motivated him to fight many hurdles, including healthcare reform in her memory (she had been worried about coverage because of a pre-existing condition).
As he also wrote, "In my daughters, I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder. She was the kindest most generous spirit I have ever known and that what is the best in me I owe to her."
Of course, mothers do like hearing this from their kids when they are alive, and nor is it a rule that it should be just on Mother's Day.
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