iOS app Android app More

How The Presidency Made Me A Better Father

Barack Obama   |   June 21, 2015    3:54 PM ET

When you're the President of the United States, you're surrounded at all times -- by aides, by press, by Secret Service, by crowds. It's a bubble that's hard to escape.

That's what makes the people with whom you surround yourself in those rare private moments all the more important.

It just so happens that I'm fortunate enough to be surrounded by women. They're the most important people in my life. They're the people who've shaped me the most. And in this job, they are my sanctuary.

People often ask me whether being President has made it more difficult to spend time with Michelle and our girls. But the surprising truth is that being in the White House has made our family life more "normal" than it's ever been.

2015-06-21-1434913782-4775481-POTUSEssayImage1.jpg
Photo credit: Official White House photo by Samantha Appleton

When Malia was born, Michelle and I were fortunate enough to spend a blissful three months mostly at home with our baby girl. But then Michelle went back to work part time, and I returned to my schedule of teaching at the University of Chicago law school and serving in the state legislature. This meant that I would often be away in Springfield for three days at a time. Even when I was home in Chicago, I had papers to grade and briefs to write and evening meetings to attend.

As professionals, we were blessed with the resources for things like reliable child care and takeout when we were too exhausted to cook. Our jobs afforded us the kind of flexibility that many working families simply don't have. Still, we each had a truckload of student debt, which meant that when we got married, we got poorer together. So we were counting every penny to manage our household bills, pay our student loans and maintain a full-time babysitter. The combined pressures sometimes put a real strain on our marriage, as they do for many working parents with young kids. After Sasha was born, Michelle was working while juggling our home life. I helped out, and I saw myself as a pretty enlightened guy. But the truth was, I helped on my terms and on my schedule, and the expectations and the burden disproportionately -- and unfairly -- fell on Michelle, as happens to many women.

Fortunately, we had the help of my wonderful mother-in-law, Marian, who lived just a few minutes away. Still, Michelle was understandably stressed and frustrated, and I suspect she felt a little like a single mom sometimes. Things didn't get any easier when I was elected to the Senate and had to commute back and forth to Washington every week. Then our lives were thrown completely out of balance during a presidential campaign that kept me on the road almost constantly -- leaving Michelle to carry an even heavier load for longer stretches of time.

That's why I call her the rock of our family -- because she is. She always has been.

2015-06-21-1434913832-8950069-POTUSEssayImage2.jpg
Photo credit: Michelle Obama/Instagram

Still, we didn't know what to expect when I became President. We knew I might have even less time for our family. We knew that uprooting Malia and Sasha from their friends and school and community in Chicago would be challenging. So for good measure, we brought Marian with us to ease the transition and to be with them when Michelle and I couldn't.

But to our surprise, moving to the White House was really the first time since the girls were born that we've been able to gather as a family almost every night. Michelle and I can go to parent-teacher conferences together. I've been able to make Malia's tennis matches and Sasha's dance recitals. Sasha let me help coach her basketball team -- the Vipers. They won the title. I've even experienced what all dads dread: watching my daughter go to her first prom. In high heels.

So it's not always easy being a father of teenage girls. But it is pretty good to live above the store.

2015-06-21-1434913876-1746319-POTUSEssayImage3.jpg
Photo credit: Chicago Tribune photo by Pete Souza

Even with our jam-packed days, Michelle and I work hard to carve out certain blocks of family time that are sacrosanct. For example, at 6:30 p.m., no matter how busy I am, I leave work to go upstairs and have dinner with my family. That's inviolable. My staff knows that it pretty much takes a national emergency to keep me away from that dinner table. As a night owl, I'd rather stay up late reading briefings and working on speeches after everybody has gone to bed anyway.

So for an hour or so at dinner, my focus is not on my day, but on theirs. I ask Sasha and Malia the usual annoying parental questions: How was school? What are your friends up to? Have you done your homework? What are you thinking about? In return, they spend a lot of time teasing me about my big ears or stodgy suits -- and Michelle is always happy to join them.

Now they're at an age when they're well-informed, so they often ask me questions about issues. Like a lot of young people, for instance, they're deeply interested in the environment. Like most in their generation, they take it for granted that people shouldn't be treated differently because of their gender or race or sexual orientation or disability. They have every expectation that they and young women just like them can grow up to be anything they want to be. The highlight of my day is just listening to their thoughts about the world and seeing what smart, funny, kind young women they've become. That hour recharges me and gives me perspective. And those moments where I can just be Dad -- even if it's "Daaaaaaad" -- well, there's nothing better.

2015-06-21-1434913940-6630740-POTUSEssayImage4.jpg
Photo credit: Callie Shell/Aurora photos

Michelle does her best to preserve that time, and it has made a huge difference. Like I said, she's our rock. Whatever comes up, I know that they'll be there for me. And I will always be there for them. These days, the girls occasionally miss a night because they're so busy with school and activities. And like many parents of high school juniors who are excitedly touring college campuses, I'm already dreading that empty seat at the table when Malia goes off to school next fall. I can feel myself lingering at the table a little longer, trying to stave off the passage of time. But for as long as possible, I'm going to enjoy every minute of finally having us all together under one roof.

First Lady Nancy Reagan once wrote, "Nothing can prepare you for living in the White House." She was right, of course. Nothing can prepare you. But your family can sustain you.

This post originally appeared on More.

Fathers, Daughters, and Questions

Dr. Peggy Drexler   |   May 10, 2011    9:08 AM ET

On a pleasant summer night, when I was three and a half, I was tucked into my bed a carefree toddler with a complete family down the hall. I woke up without a father. My father had been taken during the night by a heart attack--leaving three daughters under the age of ten, my mother a widow at thirty-three, and me a lifetime of wondering what I missed.

The hole created by my father's loss never fully closed, and I have spent my personal and professional lives probing the meaning of that absence.

Growing up as a fatherless daughter, I spent hours conjuring that foreign land where girls grow up with two parents, wondering what it must be like to be a part of the kind of family I imagined families should be. That intense curiosity about definitions of family played a featured role in my decision to earn a PhD in psychology and to then embark on a career studying the interplay of gender and family life.

Stemming in part from my own lack of a father, I wrote my first book, Raising Boys Without Men, comparing boys from female-headed households with boys raised in traditional mom-and-dad families. Contrary to then-prevailing wisdom that being a son of an unmarried mother sentenced one to a life of crime and that being a son in a two- mother family sentenced one to life as a sissy, my ten years of research for the book found happy, well adjusted and perfectly masculine boys being raised by these maverick moms.

But then I found myself wondering about fathers and daughters. Now married to the same man for over thirty years, I'd seen him parent our two children: a grown son long out of the house and our daughter, who is finishing her first year of college. I had naturally assumed my son would absorb and eventually manifest some of his father's qualities, as boys are wont to do. But watching him with my daughter was a real revelation. Although I believe that boldness and decisiveness are inherently human rather than masculine traits, I was nevertheless surprised to find my husband's vibrant, muscular expressions of self-confidence shape our baby girl's personality as much as they had her brother's.

I'd never really known my father; any memories I have are from peeks through a rustle in the curtains of my subconscious. How much of him -- and the absence of him -- made me who I am?

In the same way I'd investigated single mothers and sons, I now wanted to know about fathers and daughters. I wanted to drill into the connection in ways that broke through the layers of platitude, myth and assumption. I wanted to start from the premise that because the father-daughter bond is ancient -- and has formed the prose of countless Hallmark cards -- does not mean we really understand it. I especially wanted to learn if the dramatic changes in female power and possibility have enriched the bond or -- at least in the traditional sense of the father as protector and provider -- weakened it. I wanted to tell the stories of real women, real fathers, real joy, real disappointment, real fulfillment, real longing.

For my new book, Our Fathers, Ourselves, which is out today, I did 120 hours of interviews, which generated over 1,600 pages of transcripts, and the stories I heard were as different as the many women I met. They were from various backgrounds, races and places. They were single and married. But I was particularly interested in -- and sought out -- women of accomplishment, both personal and professional. I wanted to see how their fathers influenced a generation of women who are earning and achieving shoulder- to-shoulder with men.

The relationships with their fathers ran from great to benign to frightening.

Across the diversity of their lives and father relationships, I was struck by how badly these women wanted a close relationship with their dads -- even with fathers who didn't deserve a place in their lives at all. I was also taken by how many told me that, years after they struck out on their own, they still run actions and decisions through the filter of their father's approval: "What would dad say?"

The book, for me, is part of a long personal journey toward understanding and, maybe, even closure. Every stop -- husband, children, the work I do, the women I've met -- adds to and rounds out my perspective on growing up without a father.

This stop on the journey was the realization that when you lose your father at a young age, he is forever perfect; always loving, always there. Real fathers are not perfect. They're human.

They told me stories of love and support, and disappointment and regret. They told me about fathers who constantly challenged them, and about fathers who ceaselessly criticized them. I heard about fathers who were always there, and fathers who were always gone. I saw how fine the line can be between healthy involvement and oppressive control. In some of their stories, the best of fatherhood and the worst were bound up in one man.

What fascinated me in the women was love in the face of imperfection -- sometimes unthinkable imperfection. There was amazing elasticity in what they were willing to forgive. Fathers are that powerful. These women want closeness with them that much.

One more thing stood out. The women I interviewed were not just willing to share their stories; they were eager, and incredibly candid. Virtually every conversation stretched well beyond the scheduled session. Every one of them thanked me for the opportunity -- not to be in a book, but just to talk about something very important in their lives. That got me thinking. We all have our stories to tell.

I would very much like to hear from more women, to keep the conversation going.

The question I'll leave you with is this: What is the best advice your father ever gave you?

I hope you will answer it yourselves and encourage your mothers, sisters, aunts, friends, and even the men in your life to answer. You can respond below (and 10 individuals will receive a copy of the book), and I hope you'll also invite others to join the conversation: tweet about it (using the #OurFathersOurselves hashtag), post it on Facebook, email your friends, bring it up at the dinner table.


I look forward to your responses, and I'll be sharing your thoughts in a future Huffington Post piece and on my website, www.peggydrexler.com.

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, gender scholar, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and author of Our Fathers,
Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family
(Rodale). Follow
Peggy on Twitter and Facebook.