05.03.11

Dreams of His Mother

If you want to understand what shaped Barack Obama, don’t look to his father’s disappearance. Stacy Schiff says it was his unconventional mother who made him.

In 1960, before the Civil Rights Act, before the women’s movement, a smart, white 17-year-old arrived at college to find herself pregnant within a matter of weeks. The startling part was not that she dropped out of school at the end of the semester. Or that the father of the child she was carrying was from a different continent and of another color. Nor was it startling that she married him, at a time when doing so qualified as a felony in nearly half of America. Or that she divorced her husband shortly thereafter. The startling part was her conviction—as the child grew into a man—that her son was so gifted “that he can do anything he ever wants in the world, even be president of the United States.” And that she was right.

“If nothing else,” President Obama’s mother reminded him, “I gave you an interesting life.” She made one for herself as well, unconventional and itinerant, wholly unfamiliar by the standards of the day, rich in false starts, inconveniences, and accomplishments. The only child of a Kansas couple, she had a nomadic childhood, moving seven times in 12 years, to wind up at a Seattle-area high school. As Janny Scott makes clear in her incisive biography, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, the grandparents of whom he writes so affectionately had known their share of drama as well. His maternal grandfather, Obama notes, was “always running away from the familiar.” On one of his earliest excursions he ran away with his bride; Obama’s grandparents married in secret, while his grandmother was still a high-school student. Ralph Dunham was a charmer, a scribbler, and a dreamer. His wife was hardheaded and practical. For much of the marriage, Madelyn Dunham outearned her husband. In 1942 they named their daughter and only child Stanley, which may have been asking for trouble. The girl whom President Obama would describe later as “a bookish, sensitive child growing up in small towns” was much protected, especially by her father. He deemed her too young still to accept an offer for early admission to the University of Chicago. She wound up instead at the University of Hawaii, pregnant. Surely there is a parenting lesson in there somewhere.

On arrival at college she reverted to her middle name; she got pregnant as Ann Dunham. For much of her career she was, as a result of her second marriage, Ann Soetoro. Later she published as S. Ann Dunham. Throughout her life there was a fair amount of shape-shifting, which made sense in a woman who always remained skeptical of labels, who had a deep spiritual streak without being the member of any church, to whom organized religion bordered uncomfortably on closed-mindedness. Her son would remember her as “a citizen of the world, stitching together a community of friends wherever she found herself, satisfying her need for meaning in her work and in her children.” And that she proved over and over, transforming herself from a small-town American girl to a specialist in international development, with an emphasis on women’s issues.

At no time did she demonstrate any interest in men who shared her background. Shortly after her divorce she married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student, whom she followed to Java, with 6-year-old Barack in tow. Under primitive conditions she gave birth to Obama’s half-sister, Maya, in 1970. The relationship with Lolo did not last much longer: Obama’s father had been verbally abusive; Maya’s tended to walk around late at night with a whisky bottle. In her son’s view that marriage was palpably lonely; his mother and stepfather agreed to divorce in 1979. There would be no further long-term relationships. Though a cultural anthropologist by training, Ann claimed not to understand men. She was as curious about them as she was utterly perplexed.

Motherhood is always an act of courage. It is all the more so for a woman alone. As of 1973 Ann Soetoro was singlehandedly raising two biracial children, of different fathers, while attempting both to support them and make her own way through graduate school. There was some irony there: she worked in microfinance, providing capital or credit to those living in Southeast Asian poverty, but was often broke herself. Part of her reason not to return to the U.S. was financial. She could live abroad comfortably, while life in America only buried her in debt. When a woman of accomplishment has children, we do not normally first inquire about her parenting abilities, but Ann Soetoro’s case is different. We need, after all, to explain where our 44th president came from.

book-cover---a-singular-woman
A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother By Janny Scott 384 pages. Riverhead. $26.95. ()

What kind of mother was she? At least where her son was concerned, she was never without a workbook. She placed a great emphasis on manners; from an early age, Barack Obama was exquisitely polite. Into him Ann Soetoro drilled a sense of duty to the world, the importance of hard work, the need to give back. She had no use for ignorance or arrogance, the twin traits of an American abroad. The premium was on open-mindedness. “Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother,” President Obama has written, conceding that she seemed intent on raising a combination of “Einstein, Gandhi, and Harry Belafonte.” Some of what she taught him she did by necessity rather than by design. Having for her own reasons taken him to a country in which it was more difficult to be black even than it was in America, she taught him to be fearless. When a flock of Indonesian children lobbed rocks and racial epithets in 10-year-old Obama’s direction, he danced around them, seemingly unfazed. A friend offered to intervene. “No, he’s OK,” replied his mother. “He’s used to it.” She may have been wrong, but the training surely came in handy.

Most of all she stressed—by example as much as anything else—the value of education. It determined the geography of Obama’s early years. His mother typed and corrected his homework. From his memoir, we know about the 5 a.m. study sessions. When his school friends made disparaging comments about the mostly empty refrigerator and the indifferent housekeeping, she exploded. She pulled her son aside to remind him that she was a single mother, in school, and raising two children. Baking cookies was hardly a priority. The best Jakarta school did not accept Indonesians and was expensive; when he was 9, she sent her son back to Hawaii, where she soon joined him. (Maya was initially homeschooled.) And for the sake of both his education and hers, Ann Soetoro did in 1975 what most American mothers do not do: she left the 13-year-old Obama with her parents, so as to return to Indonesia to begin her Ph.D. fieldwork.

How wrenching was the separation for Ann? Obama’s sister claims that it was the most difficult thing their mother ever had to do. The best chance for her son’s schooling was in Hawaii, where he was flourishing. The only chance for Ann’s career was abroad. Obama remembered the choice as his own. Indonesia had nothing to offer him. And he coped. Perhaps most pertinently, whether at home or abroad, neither his mother nor the grandparents with whom she left her son could have helped him with his most pressing project: how to grow up to be a black man in America.

Three years later she could bear the separation no longer. The strain of her son’s growing up without her was too great; it was also her last chance to be a part of his life. In the fall of 1978 she returned to Honolulu for a stay of several months. She was met with some hostility, although Obama’s may have been garden-variety teenage anger. It was the age at which Ann had fought pitched battles with her parents; it was the age at which she had gotten pregnant with her newly rebellious son. Does a child suffer when a woman puts her ambitions first? The jury is still out. Obama never wanted for unconditional love, which came from his grandmother, another working woman. On the dedication page of The Audacity of Hope she appears first, as the “rock of stability throughout my life.”

Obama’s sister may have stated the riddle best: “A woman with dreams always has problems.” And Ann Soetoro very much had a dream. She was optimistic and easygoing, quick to charm and to laugh. She was also a tireless, hard-driving, ambitious workaholic, a woman of appetite, unafraid to tramp through flooded rice fields, up to her chest in mud and amid swarms of mosquitoes. Passionate to a fault, she was incapable of speaking in bullet points. She was not so much a free spirit as a free agent, which is hardly what a parent is meant to be. A parent is bound by a long-term contract to the team. On New Year’s Day 1985, Ann drew up a list of 12 goals for herself in a notebook. Baking cookies figures nowhere near the top. Neither does either of her two children, who are close to the bottom (Maya) and last (the 23-year-old Barack). “Finish Ph.D.” was the top priority, followed by financial stability. Oddly, the fourth item on the list was to remarry. Nothing better defined the shape of an unorthodox life. She remained always allergic to sanctimony, impatient with convention, honest to the point of impropriety. Here was a starry-eyed idealist who, in what many of us would deem a signal accomplishment, made it to the age of 50 without having encountered a pair of pantyhose. As much as she subscribed to the it-takes-a-village school of child rearing, it would be difficult to imagine her confined to the White House today, side by side with Michelle Obama’s mother.

As is always the case, parenting is an exercise in unintended consequences. What the son took from the parental example were lessons she meant to impart and others she was unaware of having imparted. The public service and the raw idealism followed directly from his mother’s example. As she had no trouble being the only Western woman for miles around, so he stands solidly in a sea of white faces. So, however, does a disinclination to live at the margins, on the edge, with the unexpected. He has seen disorder at close range. He clearly does not care for it.

Ann Soetoro was an eyebrow-raiser, a woman who resisted society’s opinions about working women, single women, women who venture beyond cultural norms. She was scathing when it came to the traditional wifely role, either the legacy of two failed marriages or the reason for them. She was everywhere and nowhere at home, liberated by her oddball status: “It kind of doesn’t matter what I do,” she liked to say, “because I’m from Mars.” She left her son with one place to go: in search of a constancy, a definition he had never known. Small wonder that he felt he had stumbled onto the set of Leave It to Beaver when he met Michelle Obama’s family. Here was a vision of domestic bliss, one that stirred in him “a longing for stability and a sense of place that I had not realized was there.” He had had enough adventure already. He responded to his mother’s starry-eyed romance with one of his own. The sentimental, unfettered, bohemian naturally produced a guarded, coolheaded, establishment son, crisp and centered where his mother was voluble and fanciful. The longtime expatriate who came to think of Indonesia as her home raised a steadfast American patriot. As for the president part, she was entirely spot on.

Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography; Saint-Exupéry: A Biography, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. Her latest book is Cleopatra: A Life from Little, Brown.