Dreams of His Mother

By Schiff, Stacy | Newsweek, May 9, 2011 | Go to article overview

Dreams of His Mother


Schiff, Stacy, Newsweek


Byline: Stacy Schiff

If you want to understand what shaped our president, don't look to his father's disappearance. 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. …

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