This featured originally appeared in the ESSENCE November 2012 Issue
In September I sat with my son-in-law and my two grand daughters at the White House as we watched my daughter, Michelle, give her speech at the Democratic National Convention. I could tell that she was having a real impact on everyone in that arena down in Charlotte, North Carolina—and I know she sure did with those of us who know her best.
Watching her that night was one of those moments from the last four years that I’ll never forget. But to be honest with you, I can’t say I was surprised to see my daughter up there making such an impression. From my perspective as a mom and a grandma here in the White House, I see her honesty and strength every day. I see how much she loves her girls and her husband. And I see how hard she and Barack are working to make things better for folks across the country.
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Now I know this might sound crazy, but even though I’ve been living in the White House for the past couple of years, I’ve got to admit that there are a few things I still miss—like that little bitty house I lived in for decades, and many of my friends and family back in Chicago. But after Barack was elected President and Michelle asked me to move with them to Washington, I said yes because I knew I’d be worrying about them if I was back in Chicago anyway. I just hoped I could be helpful.
You see, my job here is the easiest one of all: I just get to be Grandma. One of my biggest blessings is getting to see my granddaughters grow up before my eyes. I go to all their school plays and sports games; I’ll answer their questions, and like any grandparent, I try to make myself scarce when their friends are around.
I’m also thankful to be able to be there for Michelle, as well. She’ll ask about parenting, about how her dad and I made decisions when she and her older brother, Craig, were growing up. I just tell it to her straight: There’s no textbook that tells you how to be a good parent. The truth is, most of the time you don’t really know what to do. You just try to do your best.
We didn’t have much when the kids were growing up. My husband, Fraser, worked for the city water plant and I was a stay-at-home mom for most of their childhood. Like most families, ours went through plenty of ups and downs, but Fraser and I tried to show our kids that when you fall you have to get right back up. We’d tell them that everybody goes through trials and tribulations, and the people who succeed are the ones who say, “Okay, that’s just a snag,” and keep on going. I guess that’s just the way my husband and I lived.
We also made sure they understood that nothing was more important than their education. While we always knew that a good education started with us as parents at home, we also made sure they were studying hard in school and dreaming big things for themselves. I always told them, “It’s not if you go to college, but when you go to college.” And when they’d finally made it there, Fraser and I were proud to keep doing our part to help them continue their studies. Every semester, my husband paid our share of Craig’s and Michelle’s college tuition, making sure that it wasn’t late. We had to take out loans to do it, but we didn’t tell them that at the time. We just wanted our children to understand that a good education was their ticket to a better life, a chance to have more and be more than their parents ever dreamed. And so we did everything we could to support them.
Today when I look at Michelle and Craig—a big-time college basketball coach—I feel like maybe, just maybe, Fraser and I got something right. We didn’t do anything special. But I see the adults our kids have become and I can’t help but smile a little bit. With Michelle, I see how whatever’s in front of her, she’ll throw her whole heart into it. Whether she’s helping kids learn how to eat healthy foods and exercise, supporting our military families or inspiring young people to pursue their dreams, Michelle will always give 110 percent. And if she hits a snag, that’s when she gives 120 percent.
Barack is the same way. I often marvel that the two of them found each other in the first place because they’re so similar in so many ways. They both work so hard, they’re both so smart, they love each other so much, and they do whatever they can to make the world around them just a little bit better. I’m always impressed by how Barack deals with all these weighty matters, but he never lets them weigh him down. He’ll stay up late, reading that big book of papers. He’ll get up early and go off to his office for a day full of tough decisions and complicated issues that I’d never wish upon anyone.
I admire how hard Barack works. And I know that he does it because he wants to make sure that this country is still a place where you can make it if you try. He wants to make sure that a college education is affordable and attainable so that all parents can encourage their kids to reach for it, just like Fraser and I did. He wants to make sure that moms and dads can provide for their families, and folks my age can retire with dignity and security. And he wants every child to believe that they can achieve their dreams, no matter where they come from, what they look like or how much money their parents make. That’s what makes him work so hard. I’ve seen it from him and I’ve heard it from him. And that’s why I’ll be voting for him in November, and I hope you do, too.
What amazes me the most, though, is that Barack still makes time for family dinner almost every night. He’s still calling out plays from the sideline for Sasha’s basketball team. He’s talking the girls through their days, helping them with their homework, and laughing and joking with them every single day.
So whether it’s as parents or as professionals, Michelle and Barack both truly believe the words that Michelle said in her big speech: “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
That’s the way Fraser and I and so many people of our generation lived every day. And really, that’s been the biggest highlight of this whole White House experience for me: knowing that Michelle and Barack are living out those values—not only as First Lady and President, but as Mom and Dad.