When Barack Obama is inaugurated next Tuesday, he will be both the first African-American and interracial president in our nation’s history. However, he is a product of another “blend” as well: A blended family. Obama is a child of divorce, and grew up with a step-parent and half-siblings. This experience, as it has for millions of other children of divorce, has colored the way he sees the world; now that Obama will be President, the perception of “non-traditional” families in our country is sure to undergo a change.
This change alone is worth celebrating.
Although divorce has become more and more commonplace over the years, there has only been one divorced president in our country’s history, Ronald Reagan (interestingly, there has been only one president to never marry: James Buchanan). Whether we realize it consciously or not, the marital status of our past presidents seems to be suggesting something about divorce and the nation’s most powerful position: They don’t go hand-in-hand. In other words, those whose family does not resemble a Norman Rockwell painting need not apply.
Imagine what kind of message this sends to children when we tell them, “You can grow up to become anything you want…even President!”
Like Reagan before him, Obama has changed that message.
Just as African-American children now have real evidence that they could become president one day, so do children of divorce, children with step-parents, and children who have had to share countless toys, clothing, and holidays with step- and half-siblings.
Barack Obama's mother, Ann, was divorced twice and had two children from separate marriages, Barack and his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. In this family scenario, Barack had to learn to navigate divorced family dynamics with a stepfather who may have naturally favored his own child, and also deal with the emotional sting of an absent father. As is common in divorced families, Obama also lived with a single working mother with reduced economic resources and rationed time that made him become, as his half-sister later recalled, a child who took on a "paternal" role as her big brother.
What may he have learned from his divorce experience that will help him in the White House? Plenty.
Don Gordon, an Ohio University professor and creator of the "Children in the Middle" program for divorcing families, notes that Obama is likely to have learned resilience. "Being president is a piece of cake compared to going through a divorce," he said. "This resilience serves [children of divorce] well in dealing with lengthy stressful situations" since divorces take an extended amount of time to be resolved. "They can tough it out no matter how bad it gets." Indeed, most divorces require negotiation, compromise and agreeing to disagree.
Another bonus: Obama is more likely to be sensitive to governmental policies that protect children. Also, he is more likely to make family health care coverage a priority, since many divorced women lose their health coverage.
Jeannette Lofas, the president of the New York based Stepfamily Foundation, hopes that Obama will support federal funding to measure the impact of divorce and remarriage on American life. "No research is adequately measuring stepfamily life in America," she says. "In stepfamily life, children reside in one house and visit another. This impacts the economics of both households as well as the family relationships."
Perhaps now a discussion could take place on tax breaks for these families, since a dependent is usually claimed by only one household.
From experience, I know that a divorced household is like living in two countries, with two different sets of traditions, rules, and expectations. Brokering peace becomes a necessity. Therefore, a child of divorce will be more open to different opinions and may not be as rigid in his/her thinking.
However, being a child of divorce – especially when the father is absent — also creates a yearning. Yes, our parents teach us who we want to be and who we don’t want to be. It also instills a desire for stability as well as a desire to be the agent of change.
So it is really no surprise that Obama picked a woman like Michele as his wife. Michelle is the product of a stable, loving, two-parent household, and this was very appealing to the young Barack, who was shuttled to different homes and also lived a long stretch with his maternal grandparents.
In a recent interview, Obama said, "A part of me was wondering what a strong, reassuring family life would look like … while Michelle, in a way, wanted to break from that model. In a way only, because she’s very attached to family values, but I think she sometimes sees in me a more adventurous way of life, more exotic, and in that respect, we’re complementary."
"I think that in a certain way, I’ve tried all my life to fabricate a family through stories, memories, friends, or ideas. Michelle’s family life was different, very stable with two parents, a stay-at-home mom, a brother, a dog, that kind of thing. They’ve lived in the same house all their lives. And I think that in a certain way we complement each other, we represent two common models of family life in this country. One very stable and strong, another that frees itself from the constraint of a traditional family, travels, separates, is very mobile,” Obama said.
This blend, as he describes his relationship with his wife, gives me cause for optimism. Yes, the President and First Lady truly complement each other, and this fusion of experience will surely shape their policies and their approach in defining and inspiring the American family.