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My new job made me nervous. I’d been hired to be the executive director for the brand-new Chicago chapter of an organization called Public Allies, which itself was basically brand-new. It was something like a start-up inside a start-up, and in a field in which I had no professional experience to speak of. Public Allies had been founded only a year earlier in Washington, D.C., and was the brainchild of Vanessa Kirsch and Katrina Browne, who were both just out of college and interested in helping more people find their way into careers in public service and nonprofit work. Barack had met the two of them at a conference and become a member of their board, eventually suggesting they get in touch with me regarding the job.
The model was similar to what was being used at Teach for America, which itself was relatively new at the time: Public Allies recruited talented young people, gave them intensive training and committed mentorship, and placed them in paid ten-month apprentice positions inside community organizations and public agencies, the hope being that they’d flourish and contribute in meaningful ways. The broader aim was that these opportunities would give the recruits—Allies, we called them—both the experience and the drive to continue working in the nonprofit or public sector for years to come, thereby helping to build a new generation of community leaders.
For me, the idea resonated in a big way. I still remembered how during my senior year at Princeton so many of us had marched into MCAT and LSAT exams or suited up to interview for corporate training programs without once (at least in my case) considering or maybe even realizing that a wealth of more civic-minded job options existed. Public Allies was meant as a corrective to this, a means of widening the horizon for young people thinking about careers. But what I especially liked was that its founders were focused less on parachuting Ivy Leaguers into urban communities and more on finding and cultivating talent that was already there. You didn’t need a college degree to become an Ally. You needed only a high school diploma or GED, to be older than seventeen and younger than thirty, and to have shown some leadership capability, even if thus far in life it had gone largely untapped.
Public Allies was all about promise—finding it, nurturing it, and putting it to use. It was a mandate to seek out young people whose best qualities might otherwise be overlooked and to give them a chance to do something meaningful. To me, the job felt almost like destiny. For every moment I’d spent looking wistfully at the South Side from my forty-seventh-floor window at Sidley, here was an invitation, finally, to use what I knew. I had a sense of how much latent promise sat undiscovered in neighborhoods like my own, and I was pretty sure I’d know how to find it.
As I contemplated the new job, my mind often traveled back to childhood, and in particular to the month or so I’d spent in the pencil-flying pandemonium of that second-grade class at Bryn Mawr Elementary, before my mother had the wherewithal to have me plucked out. In the moment, I’d felt nothing but relieved by my own good fortune. But as my luck in life seemed only to snowball from there, I thought more about the twenty or so kids who’d been marooned in that classroom, stuck with an uncaring and unmotivated teacher. I knew I was no smarter than any of them. I just had the advantage of an advocate. I thought about this more often now that I was an adult, especially when people applauded me for my achievements, as if there weren’t a strange and cruel randomness to it all. Through no fault of their own, those second graders had lost a year of learning. I’d seen enough at this point to understand how quickly even small deficits can snowball, too.
Back in Washington, D.C., the Public Allies founders had mustered a fledgling class of fifteen Allies who were working in various organizations around the city. They’d also raised enough money to launch a new chapter in Chicago, becoming one of the first organizations to receive federal funding through the AmeriCorps service program created under President Clinton. Which is where I came into the picture, thrilled and anxious in equal parts. Negotiating the terms of the job, though, I’d had what maybe should have been an obvious revelation about nonprofit work: It doesn’t pay. I was initially offered a salary so small, so far below what I was making working for the city of Chicago, which was already half of what I’d been earning as a lawyer, that I literally couldn’t afford to say yes. Which led to a second revelation about certain nonprofits, especially young-person-driven start-ups like Public Allies, and many of the bighearted, tirelessly passionate people who work in them: Unlike me, it seemed they could actually afford to be there, their virtue discreetly underwritten by privilege, whether it was that they didn’t have student loans to pay off or perhaps had an inheritance to someday look forward to and thus weren’t worried about saving for the future.
It became clear that if I wanted to join the tribe, I’d have to negotiate my way in, asking for exactly what I needed in terms of salary, which was significantly more than Public Allies had expected to pay. This was simply my reality. I couldn’t be shy or embarrassed about my needs. I still had roughly $600 of student debt to pay off each month on top of my regular expenses, and I was married to a man with his own load of law school loans to cover. The organization’s leaders were almost disbelieving when I informed them how much I’d borrowed in order to get through school and what that translated to in terms of monthly debt, but they gamely went out and secured new funding that enabled me to come on board.
And with that, I was off and running, eager to make good on the opportunity I’d been handed. This was my first chance ever, really, to build something basically from the ground up: Success or failure would depend almost entirely on my efforts, not those of my boss or anyone else. I spent the spring of 1993 working furiously to set up an office and hire a small staff so that we could have a class of Allies in place by the fall. We’d found cheap office space in a building on Michigan Avenue and managed to get a load of donated secondhand chairs and tables from a corporate consulting firm that was redecorating its offices.
Meanwhile, I leveraged more or less every connection Barack and I’d ever made in Chicago, seeking donors and people who could help us secure longer-term foundation support, not to mention anyone in the public service field who’d be willing to host an Ally in their organization for the coming year. Valerie Jarrett helped me arrange placements in the mayor’s office and the city health department, where Allies would work on a neighborhood-based childhood immunization project. Barack activated his network of community organizers to connect us with legal aid, advocacy, and teaching opportunities. Various Sidley partners wrote checks and helped introduce me to key donors.
The most exciting part for me was finding the Allies themselves. With help from the national organization, we advertised for applicants on college campuses across the country while also looking for talent closer to home. My team and I visited community colleges and some of the big urban high schools around Chicago. We knocked on doors in the Cabrini-Green housing project, went to community meetings, and canvassed programs that worked with single mothers. We quizzed everyone we met, from pastors to professors to the manager of the neighborhood McDonald’s, asking them to identify the most interesting young people they knew. Who were the leaders? Who was ready for something bigger than what he or she had? These were the people we wanted to encourage to apply, urging them to forget for a minute whatever obstacles normally made such things impossible, promising that as an organization we’d do what we could—whether it was supplying a bus pass or a stipend for child care—to help cover their needs.
By fall, we had a cohort of twenty-seven Allies working all over Chicago, holding internships everywhere from city hall to a South Side community assistance agency to Latino Youth, an alternative high school in Pilsen. The Allies together were an eclectic, spirited group, loaded with idealism and aspirations and representing a broad swath of backgrounds. Among them we had a former gang member, a Latina woman who’d grown up in the southwest part of Chicago and had gone to Harvard, another woman in her early twenties who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes and was raising a child while also trying to save money for college, and a twenty-six-year-old from Grand Boulevard who’d left high school but had kept up his education with library books and later gone back to earn his diploma.
Each Friday, the whole group of Allies gathered at one of our host agency’s offices, taking a full day to debrief, connect, and go through a series of professional development workshops. I loved these days more than anything. I loved how the room got noisy as the Allies piled in, dumping their backpacks in the corner and peeling off layers of winter wear as they settled into a circle. I loved helping them sort through their issues, whether it was mastering Excel, figuring out how to dress for an office job, or finding the courage to voice their ideas in a roomful of better-educated, more confident people. I sometimes had to give an Ally less-than-pleasant feedback. If I’d heard reports of Allies being late to work or not taking their duties seriously, I was stern in letting them know that we expected better. When Allies grew frustrated with poorly organized community meetings or problematic clients at their agencies, I counseled them to keep perspective, reminding them of their own relative good fortune.
Above all, though, we celebrated each new bit of learning or progress. And there was lots of it. Not all the Allies would go on to work in the nonprofit or public sectors and not everyone would manage to overcome the hurdles of coming from a less privileged background, but I’ve been amazed over time to see how many of our recruits did, in fact, succeed and commit themselves long term to serving a larger public good. Some became Public Allies staff themselves; some are now even leaders in government agencies and inside national nonprofit organizations. Twenty-five years after its inception, Public Allies is still going strong, with chapters in Chicago and two dozen other cities and thousands of alumni around the country. To know that I played some small part in that, helping to create something that’s endured, is one of the most gratifying feelings I’ve had in my professional life.
I tended to Public Allies with the half-exhausted pride of a new parent. I went to sleep each night thinking about what still needed to be done and opened my eyes every morning with my mental checklists for the day, the week, and the month ahead already made. After graduating our first class of twenty-seven Allies in the spring, we welcomed a new set of forty in the fall and continued to grow from there. In hindsight, I think of it as the best job I ever had, for how wonderfully on the edge I felt while I was doing it and for how even a small victory—whether it was finding a good placement for a native Spanish speaker or sorting through someone’s fears about working in an unfamiliar neighborhood—had to be thoroughly earned.
For the first time in my life, really, I felt I was doing something immediately meaningful, directly impacting the lives of others while also staying connected to both my city and my culture. It gave me a better understanding, too, of how Barack had felt when he’d worked as an organizer or on Project VOTE!, caught up in the all-consuming primacy of an uphill battle—the only kind of battle Barack loved, the kind he would always love—knowing how it can drain you while at the same time giving you everything you’ll ever need.
While I was focused on Public Allies, Barack had settled into what was—by his standard, anyway—a period of relative tameness and predictability. He was teaching a class on racism and the law at the University of Chicago Law School and working by day at his law firm, mostly on cases involving voting rights and employment discrimination. He still sometimes ran community-organizing workshops as well, leading a couple of Friday sessions with my cohort at Public Allies. Outwardly, it seemed like a perfect existence for an intellectual, civic-minded guy in his thirties who’d flatly turned down any number of more lucrative and prestigious options in favor of his principles. He’d done it, as far as I was concerned. He’d found a noble balance. He was a lawyer, a teacher, and also an organizer. And he was soon to be a published author, too.
After returning from Bali, Barack had spent more than a year writing a second draft of his book during the hours he wasn’t at one of his jobs. He worked late at night in a small room we’d converted to a study at the rear of our apartment—a crowded, book-strewn bunker I referred to lovingly as the Hole. I’d sometimes go in, stepping over his piles of paper to sit on the ottoman in front of his chair while he worked, trying to lasso him with a joke and a smile, to tease him back from whatever far-off fields he’d been galloping through. He was good-humored about my intrusions, but only if I didn’t stay too long.
Barack, I’ve come to understand, is the sort of person who needs a hole, a closed-off little warren where he can read and write undisturbed. It’s like a hatch that opens directly onto the spacious skies of his brain. Time spent there seems to fuel him. In deference to this, we’ve managed to create some version of a hole inside every home we’ve ever lived in—any quiet corner or alcove will do. To this day, when we arrive at a rental house in Hawaii or on Martha’s Vineyard, Barack goes off looking for an empty room that can serve as the vacation hole. There, he can flip between the six or seven books he’s reading simultaneously and toss his newspapers on the floor. For him, the Hole is a kind of sacred high place, where insights are birthed and clarity comes to visit. For me, it’s an off-putting and disorderly mess. One requirement has always been that the Hole, wherever it is, have a door so that I can shut it. For obvious reasons.
Dreams from My Father was published, finally, in the summer of 1995. It got good reviews yet sold only modestly, but that was okay. The important thing was that Barack had managed to process his life story, snapping together the disparate pieces of his Afro-Kansan-Indonesian-Hawaiian-Chicagoan identity, writing himself into a sort of wholeness this way. I was proud of him. Through the narrative, he’d made a kind of literary peace with his phantom father. The work to get there had been one-sided, of course, with Barack alone trying to fill every gap and understand every mystery the senior Obama had ever created. But this was also in keeping with how he’d always done it anyway. Since the time he was a boy, I realized, he’d tried to carry everything all on his own.
With the book finished, there was new space in his life, and—also in keeping with who he’d always been—Barack felt compelled to fill it immediately. On the personal side, he’d been coping with difficult news: His mother, Ann, had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had moved from Jakarta back to Honolulu for treatment. As far as we knew, she was getting good medical care, and the chemotherapy seemed to be working. Both Maya and Toot were helping look after her in Hawaii, and Barack checked in often. But her diagnosis had come late, after the cancer had advanced, and it was difficult to know what would happen. I knew this weighed heavily on Barack’s mind.
In Chicago, meanwhile, the political chatter was starting to kick up again. Mayor Daley had been elected to a third term in the spring of 1995, and now everyone was gearing up for the 1996 election, in which Illinois would select a new U.S. senator and President Clinton would make his bid for a second term. More scandalously, we had a sitting U.S. congressman under investigation for sex crimes, leaving an opening for a new Democratic contender in the state’s Second District, which included much of Chicago’s South Side. A popular state senator named Alice Palmer, who represented Hyde Park and South Shore and whom Barack had gotten to know while working on Project VOTE!, had begun saying privately that she intended to run for it. Which, in turn, would leave her state senate seat vacant, opening up the possibility that Barack could run for it.
Was he interested? Would he run?
I couldn’t have known it then, but these questions would come to dominate the next decade of our lives, pulsing like a drumbeat behind almost everything we did. Would he? Could he? Was he? Should he? But ahead of these always came another question, posed by Barack himself, preliminary and supposedly preemptive when it came to running for office of any sort. The first time he asked it was on the day he’d let me know about Alice Palmer and her open seat and this notion he had that maybe he could be not just a lawyer/professor/organizer/author but all those things plus a state legislator as well: “What do you think about it, Miche?” For me, the answer was never actually all that tough to come up with. I didn’t think it was a great idea for Barack to run for office. My specific reasoning might have varied slightly each time the question came back around, but my larger stance would hold, like a sequoia rooted in the ground, though clearly you can see that it stopped absolutely nothing.
In the case of the Illinois senate in 1996, my reasoning went like this: I didn’t much appreciate politicians and therefore didn’t relish the idea of my husband becoming one. Most of what I knew about state politics came from what I read in the newspaper, and none of it seemed especially good or productive. My friendship with Santita Jackson had given me a sense that politicians were often required to be away from home. In general, I thought of lawmakers almost like armored tortoises, leather-skinned, slow moving, thick with self-interest. Barack was too earnest, too full of valiant plans, in my opinion, to abide by the hardscrabble, drag-it-out rancor that went on inside the domed capitol downstate in Springfield.
In my heart, I just believed there were better ways for a good person to have an impact. Quite honestly, I thought he’d get eaten alive.
Already, however, there was a counterargument brewing in the recesses of my own conscience. If Barack believed he could do something in politics, who was I to get in his way? Who was I to stomp on the idea before he’d even tried it? After all, he was the lone person who had waved me forward when I wanted to leave my law career, who’d had his concerns about my going to city hall but supported me nonetheless, and who right now was working multiple jobs, partly to compensate for the pay cut I’d taken to become a full-time do-gooder at Public Allies. In our six years together, he hadn’t once doubted my instincts or my capabilities. The refrain had always been the same: Don’t worry. You can do this. We’ll figure it out.
And so I gave my approval to his first run for office, larding it with a bit of wifely caution. “I think you’ll be frustrated,” I warned. “If you end up getting elected, you’re gonna go down there and nothing will get accomplished, no matter how hard you try. It’ll drive you crazy.”
“Maybe,” Barack said, with a bemused shrug. “But maybe I can do some good. Who knows?”
“That’s right,” I said, shrugging back. It wasn’t my job to interfere with his optimism. “Who knows?”
This won’t be news to anyone, but my husband did become a politician. He was a good person who wanted to have an impact in the world, and despite my skepticism he decided this was the best way to go about it. Such is the nature of his faith.
Barack was elected to the Illinois senate in November 1996 and sworn in two months later, at the start of the following year. To my surprise, I’d enjoyed watching the campaign unfold. I’d helped collect signatures to put him on the ballot, knocking on doors in my old neighborhood on Saturdays, listening to what residents had to say about the state and its government, all the things they thought needed fixing. For me, it was reminiscent of the weekends I’d spent as a child trailing my dad as he climbed up all those porch steps, going about his duties as a precinct captain. Beyond this, I wasn’t much needed, and that suited me perfectly. I could treat campaigning like a hobby, picking it up when it was convenient, having some fun with it, and then getting back to my own work.
Barack’s mother had passed away in Honolulu shortly after he announced his candidacy. Her decline had been so swift that he hadn’t made it there to say good-bye. This crushed him. It was Ann Dunham who’d introduced him to the richness of literature and the power of a well-reasoned argument. Without her, he wouldn’t have felt the monsoon downpours in Jakarta or seen the water temples of Bali. He might never have learned to appreciate how easy and thrilling it was to jump from one continent to another, or how to embrace the unfamiliar. She was an explorer, an intrepid follower of her own heart. I saw her spirit in Barack in big and small ways. The pain of losing her sat lodged like a blade in both of us, right alongside the blade that had been embedded when we’d lost my dad.
Now that it was winter and the legislature was in session, we were separated for a good part of every week. Barack drove four hours to Springfield on Monday nights and checked into a cheap hotel where a lot of the other legislators stayed, usually returning late on Thursday. He had a small office in the statehouse and a part-time staffer in Chicago. He’d scaled back his work at the law firm but as a way of keeping pace with our debts, he’d added more courses to his teaching load at the law school, scheduling classes for days he wasn’t in Springfield and teaching more when the senate wasn’t in session. We spoke on the phone every night he was downstate, comparing notes and swapping tales about our respective days. On Fridays, back in Chicago, we had a standing date night, usually meeting downtown at a restaurant called Zinfandel after we’d both finished up work.
I remember these nights with a deep fondness now, for the low, warm lights of the restaurant and how it had become predictable that with my devotion to punctuality I’d always be the first to show up. I’d wait for Barack, and because it was the end of the workweek, and because I was accustomed to it at this point, it didn’t bother me that he was late. I knew he’d get there eventually and that my heart would leap as it always did, seeing him walk through the door and hand his winter coat off to the hostess before threading his way through the tables, grinning when his eyes finally landed on mine. He’d kiss me and then take off his suit jacket, draping it on the back of his chair before sitting down. My husband. The routine settled me. We ordered the same thing pretty much every Friday—pot roast, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes—and when it came, we ate every bite.
This was a golden time for us, for the balance of our marriage, him with his purpose and me with mine. During a single, early week of senate business in Springfield, Barack had introduced seventeen new bills—possibly a record, and at the very least a measure of his eagerness to get something done. Some would ultimately pass, but most would get quickly picked off in the Republican-controlled chamber, downed by partisanship and a cynicism passed off as practicality among his new colleagues. I saw in those early months how, just as I’d predicted, politics would be a fight, and the fight would be wearying, involving standoffs and betrayals, dirty-deal makers and compromises that sometimes felt painful. But I saw, too, that Barack’s own forecast had been correct as well. He was strangely suited to the tussle of lawmaking, calm inside the maelstrom, accustomed to being an outsider, taking defeats in his easy Hawaiian stride. He stayed hopeful, insistently so, convinced that some part of his vision would someday, somehow, manage to prevail. He was getting battered already, but it wasn’t bothering him. It did seem he was built for this. He’d get dinged up and stay shiny, like an old copper pot.
I, too, was in the midst of a transition. I’d taken a new job, surprising myself somewhat by deciding to leave Public Allies, the organization I’d put together and grown with such care. For three years, I’d given myself to it with zeal, taking responsibility for the largest and the smallest of operational tasks, right down to restocking paper in the photocopier. With Public Allies thriving, and its longevity all but assured thanks to multiyear federal grants and foundation support, I felt that I could now step away in good faith. And it just so happened that in the fall of 1996 a new opportunity had cropped up almost out of nowhere. Art Sussman, the lawyer at the University of Chicago who’d met with me a few years earlier, called to let me know about a position that had just been created there.
The school was looking for an associate dean to focus on community relations, committing at long last to do a better job of integrating with the city, and most especially the South Side neighborhood that surrounded it, including through the creation of a community service program to connect students to volunteer opportunities in the neighborhood. Like the position at Public Allies, this new job spoke to a reality I’d lived personally. As I’d told Art years earlier, the University of Chicago had always felt less attainable and less interested in me than the fancy East Coast schools I’d ultimately attended, a place with its back turned to the neighborhood. The chance to try to lower those walls, to get more students involved with the city and more city residents with the university, was one I found inspiring.
All inspiration aside, there were underlying reasons for making the transition. The university offered the kind of institutional stability that a still-newish nonprofit could not. My pay was better, my hours would be more reasonable, and there were other people designated to keep paper in the copier and fix the laser printer when it broke. I was thirty-two years old now and starting to think more about what kind of load I wanted to carry. On our date nights at Zinfandel, Barack and I often continued a conversation we’d been having in one form or another for years—about impact, about how and where each one of us could make a difference, how best to apportion our time and energy.
For me, some of the old questions about who I was and what I wanted to be in life were starting to drift in again, fixing themselves at the forefront of my mind. I’d taken the new job in part to create a little more room in our life, and also because the health-care benefits were better than anything I’d ever had. And this would end up being important. As Barack and I sat holding hands across the table in the candle glow of another Friday night at Zinfandel, with the pot roast polished off and dessert on its way, there was one big wrinkle in our happiness. We were trying to get pregnant and it wasn’t going well.
It turns out that even two committed go-getters with a deep love and a robust work ethic can’t will themselves into being pregnant. Fertility is not something you conquer. Rather maddeningly, there’s no straight line between effort and reward. For me and Barack, this was as surprising as it was disappointing. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t seem to come up with a pregnancy. For a while, I told myself it was simply an issue of access, the result of Barack’s comings and goings from Springfield. Our attempts at procreation took place not in service of important monthly hormonal markers but rather in concert with the Illinois legislative schedule. This, I figured, was one thing we could try to fix.
But our adjustments didn’t work, even with Barack flooring it up the interstate after a late vote so that he could hit my ovulation window and even after the senate went into its summer recess and he was home and available full-time. After many years of taking careful precautions to avoid pregnancy, I was now singularly dedicated to the opposite endeavor. I treated it like a mission. We had one pregnancy test come back positive, which caused us both to forget every worry and swoon with joy, but a couple of weeks later I had a miscarriage, which left me physically uncomfortable and cratered any optimism we’d felt. Seeing women and their children walking happily along a street, I’d feel a pang of longing followed by a bruising wallop of inadequacy. The only comfort was that Barack and I were living only about a block from Craig and his wife, who now had two beautiful children, Leslie and Avery. I found solace in dropping by to play and read stories with them.
If I were to start a file on things nobody tells you about until you’re right in the thick of them, I might begin with miscarriages. A miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not. Or a tragedy, which, regardless of how utterly devastating it feels in the moment, it also is not. What nobody tells you is that miscarriage happens all the time, to more women than you’d ever guess, given the relative silence around it. I learned this only after I mentioned that I’d miscarried to a couple of friends, who responded by heaping me with love and support and also their own miscarriage stories. It didn’t take away the pain, but in unburying their own struggles, they steadied me during mine, helping me see that what I’d been through was no more than a normal biological hiccup, a fertilized egg that, for what was probably a very good reason, had needed to bail out.
One of these friends also steered me toward a fertility doctor whom she and her husband had used. Barack and I went in for exams, and when we later sat down with the doctor, he told us there was no discernible issue with either of us. The mystery of why we weren’t getting pregnant would remain just that. He suggested that I try taking Clomid, a drug meant to stimulate egg production, for a couple of months. When that didn’t work, he recommended we move to in vitro fertilization. We were inordinately lucky that my university health insurance would cover most of the bill.
It felt like having a high-stakes lottery ticket, only with science involved. By the time the preliminary medical work was finished, rather unfortunately, the state legislature had returned to its fall session, swallowing up my sweet, attentive husband and leaving me largely on my own to manipulate my reproductive system into peak efficiency. This would involve giving myself a regimen of daily shots over the course of several weeks. The plan was I’d administer first one drug to suppress my ovaries and then later a new drug to stimulate them, the idea being that they’d then produce a cascade of viable eggs.
All the work and uncertainty involved made me anxious, but I wanted a baby. It was a need that had been there forever. As a girl, when I’d grown tired of kissing the vinyl skin of my baby dolls, I’d begged my mother to have another baby, a real one, just for me. I promised I’d do all the work. When she wouldn’t go along with the plan, I’d hunted through her underwear drawer, searching for her birth control pills, figuring that if I confiscated them, maybe it would yield some results. It didn’t, obviously, but the point is I’d been waiting a long time for this. I wanted a family and Barack wanted a family, too, and now here I was alone in the bathroom of our apartment, trying, in the name of all that want, to screw up the courage to plunge a syringe into my thigh.
It was maybe then that I felt a first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack’s unshakable commitment to the work. Or maybe I was just feeling the acute burden of being female. Either way, he was gone and I was here, carrying the responsibility. I sensed already that the sacrifices would be more mine than his. In the weeks to come, he’d go about his regular business while I went in for daily ultrasounds to monitor my eggs. He wouldn’t have his blood drawn. He wouldn’t have to cancel any meetings to have a cervix inspection. He was doting and invested, my husband, doing what he could do. He read all the IVF literature and would talk to me all night about it, but his only actual duty was to show up at the doctor’s office and provide some sperm. And then, if he chose, he could go have a martini afterward. None of this was his fault, but it wasn’t equal, either, and for any woman who lives by the mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing. It was me who’d alter everything, putting my passions and career dreams on hold, to fulfill this piece of our dream. I found myself in a small moment of reckoning. Did I want it? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.
About eight weeks later, I heard a sound that erased all traces of resentment: a swishing, watery heartbeat picked up on ultrasound, emanating from the warm cave of my body. We were pregnant. It was for real. Suddenly the responsibility and relative sacrifice meant something completely different, like a landscape taking on new colors, or all the furniture in a house being rearranged so that now everything appeared perfectly in place. I walked around with a secret inside me. This was my privilege, the gift of being female. I felt bright with the promise of what I carried.
I would feel this way right through, even as first-trimester fatigue left me drained, as my job stayed busy and Barack continued making his weekly treks to the state capital. We had our outward lives, but now there was something inward happening, a baby growing, a tiny girl. (Because Barack’s a fact guy and I’m a planner, finding out her gender was obligatory.) We couldn’t see her, but she was there, gaining in size and spirit as fall became winter and then became spring. That thing I’d felt—my envy for Barack’s separateness from the process—had now utterly reversed itself. He was on the outside, while I got to live the process. I was the process, indivisible from this small, burgeoning life that was now throwing elbows and poking my bladder with her heel. I was never alone, never lonely. She was there, always, while I was driving to work, or chopping vegetables for a salad, or lying in bed at night, poring over the pages of What to Expect When You’re Expecting for the nine hundredth time.
Summers in Chicago are special to me. I love how the sky stays light right into evening, how Lake Michigan gets busy with sailboats and the heat ratchets up to the point that it’s almost impossible to recall the struggles of winter. I love how in summer the business of politics slowly starts to go quiet and life tilts more toward fun.
Though really we’d had no control over anything, somehow in the end it felt as if we’d timed it all perfectly. Very early in the morning on July 4, 1998, I felt the first twinges of labor. Barack and I checked into the University of Chicago hospital, bringing both Maya—who’d flown in from Hawaii to be there the week I was due—and my mom for support. It was still hours before the barbecue coals would start to blaze across the city and people would spread their blankets on the grass along the lakeshore, waving flags and waiting for the spectacle of the city fireworks to bloom over the water. We’d miss all of it that year anyway, lost in a whole new blaze and bloom. We were thinking not about country but about family as Malia Ann Obama, one of the two most perfect babies ever to be born to anyone, anywhere, dropped into our world.
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