The slender, auburn-haired young mother was trying to enjoy a relaxed restaurant meal with her husband and two kids even while she kept an ear open in case the boss called. Like many moms who worked outside the home, she was doing double duty. While 4 year old Declan could happily munch down his own order, little sister, Rian, at 12 months, needed lots of help. When the phone rang, as was perhaps inevitable, she quickly transferred full parental responsibilities to her partner Cass, took two sips of water and slipped outside where it was much quieter to take the call.
After all, you don’t relegate the President of the United States to voice mail.
The double duty mom was Samantha Power, the newly appointed American ambassador to the United Nations. The President, just embarking on his second term in office, was Barack Obama. Admittedly, compared with most women, this working mother of two had an abundance of help to make her double life easier. A much-loved nanny, Maria Castro, provided live-in child care and homemaking services, a nearby day care facility provided a placement during the day and Power was driven everywhere through congested New York traffic by a secret service officer. Yet she could still acknowledge the challenges facing most working mothers: “—I used stories to make bearable the tensions inherent in balancing a demanding career and a fulfilling family life.”
These revelations are found in Power’s 2019 autobiography, The Education of an Idealist ( William Morrow) No novice as a writer, she had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 with her examination and condemnation of genocide, A Problem From Hell.
In the memoir, Samantha Power invites the reader into her childhood in Ireland where her own mother struggled to achieve higher education at a time when only 10 percent of married women worked outside the home. After graduating with a PH D in biochemistry and then as a physician, Vera Delaney took Samantha, age eight and four year old brother, Stephen, to the United States—to pursue a medical specialty and to put more distance between herself and a troubled husband.
The Education of an Idealist offers fascinating new insights into the Obama Presidency: his ambivalence over winning his Nobel Prize for Peace, his reluctant intervention in Libya, the Ebola crisis in Africa, Russia in Ukraine, atrocities in Syria and Obama’s infamous ” line in the sand.” The memoir also documents challenges faced by women entering into a then-men’s world. Before being named Ambassador, Power served the administration as a member of the National Security Council, one of only six women out of 26 members.
Her already established female colleague, Susan Rice, quickly advised the uncertain novice: “Don’t let anybody there roll you, Sam.” And she didn’t! In later years as Ambassador, Power would fine tune networks of allies, but regularly cross swords with tyrants, dictators and misogynists at the United nations. Her book is an education into the complex machinations of that organization.
But it was her role as working mom which best captured my attention and sympathy. Power shares her experiences with a large touch of humour which certainly does not diminish their poignancy. In her first months with the administration she kept her pregnancy hidden over an unfounded fear that she might be offered a less senior position. On one early occasion, she was invited to join Obama and others in the Oval Office for a meeting to greet the Secretary General of the United Nations. En route, she suddenly realized that she had no idea where the Office was located. Final arriving late, she tried to made a quiet entrance, easing “—my seven months’ pregnant body onto the couch between my colleagues.” Of course, the President, true to form, instantly made her feel comfortable. Some other amusing anecdotes centred around the challenge of breastfeeding, including:
—as a new mom, regularly rushing from intensive White House meetings to breast feed her baby at day care, sometimes absentmindedly unbuttoning her blouse half way across the White House lawn.
—excusing herself from a crucial meeting in Burma with Obama, Hilary Clinton and the heroic Burmese leader, Aung San Sun Kyi, to use her breast pump in a nearby washroom. The machine started up with a loud sucking noise which she feared would be overheard by the startled group.
—multitasking on the phone with Secretary of state, John Kerry, while breastfeeding Rian who was “—an audible eater.” Kerry was quite amused and supportive to learn that his colleague was “—just feeding my girl.”
My favorite double-duty story was Power’s description of an occasion when she and Cass were invited to a private dinner in the White House with the President, the First Lady and a few other guests. She had left her step-father, Eddie, in charge of the children. Just as dinner was to begin, Eddie called in a panic, not being able to find Rian’s pumped milk. Power moved down the hall, trying unsuccessfully to calm Eddie while Obama stalled the other diners.
Suddenly, a voice was heard behind her. It was her host. “Let me talk to him. Then “Listen, Eddie, this is the President of the United States. You can do this. You just need to stay calm and focus.” Classic Obama!
The Education of an Idealist is an excellent read for anyone wanting to understand the critical role of adhering to principles while needing to be a realist in Washington politics. Fair warning: That read may also cause you to yearn for those Obama years in the White House.
Certainly, Samantha Power had advantages almost no other working mom could call upon. Yet she faced the same challenges of balancing work and home; each essentially demanding her limited time and energy. On this special day, let us salute the many women carrying those same twin responsibilities, sometimes without adequate community supports, sometimes without a partner to share the load. Thank you for your service and commitment to your workplace and to your family.
Happy Mother’s Day!