Barack Obama’s new memoir A Promised Land ties the personal and the political into one as the former POTUS details his eight years in the White House, and how it affected one of America’s most beloved first families. These details aren’t included just because Barack’s family has a significant following of its own, between wife Michelle Obama’s insanely successful own memoir Becoming, her new podcast, and the rabid-as-ever interest in his two college-age daughters. It’s clear that, for Barack, his political career was never separate from his personal life, because he was never able to shut off how both his struggles and successes ultimately affected his family. In a raw passage about the side to his early days in politics that he rarely discusses, Barack remembers the strain on his and Michelle’s marriage in the year after Malia Obama’s birth, as he worked three jobs and felt himself increasingly disappointing Michelle when it came to their family. It may just be that hindsight is 20/20; but Barack’s clear-eyed depiction of what he failed to give his wife when they hit this rough patch make it clear exactly how much time he’s spent empathizing with her position since.
For the summer after Malia was born, Barack writes, he was able to stay home with her, a time that filled with wonder at the experience of being a father. But when it was time to return to work (three different jobs, at that time — before his Congress run), those starry-eyed days gave way to a never-ending cycle of running out of time and running out of steam.
“Michelle bore the brunt of all this, shuttling between mothering and work, unconvinced that she was doing either job well,” he writes. “At the end of each night, after feeding and bath time and story time and cleaning up the apartment and trying to keep track of whether she’d picked up the dry cleaning and making a note to herself to schedule an appointment with the pediatrician, she would often fall into an empty bed, knowing the whole cycle would start all over again in a few short hours while her husband was off doing ‘important things.'”
“We began arguing more, usually late at night when the two of us were thoroughly drained,” he continues. “‘This isn’t what I signed up for, Barack,’ Michelle said at one point. ‘I feel like I’m doing it all by myself.'”
Barack admits that wasn’t easy to hear from Michelle at a time when he felt like he was giving 400% and still falling short. But still, he knew that she was picking up his slack at home. In his darkest moments, Barack considered walking away from everything. He describes a particularly disheartening plane ride after trying and failing to get into the DNC at 2000.
“I was almost forty, broke, coming off a humiliating defeat and with my marriage strained,” he writes. “I felt for perhaps the first time in my life that I had taken a wrong turn.”
Of course, Barack’s story had many more twists and turns to go. But it’s clear that he still remembers acutely the feeling of letting his partner down, and that, for all the triumphs of his presidency, a small part of him will always wonder what it would have been like to devote his life wholly to his family.