Barack Obama’s new memoir A Promised Land paints a picture of a man who is deeply committed to effecting real change with his work — and equally committed to a family he can’t live without. Often, those two passions are at odds with one another, as Barack describes the toll that his years of working his way up and campaigning took on wife Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha. On the tail end of his first presidential campaign, Barack writes, a day of shaking hands and making speeches coincided with Malia’s 10th birthday, and he spent the day in despair at how his work was once again distancing himself from his family. Looking at what they’d managed to get together for a party that night, Barack had the persistent fear that his daughters would look back on this day and never forgive him.
Heading into this 4th of July campaign day (and also, Malia’s birthday), Barack had already been noticing how quickly his girls were growing up, and worrying that he was falling behind.
“I could see from week to week how fast they were growing, how their limbs always seemed an inch or two longer than I remembered, their conversations at dinner more sophisticated,” he writes. “These changes served as a measure of all that I had missed, the fact that I hadn’t been there to nurse them when they were sick, or hug them when they were scared, or laugh at the jokes they told. As much as I believed in the importance of what I was doing, I knew I wouldn’t ever get that time back, and often found myself questioning the wisdom of the trade.”
When Malia’s 10th birthday became another work event for dad, he found himself despairing that his two goals — to have this monumental career and to be the present dad he wanted to be — would simply never work.
“The girls trudged dutifully beside me as I shook hands along the towns parade route. They stood in the heat watching me speak at an afternoon rally,” he writes. “As I watched Malia blow out the candles and make her wish for the year ahead, I wondered whether she was disappointed, whether she might later look back on this day as proof of her father’s misplaced priorities.”
Now, you know Barack wouldn’t just leave us hanging in this moment of disquiet — and evidently, the Obama family didn’t rest in it at the time either.
“Kristen Jarvis, one of Michelle’s young aides, pulled out an iPod and hooked it up to a portable speaker. Malia and Sasha grabbed my hands to pull me out of my chair,” he recounts. “Pretty soon everyone was dancing to Beyoncé and the Jonas Brothers, Sasha gyrating, Malia shaking her short curls, Michelle and Maya letting loose as I showed off my best dad moves. After about half an hour, all of us happily out of breath, Malia came over and sat on my lap.”
“‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘this is the best birthday ever.'”
In that moment, Malia let her dad know that all he needed to make them feel like family was 30 minutes of dance moves. And Barack knew right then that he could give his daughters that from anywhere.