Barack Obama: Mum's the word, she raised him well

Julia Suryakusuma ,  Jakarta   |  Tue, 11/04/2008 10:35 AM  |  Opinion

Barack Obama famously wrote a book called Dreams From My Father, but what that book didn't reveal was that he was, in truth, much more his mother's son than his father's.

In fact, Obama barely knew his father and any single mum can tell you how much energy children spend on an absent parent. Yet, although she had the greatest influence on Barry (as she called him) his mother helped him write his book about his lost father by reading his drafts, commenting on them and filling in the gaps. She told me she understood why her son had to write the book the way he did, even though we both knew it should really have been called Dreams From my Mother.

I knew Ann Dunham Sutoro from 1981 to 1995, before she became known as "Barack Obama's mother". For me back then, Barry was "Ann's son", whom I met when he came to visit her in Jakarta. Now, not a day goes by when I don't see him in the papers, in magazines or on television. I feel almost as proud as Ann would have been.

But it's bittersweet too: I feel Ann's presence strongly through Barry, and I know that she lives in him, but I still wish, oh, I do so wish, that she was still around to savor the moment, and to share her pride, with me, with other friends and family, and, of course, with Barry himself.

Ann's Barry could be the leader of what is still the single most powerful country on earth, and that will give him the opportunity to influence hundreds of millions of lives for the better. And this, of course, was precisely what Ann always set out to do, to improve peoples' lives, starting with her own, her children's and friends', then extending out to touch the lives of the countless people she dealt with in her programs, first as the Ford Foundation program officer for women in Jakarta in the early 1980s, then in Pakistan, and ultimately back here, in BRI, then our biggest state bank, when she worked on microfinance in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Ann was a reformer: Whether you agreed with her or not, she always did things with the intent of changing and improving a situation. In fact, she committed her life to the idea that has become a key slogan of Obama's campaign: "Change we can believe in".

There is no question that Ann was ahead of her time, doing things other women felt constrained from doing. She looked beyond her shores, and the choices she made, even the story of life, attest to it: Her cross-cultural marriages, her fields of study and work. She was far-sighted and strove hard to achieve her goals, including those she had for her children.

Both Barry and Maya, her daughter with Lolo Sutoro, can (and do) credit her with giving them an education and confidence in their ability to do the right thing. The calm and even temperament that Obama exhibited during the campaign must stem in part from this confidence.

Ann would never have seen herself as such, but in many ways she was a visionary, and so too is her son. His vision for a united, caring and generous United States that doesn't discriminate, where people foster good relations both within and outside the nation is one that his mother would have shared -- in fact, she sought to live it.

But while idealistic, Ann was also very grounded. She had the Midwestern values of hard work, straightforwardness, honesty and "family first". You didn't immediately get the impression that she was hard-working and disciplined, but she certainly was. Ann looked down on laziness and lack of enterprise, and expected others to live up to her standards.

Ann rarely softened her opinions, which frequently included bluntly criticizing people. Naturally, friends and family were the first "targets" (yup, me too!), but her love always shone through, so it was hard to be mad at her for long. But however critical she was, she was never arrogant, and her natural earthiness, friendliness and warmth meant she got along well with people.

Ann was respected for her professionalism and ideals, but she was also liked -- and loved -- for her friendliness and compassion. And the fact that she loved (really loved!) food, and brought delicious meals to work to share with her colleagues helped as well!

Yes, Ann was larger than life, and larger than a lot of people as well (Barry on the other hand, seems to be getting thinner and thinner!). Ann told me Indonesians often greeted her with Aduh Ibu Ann, makin gemuk aja! (Oh Ibu Ann, you've gotten even fatter!). Speaking of his mother, Obama has admitted that "what is best in me, I owe to her".

Certainly that was obvious in an election campaign that has electrified people all over the world. Obama never responded in kind when nasty attacks were launched by McCain's campaign. Instead he criticized platforms -- not people. Here he is certainly his mother's son. Ann had clear likes and dislikes and was often critical, but never descended to personal attacks.

Ann made some difficult choices in life, usually resulting from her convictions as to what was right. She was constantly pushing boundaries, but never let herself be pushed around.

Besides being historic, the decision Obama made to run for the presidency was dramatic in the same way, and a product of the "big thinking" that his mother loved. To take on the leadership of a traumatized America is a daunting, even mind-boggling, task. Obama, young and relatively inexperienced, coming out of almost nowhere, armed with "the audacity of hope" (as he titled his second book), is doing what his mother could only have dreamed of for him.

The writer is the author of Sex, Power and Nation. She can be contacted at

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