I didn’t really know my father—he left my mother and me when I was two years old, and only traveled from Kenya to visit us once, when I was ten. That trip was the first and last I saw of him; after that, I heard from him only through the occasional letter, written on thin blue airmail paper that was preprinted to fold and address without an envelope.
His short visit had a profound impact on my life. My father gave me my first basketball and introduced me to jazz. But for the most part, the visit left me with more questions than it answered, and I knew I would have to figure out how to be a man on my own.
In our latest conversation on Renegades: Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen
and I explore the topic of masculinity and the influence that our fathers—both flawed role models—had on our lives. We also talk about the message American culture sends to boys about what it means to be a man—a message that too often emphasizes physical toughness over sensitivity; the need to dominate over the ability to love and care for others. Listen now on Spotify: spoti.fi/RenegadesEpisode6
On this day in 2009, I signed my first bill into law: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The legislation was named after an unassuming Alabaman who deep into a long career at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, had discovered that she’d routinely been paid less than her male counterparts.
Lilly would go on to file a wage discrimination suit against the company. It should have been a slam dunk, but in 2007, defying all common sense, the Supreme Court had disallowed the lawsuit. According to Justice Samuel Alito, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act required Lilly to have filed her claim within 180 days of when the discrimination first occurred—in other words, six months after she received her first paycheck, and many years before she actually discovered the pay disparity. For over a year, Republicans in the Senate had blocked corrective action (with President Bush promising to veto it if it passed). But thanks to the quick legislative work by our emboldened Democratic majorities, the bill sat ready to be signed on a small ceremonial desk in the East Room.
Lilly and I had become friends during the campaign. I knew her family, knew her struggles. She stood next to me that day as I put my signature on the bill, using a different pen for each letter of my name. I thought not just about Lilly but also about my mother, and my grandmother, Toot, and all the other working women across the country who had ever been passed over for promotions or been paid less than they were worth. The legislation I was signing wouldn’t reverse centuries of discrimination. But it was something, a small step forward. This is why I ran, I told myself. This is what the office can do.
When Malia was born, I made a promise to myself that my kids would know me.
Barack, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia Obama
The fact that my own father was largely absent from my childhood helped shape my ideas about the kind of father I intended to be. When Malia was born, I made a promise to myself that my kids would know me, that they’d grow up feeling my love keenly and consistently, knowing that I’d always put them first. While serving as President, I made sure to have dinner with Michelle, Sasha, and Malia every evening by 6:30. We’d eat some good meals and catch up on our days. That was one of the best parts of living above the store, as I sometimes called it. Seeing them grow up into the intelligent, strong, and compassionate young women they’ve become has been the greatest joy of my life. I’m reminded constantly that there’s no place in the world I’d rather be than with Miche and our girls––and it’s why I’ve dedicated my memoir to them. A Promised Land