Ambassador Samantha Power on Protecting ‘Sacred Time’ and Making More of It
From “Putin, Putin, Putin” to “Declan, Declan, Declan.”
At noon on January 20, 2017, I will be leaving my post as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. For eight remarkable years I have had the privilege to serve President Obama and the United States — for four years as an adviser at the White House and, since 2013, in the Cabinet as UN ambassador. I have found representing my country more fulfilling, more demanding, and more impactful than anything I have ever done. But it is also fair to say that I have not found it terribly family-friendly. So while I am sad to leave government, I am looking forward to giving my kids far more of the undivided attention that they deserve.
My husband and I got to know each other while working as advisers on Senator Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. We got married just after Senator Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. I was five months pregnant when I first briefed President Obama in the Oval Office in January 2009. I was at my computer in my office in the Old Executive Office Building in April 2009 (a few weeks before our son Declan’s due date) when I realized my water had broken. And I began having contractions in advance of our daughter Rían’s birth in June 2012 while emailing in the middle of the night with colleagues about the Middle East peace process. The way my kids came into the world offered a preview of the multitasking that they would have to endure in their early years.
Thanks in part to my work environment, my son Declan, 7, has become very interested in world events, but that just gives him ammunition to argue his case. At the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, when emergency UN Security Council meetings on Russian aggression displaced successive nightly tuck-ins, Declan, then just 5, was feeling neglected. When I walked in the door one night, with my phone to my ear as I wrapped up a call, he exclaimed: “Putin, Putin, Putin! It’s always Putin, Putin, Putin. When is it going to be Declan, Declan, Declan?”
Phone face-offs are of course familiar to most working parents. It may sound like an especially challenging juggle because I happen to be speaking with Secretary of State Kerry (who, a father and grandfather himself, has been incredibly welcoming of kid interruptions over the years), a UN envoy on a crackling phone line from a war zone, or a fellow diplomat whom I’m lobbying. But my friends and colleagues from other walks of life have parallel experiences. My exchanges usually go something like this: “Mommy,” my son says, “Can I ask you something?” I shake my head and whisper, “I’m on the phone.” He says, “Mommy, it’s important.” I hold up my index finger to signal I will be off in a minute. “But Mommy,” he will say loudly, “I really need to know something.” I beg him to let me finish the call, sometimes even clasping my hands together in a sign of prayer. But he cannot be deterred and blurts out his question: “Mommy, what is the score of the Nationals game?” When I hold my hand over the receiver and say my call is important, he says firmly, “But this is important too.” And of course he is speaking a deep, deep truth. Rían, who has an iron will, has on various occasions hidden my work phone, or exclaimed loudly enough that my phone calls become inaudible, “It is not Blackberry time; it is Rían time!”
Although I have often felt that parenting and diplomacy were locked in a fierce zero-sum battle, I have tried to merge my worlds as best I can. My kids zoom around diplomatic receptions and official dinners at our residence, disruptive, but — to me at least — lovable. When I head to the office over the weekend, I bring my kids, pulling my Syria briefing materials off of one shelf, and jigsaw puzzles and crayons off of another. My office walls boast paintings loaned by world-renowned artists to the State Department, right alongside a crooked drawing of the UN Security Council done by Declan, and a hippo decked out in rainbow colors by Rían.
Both my kids love the British Mr. Men book series, featuring Mr. Jelly, Mr. Mean, Mr. Greedy, Mr. Happy, Mr. Uppity, Mr. Brave, and others. At one point Declan had the idea to ask me which ambassador or country fit which description, and we got into the habit of poring over the world map, discussing what the country was doing in the world, and deciding whether they might be a suitable “Mr. Greedy” or “Mr. Mean.” I have on several occasions regretted this practice, when I have noted a flash of recognition on my son’s or daughter’s face as they were introduced to one of the ambassadors whose countries’ actions we have discussed in less than favorable terms at bed-time.
While I still cringe every time I show up at my kids’ schools in a black armored SUV with security agents in tow, and while I long to be independent again and to be able to drive myself and my kids around, the security agents are themselves wonderful role models — and my kids know that these men and women are sacrificing their own family time to spend weekends, nights, and holidays with us. Declan and I have also learned to take advantage of the privilege of being driven places, by using the thirty–minute morning drive to school as precious — and protected — Mommy-time during which Declan has learned to read. While the nights have often been overtaken by the crush of work, we have been able to keep the mornings sacred.
It is a marker of just how long I have been ambassador to recall that, when Declan and I started our back seat reading in 2013, he was struggling with phonics, and now he is reading to me from the fifth Harry Potter book. I take heart that, just as Rían is starting to make words out of letters for the first time, our family will be entering a new phase, where it should be easier to protect that sacred time — and to create more of it.