Barack Obama’s relationship with his mother was complicated. She called him Barry or Bar (sounds like bear). She pushed him to be serious and to look at people with empathy. He always felt protective of her, according to his memoir. He describes a scene in which she told him that she intended to marry Lolo Soetoro and that, after the marriage, they would all live in Indonesia. As Obama recalls it, he turned to her and asked, “But do you love him?” — a question that made her chin tremble. It was, at the least, precocious. At the time he was only 31 / 2. But it was also in keeping with one of the themes that weaves through his dealings with his mother over the years — that she was naive and idealistic, sometimes too good for her own good. In the journal that his New York girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, kept during their time together in the early 1980s, Cook wrote, “Told me the other night of having pushed his mother away over past 2 years in an effort to extract himself from the role of supporting man in her life — she feels rejected and has withdrawn somewhat.”
Ann once joked that she had children with a Kenyan and an Indonesian so that the kids would not have light skin and get sunburns. She herself looked like a Kansas schoolmarm, she noted, which made it easy for her to sail through Customs during her foreign comings and goings. Barry, the hapa Kenyan, and his little sister Maya, the hapa Indonesian, could never say the same. The mother and her two children struggled to find their identities, but in very different ways. Ann found hers through her work and travels, a lifestyle that, among other things, meant she and her son were apart for most of his adolescence, he in Honolulu with his grandparents, she in Indonesia. The search for identity was more psychological for her children, something that Maya said her mother must have understood but never fully acknowledged. In her career, Ann was idealistic but not naive. If she at times came across as naive to her children, it was in the role of a mother not wanting her children to suffer.