Keeping the first family together


GIVE ME A BREAK:FOR THE FIRST time in their young lives, my children feel proud to be US citizens.

Growing up during the Bush years, they became used to classmates castigating their country and, sometimes by implication and sometimes directly, shaming them for being "American" - even though they're Irish passport-holders too and have never lived in the States.

They stayed up with me into the early hours of election night, each of us holding our breath, to see Obama elected. Ever since, they've had a quiet pride and have saved the front pages of newspapers announcing his victory.

For the past eight years it has been difficult to be a US citizen living abroad - especially after 9/11 when the prevailing view in Europe was that "Americans" had got what they deserved. This attitude trickles down to the children, of course. And children are less diplomatic to other children than adults are to other adults. Grown-ups may think they are more adept at hiding their prejudice, but to be a US citizen in Europe in recent times has not always been easy.

Polite disregard may be the best way to describe it. The subtle undertone with some people has been: "What right do you have to a view or an influence when you represent a country or a race that is clearly wrong-thinking?"

Over the past week in Dublin, so many people have come up to me to give their congratulations and shake my hand that I almost feel I ran for president myself. As an American, I've been redeemed. I'm now part of the good gang, rather than the bad. The Irish and I are now on the same side. The personal ownership that the Irish feel for the US has never been clearer.

There's the uncomfortable fact that the US rejected a white woman, Hillary Clinton, who was unable to transcend the gender barrier the way Obama was able to cross the race barrier, but no one seems too worried about that.

Oh well, at least the White House chef is a woman. My children are fascinated by what the lives of seven-year-old Sasha and 10-year-old Malia are going to be like and can't wait to see their new puppy. For my part, I remember my best friend in first grade and the friendship of our mothers (who were both teachers and shared a car pool) and how inviting her to my birthday party had me branded a "nigger-lover" at the age of seven.

I don't know what's happened to her or how she feels today to see the world that she and I, as colour-blind children, grew to understand as blind to equality. Perhaps, like me, she keeps pinching herself that Obama has been elected but also knows that inequality is not so easily redressed. The inequalities that define US society will take longer than four years - or even eight, if Obama is re-elected - to overcome.

In the meantime, those two little girls, Sasha and Malia, will represent childhood in the White House and their mother, Michelle, will redefine motherhood in the way that Jackie Kennedy redefined fashion. Sasha and Malia will see a lot of their grandmother (Marian Robinson, Michelle's widowed mother), will have a chef at their beck and call, and will have the use of a cinema, a swimming pool and a children's garden.

They will also have a new school to get used to. At Georgetown Day School or Sidwell Friends - likely choices - they'll be educated with the rest of the Washington DC elite and will be (if they aren't already) fully aware of becoming the elite. The Obama girls will have other little girls competing for their friendship, even though play dates come with mandatory security clearance. There will be a rush of cleaning and redecorating, no doubt, as parents anticipate the arrival of secret service men to "sweep" their houses.

Their grandmother, who largely reared them while both parents worked, will probably have her own quarters in the White House, which will be handy when Michelle travels. It will also help to ground the girls, who will have to get used to living amid high security in the world's most exposed fishbowl.

Oh to be Michelle Obama! A 24-hour chef, maid service, limo service, dry-cleaning service, repairmen on site, plus that home cinema and swimming pool to keep the girls occupied. It's nearly worth having your husband elected president - though her fears will surely be about whether her family can survive with their ideals intact despite becoming American royalty. She will be aware that her success, and her husband's, will be as much a threat to her girls' equilibrium as racial prejudice was in days gone by.