As the world knows by now, Kate Middleton, the future queen of Great Britain, is enceinte. On both sides of the pond, we’ve been made privy to the details of her dreadful morning sickness and, of course, the tragic suicide of the poor nurse who allowed a telephonic Queen Elizabeth impersonator to talk with her. Even without more such tragedy, Kate’s royal reproduction rites will be an ongoing soap opera as it titillates and reminds us that those who wear crowns are different from the rest of us.
Reproduction, for instance, is handled differently because different things are expected of them. Unlike Americans and other commoners who have children so they can relive their youth vicariously through their kids or guarantee visitors at the nursing home, royals need to produce offspring to occupy a future vacant throne. Brothers and sisters are needed just in case the oldest wants to marry an unacceptable American. Raised for this eventuality, the royal progeny need care and guidance from carefully-selected nannies, tutors, and staff persons while their parents travel around the country performing at ribbon cuttings, charity events, and other royal adult activities. Revealing herself as a novice royal, Kate Middleton has nixed the nanny idea in order to raise her own child, creating a slight stir among some royal watchers.
America’s closest thing to royalty, the President and his family, presents a distinctly different paradigm. In general, our presidents and first ladies (one of the most nebulous roles on the American stage) must transition from a fairly pedestrian life to one with the trappings of wealth and power almost overnight. One day in November every four or eight years, a new first family is catapulted from normalcy into a world where the quest for a new normal must begin.
In her book, The Obamas, Jodi Kantor pulls the curtain aside on how our current first family coped with this transition. Consider that before the presidency, Michelle and Barack could attend their daughters’ sporting events, plays, recitals, back-to-school nights, and go to dinner together at their favorite Chicago pizzeria (Gino’s East?). With his election, they became the most observed foursome in the country, unable to do anything that was done before, at least in any similar way.
Kantor’s book also reveals the various conflicts in the marital relationship of Barack and Michelle and their juggling between their roles as working professionals and involved parents. A difficult task for any couple, it was exacerbated by Michelle’s long-held belief that our political system cannot forge lasting change of world problems, and Barack’s long-held belief to the contrary. The whole time he has been a parent, Barack has been involved in politics, commuting between Chicago and Springfield as a state senator, and then to Washington D.C. as a U.S. Senator, and finally, all over the country as a candidate for president. His absence at the family dinner table has been a hallmark of his life as a father, as well as a source of intense parental guilt and marital strain.
Even in the aftermath of the election in 2008, Michelle was hesitant to embrace the political life, toying with the idea of staying in Chicago so that the girls wouldn’t be uprooted and subjected to new schools and a whole new lifestyle, according to Kantor. She was soon convinced that it was a ridiculous idea for a variety of reasons, but what really sold Michelle on White House living was the fact that Barack would be at home every day, available to have dinner every night for the first time ever in their daughters’ lives. In fact, his scheduling and political staff have strict instructions not to schedule him to miss family dinner more than two evenings a week.
Of course, dinner with the family is easy compared to actually spending time with Sasha and Malia as a parent outside the confines of the White House. Neither Michelle nor Barack can visit the girls’ schools, attend their performances, or yell encouragement from the sidelines of their soccer games as anonymous parents. Early attempts to do so were quickly scrapped as it became evident that the President (or First Lady) at a school event took the attention away from the girls — their parents became the main event.
As much as both parents have wanted their daughters to be able to do normal kid things, it has generally been problematic as occupants of the White House: trick or treating at Halloween, for example. Neither Michelle nor Barack, with their required Secret Service entourage and the minute planning involved, can take the girls around the neighborhood, calling for candy. One year, family friends were enlisted to take them around a nearby Washington neighborhood. Even then, they were soon recognized, and the neighbors began to text each other, waiting at the doorstep for them to appear, thereby eliminating any surprise, one of the criteria which provides the level of safety the Secret Service requires. The outing had to be truncated.
Sadly, we’ve recently witnessed attacks on President Obama by the crude and crass use of his daughters to advance the NRA agenda. Despite the fact that national security requires First Family protection, the NRA singled out the armed protection at Malia’s and Sasha’s schools as an example of the President’s hypocrisy in stating that more guns is not the answer to our national nightmare of never-ending violence. Does this add to the President’s guilt about sacrificing his daughters’ normalcy and anonymity at the altar of his career choice? Without a doubt. And what a sad commentary on the America we’ve become.
The American president is often perceived as a national father figure, the one who will lead, shelter, and protect us as individuals and a nation. But for those presidents whose children are still under their care, the parenting job is of no less significance, I’m sure, than preserving and protecting this country’s future.
I hope Kate Middleton continues in her quest to be a royal in the spirit of Diana Spencer, a real mother to her children. But, unlike the American presidential family, she will not have to cope with children who suddenly lose their anonymity and the normalcy of everyday life. From the beginning, even without nannies, her family will be raised in the fish bowl and under the microscope of the public and paparazzi. Walls, fences, and protection will be normal in the life of her children; they will never have to experience the loss of a normal they will never know.
One other advantage Kate will have is this: even while she will have to make adjustments in her parenting to satisfy certain security requirements, at least she can sleep better at night knowing she doesn’t have to put up with the NRA or a country full of gun nuts threatening her children.