Wisdom//

Samantha Power Shares the Most Important Lesson She Learned From Her Time in Government

“If one lesson in my experience stands out above the others, it is that the people we love are the foundation for all else.”

Image courtesy of Samantha Power
Image courtesy of Samantha Power

In my new memoir, The Education of an Idealist, I write about diplomacy and the major foreign policy developments that occurred during my tenure as President Obama’s human rights advisor and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. At the same time, I weave in stories of how I juggled the demands of having a 24/7 national security job with the challenges of raising two kids — my son Declan and daughter Rían, both of whom were born during my time serving in government. 

Despite my best efforts, I never found the optimal balance between immersion in my work and being present for those early months and years of my kids’ lives that were whirring by. I would try to step back to assess whether I was getting enough done in my job to justify all the time away, but even during productive periods, I never felt great about my choices. Indeed, I felt Declan and Rían’s constant pull.

During my early years as President Obama’s U.N. Ambassador, Declan would ask each morning, “Are you coming home early?” which meant, “Is there any chance I will see you tonight?” Too often, the answer had been “no.” But even when I had given him an exuberant “yes,” by late afternoon I usually needed to call our nanny María and ask that she tell him that an urgent matter had come up at the White House or the U.N., forcing me to stay at work. Without María’s dedication, I could never have done my job. She was the single reason I would be able to work 14-hour days in national security for eight years during the Obama administration. I noticed, though, that after many disappointments, Declan eventually stopped asking about my plans. Rían never started. 

To maximize every moment with my kids, I often included them in events for other U.N. ambassadors that I held at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in the Waldorf-Astoria. I told myself that the exposures the kids were getting to the world beyond America’s shores would compensate in a small way for the shortage of time they had with me. But I knew nothing could substitute for parental attention. 

Even amid the crazy working hours of being U.S. Ambassador, I always made time for baseball with Declan, whether taking him to Washington Nationals games when the team passed through New York, dropping him each morning at a summer baseball camp in Brooklyn, or simply stealing away for a Sunday game of catch in Central Park. 

But I wanted to be present for helping with homework, for watching their sporting events, and for that magic, unforeseeable moment when the kids divulged what had happened in school that day. 

So, during the fourth quarter of my government service, I was torn. Representing the United States at the United Nations, I was doing the most fulfilling work of my career. The slower the clock moved on my remaining time in office, the longer I could try to make progress on issues that mattered. But I also knew that the time had come to finally build a permanent home for my family when I was no longer U.N. Ambassador — so the more quickly the clock moved, the sooner I would be the mother and partner I longed to be. 

In the end, of course, my conflicting inner clocks were immaterial. Time did its own work. 

I left office on January 20, 2017, at the end of the Obama administration. I have now lived for two-and-a-half years under a single roof with my small family. The basic lessons my husband Cass and I try to teach Declan and Rían are: Tell the truth, count and share your blessings, treat everyone equally. While Declan still loves baseball, he isn’t sure how he feels about his mother’s hands-on coaching. And now that I’m finally around to encourage him to practice the piano, he has learned to play beautifully — his manner and sounds evoking those of my late father. Rían has fallen in love with nature and spends entire afternoons surveying rocks and leaves in our backyard, while Finley and Snowy, our Labrador retrievers, follow her everywhere.

If one lesson in my experience stands out above the others, it is that the people we love are the foundation for all else. When we turn in our White House badge — or its equivalent in other fields — what is left is our own garden, and what we have sown and cultivated.

Adapted from The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, by Samantha Power, Published by Dey Street Books; First Edition (September 10, 2019)

Samantha Power is the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and William D. Zabel Professor of Practice in Human Rights at Harvard Law School. From 2013 to 2017 she served as the 28th U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, as well as a member of President Obama’s cabinet. This essay is adapted from her book, The Education of an Idealist.

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