Raising Barry – An Unconventional Parent Raises A President


Ann Sutoro worked with poor villagers. (Photo: FreeRepublic.com)

Ann Dunham (Soetoro) Sutoro’s life is changing the course of history, yet most people have never heard of this remarkable woman.

When I first met Ann in Jakarta in March 1981, I had no idea how great an impact she would have on world history and politics. I was travelling on a field trip as a researcher in the Department of Business and Economics at the Australian National University (ANU) where I was privileged to be working with prominent academics like Heinz Arndt and Ross Garnaut. I was particularly interested in the potential impact of improving technology on living standards in Indonesia.The ANU had given me a list of senior contacts, but the only person willing to meet with me was Ann, then a 39 year old program officer, focusing on rural development and the role of women for the Ford Foundation. We had an immediate rapport. Ann saw me as a young person who shared her idealism and passion for solving the problems of poverty in Indonesia. Perhaps I reminded her of her son Barry, born in Hawaii in 1961, a few years younger than me, and then studying and working in the United States.She insisted that I save money by moving out of my hotel and offered me a spare room in her home, which served as my base for several weeks and again on a subsequent trip. Ann’s comfortable bungalow welcomed a wide variety of visitors from senior politicians and business people to researchers and ordinary folks. But what I valued most was the ability to accompany Ann on field trips into Indonesian villages, to study first-hand the work of weavers because the weaving industry there was one of the most important employers of labour.

Ann, a single mother of two, was living in Indonesia with her daughter Maya, and was also looking at the blacksmithing industry, which was to be the topic of her doctoral thesis. Traipsing through villages was hot and hard work, which Ann took on cheerfully and with customary calm. She was a popular figure, keen to make a difference and welcomed for her unpretentiousness, sincerity and sense of care. While Ann followed her interests and values in Indonesia, her son ‘Barry’, had graduated with a degree in political science at Columbia University, and in 1986 was working as a community organiser in Chicago for the Developing Communities Project.

Although you would never pick it from her demeanour, Ann’s life had been far from easy. Her son was born when she was only 18, the result of a relatively short-lived relationship with an African man from Kenya. Her second marriage to an Indonesian student she met in Hawaii, had ended a year before I met her and had resulted in the birth of her daughter.

The Sutoro Family in Jakarta (Photo: rense.com)

When Ann moved to Indonesia in the mid 1960s it was a time of great political turbulence. For a Kansas born, white woman, learning to survive in a foreign country, and bringing up two children as a single parent, this should have been daunting. But if it was, Ann didn’t show it.

Far from bemoaning her circumstances as a single mother, Ann felt that she and her children enjoyed relatively privileged lives.  Her sense of appreciating privilege and her compassion for others less fortunate, is a quality that is echoed in the many now well-known public addresses of her adult son ‘Barry’.  Ann showed no bitterness towards her children’s respective fathers and in fact encouraged the children to keep in touch with them.

Given that Ann was so gentle and easy going, I was struck by her commitment to educating her children; there was a firmness in her voice when she declared that she expected her kids to try for straight As in their school work. The formula certainly worked with her children. I used to read books at night to Maya, then a very cute 10 year old. Maya went on to excel academically, earning two Masters degrees, a doctorate and then becoming a school and university teacher in Hawaii.

Over 20 years later, I was amazed to discover before the last US presidential elections that Barry was none other than Barack Obama, who exceeded even her expectations, when he became the 44th President of the United States. Sadly, Ann did not live to see or even anticipate his success. She died prematurely in 1995 of ovarian cancer, shortly after completing her doctorate.

Obama’s writings about his mother are somewhat ambivalent. His memoir Dreams From My Father, as the title suggests, was more about his absent father than his supportive mother. In some of his comments about her “dreaminess”, there is the hint of someone who was a bit bohemian. But in the second edition of his memoir he acknowledged that: “What is best in me, I owe to her.”  He is absolutely right, and I believe that Ann’s role in his success has been rather understated.

When I discovered who Ann Sutoro’s son was, I was working with my co-author Andrew Ford, on a new chapter on ‘Kids, Money and Happiness’ for the latest version of our book How Much is Enough?.  For all her unconventionality, we felt that Ann’s parenting style showed all the characteristics that we believe help to produce emotionally resilient, responsible, successful people. These characteristics include parents who pursue lives of passion and affection for their children and who have the ability to instil a sense of discipline and compassion.

Ann bestowed unconditional love on her children while having high expectations of them. She didn’t talk of a specific money-oriented career to her children – they were free to discover their own passions – but she wanted them to feel a deep sense of personal responsibility, to do as well as they could and to be generous of spirit. She exemplified the values she was trying to teach her children by resolutely continuing to study, work and pursue a career in areas that inspired her. This involved connecting with a wide range of people and helping the welfare of others. Her days were incredibly long and demanded great stamina. But in her short life, she combined anthropology and economics very effectively.

She helped to pioneer micro-finance at a grass roots level, while also being a supporter of local arts and culture, a development worker and an activist for democratic reform. Above all, Ann understood that the pursuit of money for its own sake was of no value. For her, money was an enabler and she saw it as being more important for her children to have a worthwhile sense of meaning and purpose.

I believe that Ann’s values were supported by her parents, especially her mother. Well before the Oscar winning Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner made its debut, Ann had startled her parents by her choice of partners. But far from judging or rejecting her daughter, Ann’s mother provided love and support, including looking after Barack when he was studying in Hawaii.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was able to synthesise the diverse elements of his background to reach out and unite a vast array of people around the world. While he is clearly his own person, I feel that some key elements of Ann shine through in his key speeches. He displays her sense of compassion, sensitivity and desire for social justice, blended with determination and toughness. But above all President Obama’s success crystallises some of the key elements of being a successful parent.

Ann Soetoro showed how a parent with her approach can inspire her children to overcome daunting obstacles to achieve any goal. As President, Obama has achieved mixed success. I think he has made some poor economic and administrative decisions, resulting in waste, contributing to the rise of the Tea Party and to a very polarised political environment generally. So far he is lacking in the skills of someone like a Paul Keating – the ability to articulate a clear vision, with well founded economic and social roots and then the ability to sell it.

But if he is truly his mother’s son, Barack Obama will show the determination and skills to learn from these mistakes, to mount an effective re-election campaign and fulfil his potential to become a great leader in these most challenging of times.

(This article first appeared in happychild.com.au Nov 2011)





4 Responses

  1. A facinating read, about a mother devoted to her children, and a new perspective to the backstory to one of the most famous men on the Earth at the moment.

  2. What a pertinent and lovely read. I have always imagined that Barack’s mother must have been an unconventional and iconoclastic woman, so to read a first hand account is really enlightening.

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