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Preface

T he summer sun reflecting off Lake Michigan caught my eye as I


turned my chair toward the window. I was always drawn to the
spectacular panoramic view of Chicago from the floor‑to‑ceiling win-
dow of my office on the s­ eventy-​­ninth floor of the Sears Tower. Perhaps
because I’d spent the first five years of my life living in a desert far away,
I never took Lake Michigan for granted. It has always brought me peace
and tranquillity. The best part of my daily commute to work was driving
downtown, heading north from South Kenwood along the f­ive-​­mile
stretch of the lake’s shoreline. I love water. And the sun. In the summer,
at our family dinners that my n ­ inety-​­year-​­old mom still hosts every Sun-
day, my cousins say, “There she goes again,” when I keep moving my
chair so that I’m directly in the sun, chasing its warmth until the day’s
last rays sink behind our home.
But on this particular afternoon in the summer of 1987, the gor-
geous sunshine and vast waters dotted with bobbling white sailboats
did nothing to improve my mood. I’d turned my back to the office
door, hoping that nobody would catch me crying. “Never cry at work”
was one of my many cardinal rules. And yet here I was.
Who was I in that moment? Well, most important, I was a mom.
From the moment twenty months earlier when the doctor announced,
“It’s a girl!” and placed her perfect little brown body on my chest, Laura,

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named after both my grandmother and my husband’s, had become the


center of my universe. I’d had no idea I was capable of such uncondi-
tional love.
I had also essentially been a single mom since seven months after
Laura’s birth. My husband chose to move to Michigan to complete his
medical residency, leaving our marriage dangling by a thread.
I was also a ­daughter—​­the only child of two parents who loved each
other and me unconditionally and showed me by their example, and our
family legacy, the value of commitment, hard work, and excellence.
And I was a lawyer. The first in my family. My position as an associ-
ate at a h ­ igh-​­powered corporate law firm had made my parents so
proud, and I was the envy of many.
Ten years earlier I had ambitiously created a plan for my life based
on a need for order and direction. I had this notion that by sheer force
of will I could drive my life in a rigid linear path, and that it was some-
how a sign of strength if I had the ­self-​­control to never waver from my
intended course.
Law school, work, marriage, baby, bliss. I’d pursued my plan with
the ­single-​­mindedness of purpose that I’d had since I was a child. I
thought it would deliver happiness. And from a distance it might have
looked like the perfect life. But as my plans were crumbling around me,
I was now sure of just one thing: I was miserable.
My own mother had been a professional working mom, well before it
was common to do so—a passionate educator who managed to pour her
energies into raising me and taking care of my dad while also establish-
ing a ­world-​­class child development research institute. And she always
seemed so competent and fully prepared for the everyday ­challenges—​
­so adept at what I now recognize was a mighty juggle. I’d never ques-
tioned that I myself would someday be a happily married, successful
working mom.
I am a morning person, so normally I’m unable to stay awake past 10
p.m. But after my husband, Bobby, moved away, I found myself wide

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awake at midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m. I was t­ wenty-​­nine years old and ter-
rified to be alone. I found myself popping into Laura’s bedroom mul-
tiple times a night to make sure she was OK. Being singularly responsible
for my precious baby was unexpected, overwhelming, and not a part of
my plan.
So on that gorgeous summer day, the reality slowly crept in that my
marriage bore no resemblance to the perfect one of my parents. They
had each been the other’s best friend and, other than an occasional
business trip, they never chose to spend a night apart.
Alma Brown, Laura’s sitter, a tall black woman twenty years my se-
nior whose face showed wrinkles from both laughter and hardship,
walked in my front door at 8 a.m. sharp every morning, radiating the
casual confidence that comes from decades of caregiving. I’d exit the
apartment quickly and then linger outside the door waiting for Laura to
stop crying, which, no doubt because of Mrs. Brown’s expert and loving
touch, took only a minute. But my heartache from our separation stayed
with me from the minute I closed that door until I opened it again in
the evening. I awoke every morning (feeling like it had been only min-
utes since I patted Laura to sleep the night before) with the sole goal of
getting myself home as soon as I could. My workday had become a strict
exercise in efficiency. Social meals, phone calls with my friends, and
even occasional watercooler conversations had all been abandoned.
The ache made it hard to focus. Walking into my office, I’d find my
unfilled time sheets from the day before on the top of my large to‑do
pile. Lawyers bill their clients by time, each day parsed into ­six-​­minute
increments and recorded on a time sheet to be tallied up by the billing
department. That’s how the firm made money. But instead of carefully
logging my hours, I’d sit there each morning sipping my third cup of
coffee (I always gulped down two before leaving home) and wondering
what it was I’d done the previous day. With neither head nor heart in
the work, I always ended up tallying myself short. After nine hours at
my desk, I often produced only four billable hours. And the work I had

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done was mediocre. I was not good at my job. The soft voice inside me
kept telling me that I needed to change my life, but it’s hard to listen to
your voice if you don’t trust it.
Over the span of the next thirty years, my career took what many
would think was a zigzag, not a trajectory upward. Some might call it a
step down to go into city government, but I did it, as a staff lawyer, and
then rose to be a cabinet member for a mayor. I would be a CEO and a
board chair to several organizations and always looked for ways to ad-
vocate for equality and civic engagement. Those experiences each pre-
pared me to spend eight years in President Obama’s White House, where
I was the l­ongest-​­serving senior advisor to any president in history. All
while I raised Laura as a single mom, marveling at how she found her
own confident voice, had the courage to also change careers in pursuit
of her passion, and had the good sense to marry a man who reminds me
of my dad.
People assume I always knew where I was going and the path I would
take, but the truth is, for a long time, I knew neither.
What follows is the story of how I found my voice and learned
to trust i­t—​­a voice that went from barely audible, even to me, to one I
hope has been a catalyst for change, and has been a source of strength
and empowerment for others. My journey has been exhilarating, chal-
lenging, and yes, at times, very painful, but what an adventure!

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