For Better or Worse / An Excerpt

I was confident that Bill would be great at parenting. His father died before Bill was born; he knew how lucky he was to have this chance that his own father never had. Still, a lot of men are thrilled to be dads but not so thrilled about all the work that a child requires. The writer Katha Pollitt has observed how even the most egalitarian relationships can contort under the strain of child rearing, and all of a sudden the mom is expected to do everything, while the dad pitches in here and there. She calls it becoming “gender Republicans”—a nifty phrase, if perhaps a little unfair to all the feminist Republicans out there, who really do exist.

I knew that I had enough energy and devotion for two, if it turned out that Bill wasn’t a co-equal in the child-raising department. But I really hoped that wouldn’t happen. Our marriage had always been a true partnership. Though he was governor and then president—jobs that would seem to “beat” a lot of others, if you were the kind of person who ranked jobs like that—my career was important to me, too. So was my time and, more broadly, my identity. I couldn’t wait to become a mother, but I didn’t want to lose everything else about myself in the becoming. I was counting on my husband not just to respect that but also to join me in guarding against it.

So it was a wonderful thing when Chelsea arrived, and Bill dove into parenting with characteristic gusto. We went to the hospital with Bill clutching the materials from the Lamaze classes we had attended together. When it turned out that Chelsea was breech, he fought to be in the operating room with me and hold my hand during the C-section. Being governor came in handy when he asked to be the first father ever permitted by that hospital to do so. After we brought her home, he handled countless midnight feedings and diaper changes. We took turns making sure the parade of family and friends who wanted to spend time with Chelsea were looked after. As our daughter grew up, we both read her good-night stories. We both got to know her teachers and coaches. Even when Bill became president, he rearranged his schedule as much as he could to have dinner with us nearly every night that he was in Washington. And when he was somewhere else in the world, he’d call Chelsea to talk about her day and go over her homework with her.

Our daughter adored her father more and more. As she entered adolescence, I wondered if that would change at all. I remembered how my own dad and I grew somewhat distant from each other once I became a teenager. I provoked him with a lot of fiery political arguments. He was at a loss to navigate the occasionally stormy seas of teenage girlhood. Would that happen with Chelsea and Bill? As it turned out, no. He lived for their debates; the fiercer the better. He didn’t leave me to deal with the “girl stuff”: heartache, self-esteem, safety. He was right there with us.

Did I handle more of the family responsibilities, especially while Bill was president? Of course. This was something we’d talked through before he ran, and I was more than up for it. But I never felt like I was alone in the work of raising our wonderful daughter. And I know a lot of wives of busy men who would say otherwise. Bill wanted to be a great president, but that wouldn’t have mattered to him if he wasn’t also a great dad.

Every time I see the two of them laugh over some private joke that only they know . . . every time I overhear a conversation between them, two lightning-quick minds testing each other . . . every time I see him look at her with love and devotion . . . I’m reminded again that I chose exactly the right person to have a family with.

My marriage to Bill Clinton was the most consequential decision of my life. I said no the first two times he asked me. But the third time, I said yes. And I’d do it again.

I hesitated because I wasn’t quite prepared for marriage. I hadn’t figured out what I wanted my future to be yet. And I knew that by marrying Bill, I would be running straight into a future far more momentous than any other I’d likely know. He was the most intense, brilliant, charismatic person I had ever met. He dreamed big. I, on the other hand, was practical and cautious. I knew that marrying him would be like hitching a ride on a comet. It took me a little while to get brave enough to take the leap.

We’ve been married since 1975. We’ve had many, many more happy days than sad or angry ones. I know some people wonder why we’re still together. I heard it again in the 2016 campaign: that “we must have an arrangement” (we do; it’s called a marriage); that I helped him become president and then stayed so he could help me become president (no); that we lead completely separate lives, and it’s just a marriage on paper now (he is reading this over my shoulder in our kitchen with our dogs underfoot, and in a minute he will reorganize our bookshelves for the millionth time, which means I will not be able to find any of my books, and once I learn the new system, he’ll just redo it again, but I don’t mind because he really loves to organize those bookshelves).

I don’t believe our marriage is anyone’s business. Public people should be allowed to have private lives, too. But I know that a lot of people are genuinely interested. Maybe you’re flat-out perplexed. Maybe you want to know how this works because you are married and would like it to last 40 years or longer, and you’re looking for perspective. I certainly can’t fault you on that.

I don’t want to delve into all the details, because I really do want to hold on to what’s left of my privacy as much as I can. But I will say this: Bill has been an extraordinary father to our beloved daughter and an exuberant, hands-on grandfather to our two grandchildren. I look at Chelsea and Charlotte and Aidan and I think, We did this. That’s a big deal.

He has been my partner in life and my greatest champion. He never once asked me to put my career on hold for his. He never once suggested that maybe I shouldn’t compete for anything—in work or politics—because it would interfere with his life or ambitions. There were stretches of time in which my husband’s job was unquestionably more important than mine, and he still didn’t play that card. I have never felt like anything but an equal. Bill is completely unbothered by having an ambitious, opinionated, occasionally pushy wife. In fact, he loves me for it.

Long before I thought of running for public office, he was saying, “You should do it. You’d be great at it. I’d love to vote for you.” He helped me believe in this bigger version of myself. Bill was a devoted son-in-law and always made my parents feel welcome in our home. Toward the end of my mother’s life, when I wanted her to move into our house in Washington, he said yes without hesitation. Though I expected nothing less, this meant the world to me. I know so many women who are married to men who—though they have their good qualities—can be sullen, moody, irritated at small requests, and generally disappointed with everyone and everything. Bill Clinton is the opposite. He has a temper, but he’s never mean. And he’s funny, friendly, unflappable in the face of mishaps and inconveniences, and easily delighted by the world—remember those balloons at the convention? He is fabulous company.

We’ve certainly had dark days in our marriage. You know all about them—and please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship. There were times that I was deeply unsure about whether our marriage could or should survive. But on those days, I asked myself the questions that mattered most to me: Do I still love him? And can I still be in this marriage without becoming unrecognizable to myself— twisted by anger, resentment, or remoteness? The answers were always yes. So I kept going.

On our first date, we went to the Yale University Art Gallery to see a Mark Rothko exhibit. The building was closed, but Bill talked our way in. When I think about that afternoon—seeing the art, hearing the stillness all around us, giddy about this person whom I had just met but somehow knew would change my life—it still feels magical, and I feel happy and lucky all over again.

I still think he’s one of the most handsome men I’ve ever known. I’m proud of him: proud of his vast intellect, his big heart, the contributions he has made to the world. I love him with my whole heart. That’s more than enough to build a life on.

The morning after the election, Bill and I both wore purple. It was a nod to bipartisanship (blue plus red equals purple). The night before, I had hoped to thank the country wearing white—the color of the suffragettes—while standing on a stage cut into the shape of the United States under a vast glass ceiling. Instead, the white suit stayed in the garment bag.

After I delivered my concession speech, I hugged as many people in the ballroom as possible—lots of old friends and devoted campaign staffers, many of their faces wet with tears. I was dry-eyed and felt calm and clear. My job was to smile, be strong for everyone, and show America that life went on and our republic would endure. A life spent in the public eye has given me lots of practice at that. I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse. In some ways, it felt like I had been training for this latest feat of self-control for decades.

After delivering hugs and smiling so long and hard that my face ached, I asked my senior team to go back to our headquarters in Brooklyn and make sure everyone was OK. One final wave to the crowd, and Bill and I got into the backseat of a Secret Service van and were driven away.

I could finally let my smile drain away. We were mostly quiet. Every few minutes, Bill would repeat what he had been saying all morning: “I’m so proud of you.” To that he now added, “That was a great speech. History will remember it.”

I loved him for saying it, but I didn’t have much to say in return. I felt completely and totally depleted. And I knew things would feel worse before they started feeling better.

It takes about an hour to drive from Manhattan to our home in Chappaqua. I absolutely love our old house. It’s cozy, colorful, full of art, and every surface is covered with photos of the people I love best in the world. That day, the sight of our front gate was pure relief to me. All I wanted to do was get inside, change into comfy clothes, and maybe not answer the phone ever again.

I’ll confess that I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I put on yoga pants and a fleece. Our two sweet dogs followed me from room to room, and at one point, I took them outside and just breathed the cold, rainy air. The question blaring in my head was “How did this happen?” Fortunately, I had the good sense to realize that diving into a campaign postmortem right then would be about the worst thing I could do to myself.

Losing is hard for everyone, but losing a race you thought you would win is devastating. I remember when Bill lost his reelection as governor of Arkansas in 1980. He was so distraught at the outcome that I had to go to the hotel where the election-night party was held to speak to his supporters on his behalf. For a good while afterward, he was so depressed that he practically couldn’t get off the floor. That’s not me. I keep going. I also stew and ruminate. I run through the tape over and over, identifying every mistake—especially those made by me. When I feel wronged, I get mad, and then I think about how to fight back.

On that first day, I just felt tired and empty. The reckoning was still to come.

At some point, we ate dinner. We FaceTimed with our grandchildren, two-year-old Charlotte and her baby brother, Aidan, born in June 2016. I was reassured to see their mom. I knew Chelsea was hurting for me, which in turn hurt to think about, but those kids are an instant mood boost for all of us. We quietly drank them in, that day and every day after. After sleeping hardly at all the night before, I climbed into our bed at midday for a nice, long nap. I also went to bed early that night and slept in the next morning. I could finally do that.

I avoided the phone and email that first day. I suspected, correctly, that I was receiving a virtual avalanche of messages, and I couldn’t quite handle it—couldn’t handle everyone’s kindness and sorrow, their bewilderment and their theories for where and why we had fallen short. Eventually, I’d dive in. But for now, Bill and I kept the rest of the world out. I was grateful for the one billionth time that I had a husband who was good company not just in happy times but sad ones as well.

 

Originally published on VOGUE.com

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