The first lady has a second role: being an ordinary mom

May 23, 1993|By Marian Burros | Marian Burros,Contributing Writer

Three weeks after the Clintons moved into the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter Chelsea went grocery shopping at a Washington supermarket -- just like ordinary people who have moved to a new city.

"I wanted to stock the second-floor kitchen," Hillary Clinton recalls, "so the people there could see the kinds of things we like to eat.

"I picked up Chelsea at school, and we stopped at the first supermarket we saw. I opened my wallet and discovered I had only $11. I asked the manager if the store took credit cards. He was just so stunned to see me that he became speechless. I had to keep saying: 'Do you take credit cards here?'

"Finally, he sort of stammered out that they didn't yet, but they were going to and it would be soon, 'like March.' And I said, 'This is like February, so I guess I can't buy anything today.' "

As she tells the story, Hillary Clinton can't restrain her amusement over the incident.

Determined to make Chelsea's life as normal as possible, the first lady says she plans to go shopping with her 13-year-old daughter on a regular basis, just as they did in Little Rock, Ark.

"I keep saying to the people here, 'You know the kind of macaroni we like comes in a yellow-and-red box,' and they look at me like I'm from another planet. I've got to buy it and show it to them," she says.

The Clintons also prefer to eat around the kitchen table, just as they did in the governor's mansion, but it's an idea, Hillary Clinton says, that "has caused a little bit of a stir."

One evening Chelsea was not feeling well and her mother wanted to make her scrambled eggs.

"You would have thought I asked for an extraordinary event to occur," she says. The staff wanted to make an omelet.

"I said, 'No, I want to make her some scrambled eggs because I know just how she likes them and she doesn't feel well and I want to feed her.'

"After all the reverberations, we sat down at a little table we've got in the upstairs kitchen and had a great meal, just the three of us, and had so much fun."

Chelsea's adjustment to a new school is going well, although she misses her old friends, Mrs. Clinton says, adding, "but Chelsea talks about what she likes and doesn't like about moving to the White House and living in Washington, so we can verbalize and help each other because both Bill and I miss a lot about our lives. So far, we're hanging in there."

Sitting in the ground-floor White House library earlier this year, the first lady reflects on her life as the daughter of Dorothy and Hugh Rodham and as Chelsea's mom.

"Being a parent," Hillary Clinton says, "is one of the greatest learning experiences I've ever had. I have learned to respect Chelsea as a separate being, and that has given me a greater respect for all other people."

Hillary Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, says, "Hillary was not the perfect child, but she always had an assessment of what was going on and knew when to stop. I could tell by looking in her eyes."

She remembers her daughter as a leader, not a follower.

"When she was a little kid she could defend her positions both physically and verbally. When she was 15 or 16, and other kids were starting to use makeup and fix their hair, she wasn't interested. That used to annoy me a little bit; I used to think, 'Why can't she put on a little makeup?' "

Mrs. Rodham, who describes herself as a "doting mother," is bothered when others criticize her daughter. But, she says, "I feel she can handle it. Chelsea and Bill are more vulnerable than she is. She is tougher -- in the good sense."

Hillary Clinton describes her family as close and says she wants to give Chelsea the same kind of love and support she got from her parents.

"As I look back at the level of confidence my parents instilled in me because of the way they raised me, I am trying the best I can to replicate that with my daughter," she says. "It's a wonderful gift to feel so loved and so special and supported, but also to be given the kind of discipline and direction to find your way in life."

Shared discipline

When it comes to Chelsea, discipline is shared by both the president and first lady and consists of a stern talking-to, Hillary Clinton says.

They feel strongly that as good parents they "must set limits about what is appropriate or not for a child of Chelsea's age. It's a struggle today for parents to define appropriate limits when the culture and the children's peers seem to be maturing too quickly."

Chelsea has a curfew: 10 p.m. on school nights and 11:30 p.m. or midnight on weekends.

If she goes to a party, Hillary Clinton says, "Most likely, we pick her up or drop her off and trade that duty with other parents.

The flip side to parenting is knowing when to let go.

"A child has to have an opportunity to make mistakes," the first lady says, "so she can mature. Trying to find that balance is the history of good parenting, and all of us are struggling to meet it."

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