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


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."

As Chelsea has grown, she has been given more responsibilities. Restrictions on television viewing have been relaxed. And her parents promised her that the summer after her 13th birthday she could have her ears pierced if she wanted to.

"P-day is fast approaching," the first lady jokes.

Last year Chelsea was also allowed to choose the church she wanted to join. The president is a Southern Baptist; Hillary Clinton is Methodist. Chelsea went to both and decided to be confirmed at her mother's church.

Now that she's 13, Chelsea also chooses her own clothes -- fortunately, as it turned out on her first day of school in Washington.

"I used to like it a lot better when she'd wear what I bought her," Hillary Clinton says, laughing. "For her first day of school, I wanted her to wear this cute outfit [pants and a matching top] I'd bought her."

"Oh, Mother, I can't wear that," Chelsea told her.

"I make the big argument," Hillary recalls, "and she said, 'Nobody will be wearing anything like that.' "

And, of course, Chelsea, who wore the teen-age uniform of jeans and a sweat shirt, was right. She looked like everyone else and was quickly accepted. Within three weeks, she was having sleep overs with friends.

Hillary Clinton remembers her father, Hugh, who died April 7, as "Mr. Reality Check." But she says he was "one of the most indulgent grandparents. I used to go to my father and say: 'Dad, I really need a new pair of shoes. My shoes have holes in them,' and he'd say, 'Have you done your chores? Have you done this? Have you done that?' But when Chelsea went to their house, Mrs. Clinton says, "He would say, 'Chelsea, I want to give you something.' "

Chelsea is still the only grandchild, "a sore point with the grandmothers," Hillary Clinton says. "I would have loved to have had more children, but it just didn't work out, so I have the best child there is."

Extended family

The Clintons celebrate holidays with a large extended family -- there are lots of cousins, particularly on the president's side -- and with many very close friends.

"We go pretty far to celebrate every major holiday," the first lady says. "Bill goes crazy hiding Easter eggs. He always finds great places. Now he'll have more rooms to torment us in."

Christmas is the family's most important holiday.

"We all go overboard," Mrs. Clinton says. "We have carol singing. We have a big family party where we make everyone act out the 12 days of Christmas. They put on paper antlers while they sing 'Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' We are so corny when it comes to these things."

They also bake chocolate-chip cookies -- the now famous recipe that became a symbol of the traditional side of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the side that has nothing to do with being one of the top lawyers in the country or the chair of the president's Health Care Reform Task Force.

In fact, Mrs. Clinton says baking cookies is a Christmas Eve tradition. She still does the baking with Chelsea. And she is still not certain why people have trouble seeing her as a mother as well as a successful professional woman.

"I think people should be able to show all their sides," she reflects. "I think women are being seen in their various roles and are asking that all of those roles be respected. There shouldn't be any one stereotype."

By the time Chelsea grows up, Hillary expects the matter to be less controversial.

What she wants for her daughter is what every parent wants: "to be someone who has enough of a sense of herself and the confidence to go with it to make whatever choices are best suited for her."

/# New York Times Special Features

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