JILL BIDEN – You’ve got this!
BY CHERYL HARBOUR
Those are words we’ve all wanted to hear from someone close to us. And those words said to Jill Biden by Joe Biden’s sister Val, may describe the way the former Second Lady approaches life.
Strong, but loving. Independent but closely connected to family. A self-described introvert and private person who has written a remarkably candid memoir.
Dr. Jill Biden, author of “Where the Light Enters,” and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, doesn’t gloss over the difficult parts of what could look, at the surface, like a charmed life. There were high points, of course. During her eight years as Second Lady, she developed a close friendship with Michelle Obama, and together, they founded an organization – Joining Forces – to support military families. She started the Biden Breast Health Initiative after several friends battled the disease. As for the difficult parts, there was having one of her grandmothers not like her very much, an early marriage that ended in divorce, the death of her mother in the middle of the 2008 election campaign, the deployment to Iraq of son Beau, and then, later, his death from a brain tumor.
“Joe Biden had to propose to her five times before she accepted. In addition to his own desire to marry her, he’d been told by his boys, “We should marry Jill.”
Yes, the book talks about those things, but there’s more. It’s about the moments inside the Biden family and the Biden household that people never see. It’s the family traditions and the family jokes and the times when one or another member of the family was going through something important, difficult, or even tragic. Through all the highs and lows, Jill Biden has “got this.”
As 24-year-old Jill Jacobs, she met and then married a Senator, who later ran for President, who became Vice President, who decided not to run for President because his son had recently lost his life at a much too young age. She now finds herself as the wife of the presumed candidate for President. No one could expect a life that would take those twists and turns.
Even starting her life with Joe Biden put her into circumstances she hadn’t planned. She became an instant mother to two young boys when she married the senator from Delaware whose wife and baby daughter had died in an auto accident three years prior. Did she have doubts about taking on that role? She admits she did. Joe Biden had to propose to her five times before she accepted. In addition to his own desire to marry her, he’d been told by his boys, “We should marry Jill.”
Jill Biden’s memoir begins as she is sitting in the sunroom of the Biden home in Wilmington, Delaware, surveying family photos and mementos. The objects there all have special meaning, including, as she says “finger paintings of cats and salamanders, an acrylic man, and a pen-and-ink blue-footed dragon – all original artwork from the grandkids.”
“Among the mementos, she keeps close by is a note she’s saved from one of her granddaughters that says, ‘We can’t wait to go to Nana-tucket.’”
“Home” and “place” continue to play an important in Jill Biden’s story – that Delaware house which burned to the ground in (year) and had to be rebuilt, the Vice President’s residence, and a rented vacation home on Nantucket where the family would celebrate Thanksgiving each year. Among the mementos, she keeps close by is a note she’s saved from one of her granddaughters that says “We can’t wait to go to Nana-tucket.”
If she had doubts about blending her life into an already-made family – and a big, boisterous family at that – it didn’t keep her from being “all in.”
One of the things that makes this book such an enjoyable read is that she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. She admits she’s still learning about the bonds that make up a family. She’s honest about being uncertain – about her abilities as a public speaker, about some of her parenting decisions, and after son Beau died in 2015, she’s even questioned her faith. But she’s trying to find her way back. And somehow, it seems she will. She’s got this!
The loving wisdom of Dr. Jill Biden
On the bonds that make up a family
“Few of us would reduce those bonds, that gravitational force, to something as simplistic as blood. Families are born, created, discovered, and forged.”
On her career as an educator, including during her eight years as Second Lady:
“There’s something profoundly optimistic about teaching. We are taking the best of what humans have to give – lifetimes of knowledge, wisdom, craft, and art – and handing it over to the next generation, with the hope that they will continue to build, continue to make our world better.”
On her belief in the importance of community colleges
“I was grateful to be the Second Lady. It was an incredible honor. But the role I have always felt most at home in is being ‘Dr. B.’ – working with first-generation college students, teaching them to write essays that would help them get into four-year colleges, helping military veterans see how the skills they learned in combat can be applied in civilian life. That was a deeper part of myself that couldn’t be ignored.”
On her marriage to Joe Biden
The political world requires a certain type of personality, and it’s not one that has ever come naturally to me. Joe has always approached it with grace and dignity. He has built a reputation among political allies and foes alike as someone who keeps his word, who listens, and who can put politics aside to make progress. He’s always been a statesman in the truest sense of the word.”
“How did you get this number?” Those were the first words Jill Biden spoke to U.S. senator Joe Biden when he called her out of the blue to ask her on a date.
“We do change for our spouses. We try to be worthy of their love, just as they try to be worthy of ours. Good marriages push us; not to become someone else but to become the best version of ourselves.”
On being a parent and, at times, loving one child more than the other
“Biology or not, I’m a part of all of my kids – and they are part of me. I’ve loved them each in different ways, and I’ve often loved them unevenly. My love is constantly undulating, moving and changing and growing, flowing to where it’ needed and back again. And in the end, though it is uneven, it equals out.”
On helping her kids when someone on the outside of their family would comment in a negative way
“As we’ve seen over and over in our family, being in the public eye means people feel the need to weigh in on our personal relationship in a way they wouldn’t for other families. But even those who don’t deal with the spotlight must contend with unasked-for opinions on their family choices – what their relationships should be called, who counts as “real,” and the implications of their parenting decisions.
“I’m lucky to be Nana.”
Jill Biden says whenever she thinks she’s doing something for her grandchildren, she ends up getting so much more out of it for herself. “They give me new eyes for the things I thought I already knew. They surprise me. They remind me of how far we’ve come and the ceremonies we keep to remember that path. And with them, we create new moments, new traditions. We continue building our family and finding sanctuary in each other. Through them, I feel all the love I’ve given throughout the years coming back to me.”
In December 1972, the former vice president — then a 30-year-old senator-elect from Delaware, weeks away from being sworn into office — lost his first wife, Neilia, and 13-month-old daughter Naomi in a car accident as they were Christmas shopping, only weeks after his election to the Senate.
In the first difficult years, Mr. Biden’s sister Valerie stepped in to care for them until Joe married, college professor Jill Biden, in 1977, at the urging of Beau and Hunter to their father that “we think we should marry Jill.” The boys even went along on the couple’s honeymoon.
Personal tragedy revisited Vice President Joe Biden and his family with the death at only 46 of his older son Beau, the former attorney general of Delaware, leaving behind his wife and two children. Joseph “Beau” Biden III, an Iraq War veteran, died following a brain cancer diagnosis in 2015.
BOOKS BY JILL BIDEN
Cover image: Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, July 2019
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheryl Harbour is the special editor of our “My GRANDbaby” section and author of Good to Be Grand: Making the Most of your Grandchild’s First Year, a combination of up-to-date information and grandparently inspiration.