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Benazir Bhutto: 'One Day' in a mother's life

Being a good leader and a good mother: Can a politician do both? This snapshot of a day in the late Benazir Bhutto's life reveals the love and guilt she felt when leaving her five children to attend to her country.
/ Source: TODAY

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, once the chair of the center-left Pakistan People's Party (PPP), was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state. She was assassinated after an election campaign rally on Dec. 27, 2007, two weeks before the 2008 general election, in which she was a leading opposition candidate. The charismatic politician and mother of five wrote this essay, "One Day" on June 17, 1997, which appears in the anthology "The Maternal is Political."

"One Day"

When I graduated from university in the ’70s, I was thrilled. My education was over. A life of exams, grades, waiting for results was part of the past.

I was wrong.

Life is one big exam.

And whether it is an election, a speech, a court decision, or a domestic matter, I am always wondering whether I am going to pass or fail, whether I am going to make the grade or not.

Some days are good. Some days are not. As Lady Thatcher once said to me, “In politics, always expect the unexpected.” I would only add, In life, always expect the unexpected.

As leader of the opposition in the National Assembly of Pakistan, I have to open the debate on the budget proposal tomorrow.

I get up today and head straight for the big bundle of budget documents, which the finance minister has placed on the floor of the National Assembly. I finish the first reading of the budget documents by lunchtime. I find that the Intelligence Bureau of Pakistan spent one-third over its allocation.

Was this huge expenditure to rig the general elections held this February, to fund my opponents, to bribe witnesses into giving false statements, or to bribe journalists into writing negative stories? These questions whirl in my mind. Last November, my government was dismissed by presidential decree on the eve of our signing an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

A witchhunt was launched. It still continues. That night of November 4, 1996, my husband was kidnapped by security agents. He was produced 48 hours later after we raised a hue and cry. For eight months, he has languished in a prison cell in solitary confinement, with temperatures soaring to 48 degrees Celsius. He has not been indicted in a single case so far, despite the government’s tall claims that he was “The King of Corruption.”

Later in the afternoon, my cousin Fakhri comes to our house along with her three grandchildren. I send them, along with my own three kids, to have pizza and chocolate cake. They shout with delight. Children are so easy to please. What happens to us when we become adults?

Mummy, Fakhri, and I have lunch. The cook has made Karri. It is made with yogurt and gram flour. Mummy says it is delicious, so her cook must have made it.

Mummy has just returned from a religious pilgrimage. She says she prayed really hard for me and our party workers, and things are going to get better. Let us hope so.

After lunch, we sip green tea and chat until the sound of shouts and screams heralds the return of the children. The kids now demand to see a cartoon.

I do not like my children watching cartoons. But I am feeling guilty. I have to catch a flight to Islamabad, where the Parliament is based. So I cave in.

As I come down the stairs to leave for the airport, my seven-year-old daughter, Bakhtwar, looks up. Casually waving, she says, “Bye, it was nice seeing you. Come back soon.”

“What do you mean?” I say. “I am your mother. I am stuck to you like that arm of yours for life.”

“But Mama, my arm keeps going away,” she complains.

“But it always comes back,” I reply.

“Yes, it does, it does,” says my eight-year-old son, Bilawal, as he gives me a hug.

On the flight, I see my mother-in-law. We say hello. She says the regime is still bothering my father-in-law. He is in Lahore, meeting lawyers in connection with politically motivated allegations made against him.

I write my speech by hand during the two-hour plane journey from Karachi to Islamabad. I rush home and into my study to complete the speech. Once the draft is finished, I call my party leaders to vet the draft. While they are doing that, I binge on pizza and chocolate cake.

It is four in the morning by the time we finish. We leave the speech for typing, translation, and copying, and call it a day.

From the book "The Maternal is Political," edited by Shari MacDonald Strong. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press (), a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2008. This essay first appeared on on June 17, 1997.

A note from the editor of "The Maternal is Political":

As the editor of the anthology about motherhood and politics, "The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Politics," I’m often asked, “So, how is the maternal political?” I usually pause when confronted with this question — not because I don’t have strong opinions on the subject, but because it still surprises me that this is a question we ask in our society.

How is motherhood political? It seems more reasonable to ask, How is it not? Because, of course, every act of mothering has a political dimension. And every political act impacts every single mother, because every act shapes the world in which our children live.

Right now in the U.S., political motherhood is getting a tremendous amount of press because Republican VP candidate Governor Sarah Palin is getting a lot of press. When she got off the plane in St. Louis last week for her debate against Senator Joe Biden, she held her baby son Trig in her arms.

The media is fascinated with her children, with how Palin manages (or doesn’t manage) to “do it all.” Gone are the days when the acknowledgment of mothers in our political landscape was a token nod to “soccer moms” or “security moms.” Today, we have the “hockey mom,” who the GOP would like us mothers to think of as our peer, our voice. Motherhood has arrived on the political stage!

But for me, getting a mom into office, while desirable, was never the point. I had hoped that having a mom on the ticket (I presumed months ago, that this would be Hillary Clinton) would bring mothers’ interests into clear focus in this presidential election. But despite all the recent attention given to a small town mom from Wasilla, this hardly seems the case. The candidates speak in generalities about health care reform and education, but the moms I know are looking for specific, impassioned answers about what McCain/Palin or Obama/Biden will do for our children.

So as we move into the final weeks of the election, I’ll be listening for details, and watching carefully to see what the candidates have to say about the issues at the top of my list: Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, reproductive rights, health care, and education.

To read more from Shari MacDonald Strong, see the .