Zibby Owens: I did an Instagram Live with Jill Biden this week, which was so amazing. I hope that you all really enjoy this episode because I had the best time getting to know her. Jill Biden is a community college professor and served as Second Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. For those of you who have picked on who she is, she’s Joe Biden’s wife and perhaps will be the next first lady. We’ll see what happens. During the Obama-Biden administration, she advocated for military families, community colleges, the fight against cancer, and the education of women and girls around the world. She continues this work today through the Biden Foundation, the Biden Cancer Initiative, and the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children. Dr. Biden is married to former Vice President Joe Biden. Her book is called Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself. It’s a memoir, a New York Times best seller, and just came out in paperback. Definitely read it. I read it. I half read it and half listened to the audiobook of it. I interchanged them. That was also really neat because she reads it herself. Enjoy.


Jill Biden: Hi. Hello. We are in the middle of a gigantic storm. We’ve had a tornado watch all weekend. We’ve lost our power. All morning, we lost our power three times. That’s why we’re a little bit late.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, don’t worry. We have a tornado warning here too. I’m like, don’t go out at one o’clock. I can’t lose my Wi-Fi.

Jill: Where are you? In DC or in New York?

Zibby: We’re out on Long Island in New York.

Jill: Gosh, yeah, it’s crazy.

Zibby: How about you? Where are you today?

Jill: Delaware, at our Wilmington home.

Zibby: Thanks so much for taking the time. Congratulations on your paperback release. Do you see I’m wearing your matching sweater today?

Jill: Oh, yes. I should’ve worn it. We could’ve been twins.

Zibby: Could’ve been twins. This is such an amazing book. What a story. What a life you have led. It’s truly remarkable. You can just tell how, this sounds so trite, but you’re such a good person. It comes through in every story that you tell. It’s just so nice to get to know you now in person as well, or this way.

Jill: It’s nice to meet you. Thanks for doing this.

Zibby: Of course. So much to discuss. First, I just wanted to hear a little more about how much you love being a teacher. That’s one of the things that came through so clear in the book. You wrote, “I realized early on that teaching was more than a job for me. It goes much deeper than that. Being a teacher is not what I do, but who I am.” Tell me a little about your love of teaching. What about it gets you so fired up?

Jill: I’ve been teaching, I think this is year thirty-six. It’s my career. It’s what I love doing. My grandmother was a teacher. For me, it’s this sense of community that I feel in my classroom. They’re like a family to me. I try to create that. That first week of school, I get to know everybody’s names. I have them get to know one another. I teach writing. Writing is so personal that I think that they have to feel that they know somebody else in the classroom to read what they’ve written. They have to know their stories. Writing creates a vulnerability. I get to know my students really well. I hear from my students all the time. They’re texting me and emailing me even though we’re not back in school yet this semester. I have to tell you, Zibby, I’m taking certification so that I can teach online should I become first lady.

Zibby: That’s exciting.

Jill: That’s my dream. I did that all the eight years that I was second lady. I loved every minute of it. We made it work. I’m hoping we can make it work again.

Zibby: Would the online component be because schools might not open or because the first lady can’t teach in a public place? What would the impetus be?

Jill: We’re in such a precarious time right now. Every day, my phone is going crazy with my friends, and my friends who are teachers saying, “What should we do? What should we do?” We have to listen to the scientists and the doctors. When they tell us it’s safe to go back, then I think that’s okay to go back. Right now, the public schools, a lot of them don’t have the funding. Maybe they don’t have extra masks. You know yourself, kids forget everything. You know that they’re going to forget their mask. We need to have a supply of masks in every classroom. We need to socially distance. You know how many kids are in a classroom, twenty-five to thirty-five. It’s hard to do that, to move these desks and then address all the students’ needs. That’s the big thing. We’re in August and school is about to start. I think that’s the thing on everybody’s mind. What do we do?

Zibby: This is literally all I talk about.

Jill: There we go. See?

Zibby: I have four kids. They’re at three different schools. They all have different plans. I don’t know what I agree with, what I don’t. It’s so hard. Every parent has to not only listen to the national advice, but the actual individual school advice, and then listen to your heart. It is so hard. This is a tough time, and for teacher too, educators as well.

Jill: I agree. That’s why I say I’m hearing from a lot of teachers who are saying, gosh, we think right now, unless the doctors say it’s okay to go back, should we really go back? Then we have to go back into our own homes and take care of our family. There are a lot of decisions. That’s why leadership is so important to know what to do, to give us advice, and tell us the path to follow, somebody we trust.

Zibby: Somebody in the comments is saying that you should be the secretary of education.

Jill: Oh, no.

Zibby: Perhaps VP. I hear it’s still an open slot at this point.

Jill: Nope. I love the classroom. That’s where I want to be.

Zibby: Okay, fine. You wrote so beautifully in the book about parenting your way through uncertainty and through sorrow. I feel like uncertainty in particular at this time is what basically everybody is going through in every which way. You said, “Parents are supposed to be the ones with the answers, the ones who can tell you that everything is going to be okay. But how do you make your children believe that things will work out when you aren’t so sure that they will, when you have no answers, only sadness and confusion?” Where have you come out on this? What are we supposed to do? What do you think about it?

Jill: My mother was always so strong for me, always. I always went to her with whatever problem I had or if I was trying to sort things out. She always gave me such great advice. I depended so much on her. My mother was such a great role model for me that I want to be that for my children. I try very hard to take the lessons from her book and be strong and try to be resilient and try to just love them, just love them through the tough times. I think that’s the role of a good mom.

Zibby: Another thing that came through in your book is, just buy a lot of candles to decorate your table. Clearly, I want to go to your Thanksgiving and your dinners.

Jill: Yes, come.

Zibby: You would probably say that because you have such an open-door policy. The importance of the small rituals too and all the traditions of family was something that came up over and over and how little things like having a catalog in the backseat of the car driving to Nantucket, sometimes the sum total of all these traditions make up a family, right?

Jill: Yes. Don’t kids love that? They love the things that you do over and over again year after year. At Easter, I get the clear jars and I fill them with jellybeans. Then I put the candles in the jellybeans and I put them down the table, or just things that they always look forward to. Even if they’re a little bit corny, the kids still love them. I don’t know about you, I still do stockings at Christmas. They still love the really funny stuff, the candy bars you stick in. We have a tradition where we always stick an orange, my grandmom did this, always stick an orange in the toe. The kids kind of laugh at it, but if I didn’t have that orange in there, they would be the first ones to tell me. I think kids just love that kind of — I think it provides structure. It provides comfort, the things that they’re used to.

Zibby: I totally agree, yes, when everything around you changes even down to the stores in your neighborhood. Everything is changing.

Jill: Give me an example of something you do for your kids.

Zibby: We always do birthday breakfasts which is something that my parents used to do for me. In fact, my husband is like, “What’s up with everybody eating cake for breakfast?” I’m like, I don’t know.

Jill: I love that.

Zibby: We always do that. We have a cake at breakfast. I decorate the whole kitchen. I have all the gifts waiting. When you come down in the morning, it’s a whole big thing. There’s a banner. In fact, in the next room, they’re so into these celebrations now with so little else that goes on these days that we’re celebrating the end of their pretend camp, which was just one friend each. We have a cake. My son now has put party hats all over the table. After this, we’re going to have a celebration for that. I should support the paper goods industry. I should invest or something.

Jill: It’s funny because today is Natalie’s sixteenth birthday. She’s Beau’s oldest. Every year, I have a pool party for her. Of course, Joe and I had to stay away. She brought some friends over and they went swimming. I do the same thing. We have cake. We have balloons. It doesn’t matter if your kids are sixteen or they’re thirty-six. If you don’t have those balloons, they’re so disappointed. I love that. I love that birthday cake idea because what difference does it make if they — that’s one of the beauties of being a grandmother, is when they come over and I have dessert for dinner. I say, I don’t care, eat your dessert first. What do I care? They’re going to eat all the dinner anyway, so what difference does the order make? That’s the beauty of being a grandmother. I don’t think I’d ever do that as a mother.

Zibby: I feel like this pandemic has made me act more like a grandmother to my own kids. Rules that were so strict, now I’m like, I don’t know, is it a big deal?

Jill: Yeah. You have to be fun and creative because it’s tough for them. This pandemic is really tough for our kids. They don’t really understand a lot about it. Everything is upside down. It’s really tough on them.

Zibby: Absolutely. How do you maintain this sense of closeness and family and tradition while your life is also on such a public stage? You’re out there everywhere. Your husband is out there everywhere. How do you come back? What do you do at night to stay normal? Do you sit around and watch TV? How do you go back and forth from such a public to the private?

Jill: You have to make your family and your private life, you have to maintain that. You have to make it a priority. When I’m at school, my head’s at school. When I’m doing something as second lady, my head was totally there. You have to be very conscious as a mom to make sure that you do all the things that your kids expect, calling them or sending a card or sending a quote. I sent a quote to Natalie this morning. Walt Whitman said that some people are full of sunshine to the very last inch. I said, “Natalie, that’s you. That’s who you are.” It is who she is. That’s who her dad was. That’s who my son Beau was. I wanted to send that to her. She sent me back a very sweet email. You have to make time. You have to really think about it. You can’t just let time go by or a day go by. You have to be vigilant at being a good mom and a grandmom, right? Not that you’re a grandmom, but being a good mom, you have to be conscious about it.

Zibby: It’s true. Oh, my gosh, honestly, my heart broke when you wrote about losing Beau and just how open, authentic, honest, I’m so sorry that you’ve gone through this. Your whole family’s loss, my heart just breaks for you. The way you wrote about it in the book and that there is nothing you can say, you’re like, I don’t have the words for this. All I can say is, to other people that have been through it, that you’re not alone. Sometimes that is all you can say. It was just absolutely beautiful and so heartbreaking. I just wanted to extend my —

Jill: — You know what, Zibby, I really feel that because you love your children so much, I think you know or you can imagine how painful it is to lose a child. You can’t even let your mind go there. You can’t even let your head go there. The thing that I found that Joe and I did was we tried to find purpose. After we were in the administration, we started the Biden Cancer Initiative because every American family is going through — many American families, most have someone who is experiencing cancer. It’s so tough to go through it. I went through it with my mother, my sister had a stem cell transplant, and then Beau. I can’t even tell you how many people that I connect with weekly, a lot of people who have gone through the same thing. I have to tell them, you just have to find purpose to be able to go on. You have to make something of the life that you’ve lost, and in Beau’s case, brain cancer. I’ll keep going. I’ll keep going with this no matter what happens in our future. I will still be in the fight against cancer.

Zibby: It’s just so awful. I’m so sorry. In fact, one of the things that really struck me in your book too was how you talked about your requirement, essentially, to compartmentalize and how you had to just put it aside. I felt like that resonated so much because everybody has to do that to some degree or another, not necessarily through the awful things that you’ve been through, but even something smaller that’s really on their minds. Yet you have to do it. Your point in particular was, “I wasn’t disingenuous when I smiled at rallies or campaign stops. I just had to teach myself to forget for a little while the parts of me that were hurting. So many us, public figures or not, have to learn how to lead these double lives. Work doesn’t stop because your father is sick. Deadlines don’t go away because your friend is dying. We never know what’s behind someone’s smile, what hardships they are balancing with their day-to-day responsibilities.”

Jill: That’s so true.

Zibby: Tell me about your ability to compartmentalize and how we all do this, how we all can just step it up when we have to. How can people do it when they’re feeling so lousy?

Jill: As moms, you have to do that. In my professional life, I had to walk into that classroom every single day, a smile on my face, because as you walk into the classroom, that instant that I walk in there, that’s so important. It sets the tone for the class. If I walked in and I was upset or grouchy, that would permeate. Every day, I would walk in positive and with a smile on my face knowing that my students were going through some pretty tough times. I teach a lot of refugees. I teach a lot of immigrants. A lot of my students are in the United States by themselves because they’ve lost their entire families due to wars or circumstances in other countries. I had to be there for them. Like I said, my classroom is my sense of community. I owe them that as a professional, as a friend, as their teacher. As a professional, I think I owe them that.

Zibby: It goes back to your saying you have to have a purpose. This whole sense of purpose and doing things for others and just making it all matter requires that level of stepping it up to such a degree, oh, my gosh. Writing a book, is this something that — I know you’ve written children’s books as well. Is a memoir something that you always thought you would do? Has it been in the back of your mind? Did you ever write a novel? Tell me about writing.

Jill: After we were in the administration, I met so many amazing people and did so many amazing things that I thought, I have to write about that because I have to tell these stories. When I talked to publisher and presented the book, they said, “No, we don’t want that. We want a book that only you can write,” and so they said, “Tell us about your family.” There’s so many blended families now. That’s what I decided that only I could write about, how I married Joe and he had two children and how I became a mother to Beau and Hunter, and then later on we had our daughter Ashley, and how I used my own family as a roadmap to sort of navigate what I valued in my growing up to guide me to being a mother, an instant mother by the way, an instant mother to two little boys. I grew up with four sisters. I was so used to girls and fighting over makeup and who has the comb and the hairbrush, all the things girls do. Boys were totally different for me. I write in the book about the snake story where the kids came in — I’ll never forget it. “Mom, mom! Come here, come here!” I go running down the steps. They’re holding this net. I look in the net, and it’s a snake. I screamed and I ran back upstairs. They were so proud that they had caught this snake. They wanted to show it to me, those sort of things that I really had to get used to as a new mother. There were a lot of fun, fun stories. I don’t know if you have boys or girls.

Zibby: I have two of each.

Jill: Then do you think boys and girls, raising them is a lot different?

Zibby: I feel like just all my kids are so different even within the genders. Yes, there are some things that are just so — yeah.

Jill: It’s just funny and different. They were a lot of fun, raising them. I went through some really interesting times.

Zibby: I’m sure you could’ve written many more books just about that. Is it something that you would want to do again? Would you want to write about what it’s like to be on the campaign trail? Would you want to write more about being a grandmother? I could just see you doing so many books because your voice is so amazing.

Jill: I love writing. I journal every day, most days. That’s what I suggest to people that I meet, to my students, to other friends because we are in such a different time in this pandemic. I try to tell my grandchildren I want them to journal because I never want them to forget what they went through during this time, in good ways and in bad times. Write reflections of, how did you feel? How did this pandemic change you? How did it change your view of the world? What do you want to see in the future because of having been through this pandemic? I hope your kids are. They don’t even have to write it. If they want to do it through art, some of my grandchildren are very artistic, or they want to do a video and record it, but I don’t think we should lose the essence of this experience. Even though this illness is so horrible, I think we have to think of ourselves and what we went through and how it changed us as who we are or who we were.

Zibby: I think my daughter is chronicling this through TikTok, which might now go away. I think we need some different outlets. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors, aside from journaling of course?

Jill: I say write from your heart. I read so many memoirs. When I finished a lot of them, I thought, I don’t really know that person. When I thought about writing my own memoir, I thought, my readers are going to expect me to expose my heart and get to know me for the woman I am. I hope that came through in the book because I didn’t want it to be superficial. I wanted people to get to know me. I just wrote my children’s book, Joey, about my husband. I’d love to write another book because look what we’re going through. There’s so many things happening in the world right now, just so many things that are challenging yet interesting, sad yet you find joy. You feel joy, so much more than you ever allowed yourself to feel it before because we’ve seen such loss. I’m writing every day, so who knows?

Zibby: Who knows? You might have a much bigger thing on your plate.

Jill: Maybe. Hopefully.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on my show. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to wear this sweater again. No, I’m kidding. Seriously, I read a lot of memoirs too and this is really one of my favorites because of just what you’re saying. It was so open. You’re just the way that you seem from the book, talking to you one on one. That’s just amazing. That’s all we have, is being who we are. It sounds so stupid, but anyway.

Jill: That’s right. I’ve loved getting to know you. Thanks for doing this.

Zibby: You too. Thank you so much.

Jill: Thanks. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.