In a culture of "helicopter parenting," in which mothers are tempted to manage every moment of their children's lives to ensure future success, it's peculiar that no one seemed interested in Barack Obama's mother when his political career began to skyrocket. Maybe the anomaly of his absentee, Kenyan father was so enticing that no one gave much thought to the oddly named Stanley Ann Dunham. No one, that is, except Janny Scott.

In 2008, Scott left her job as a New York Times reporter to research the life of then Senator Obama's late mother. She interviewed hundreds of Dunham's family members, colleagues, and friends. She traveled all over the world, tracing her subject's journeys. Scott's meticulous research shows; hers is an absorbing book that details Dunham's rich, disordered life.

Having read Scott's book, the fact that Dunham has been summarized—perhaps most often by the president himself—as "a white woman from Kansas" seems comically hollow. It was with much more care that Scott chose the title A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother for her biography. Scott said that if she had used the adjective unconventional in the title, "some people would have thought it was a pejorative. Others would have thought it was high praise."

"Singular," she wrote, "is neutral. But there's no mistaking its meaning: This person was remarkable, one of a kind."

A family friend of the Dunhams described the milieu in which Dunham grew up as a "Leave it to Beaver … kind of society." Indeed, Dunham gave birth to the son who would be known as "Barry" when Leave it to Beaver was still on the air. (She stopped using her unusual first name after high school.)

Ann Dunham, however, was the anti-June Cleaver. In 1960, for instance, when racial intermarriage was against the law in about half of the United States, she married an African man. During a period in our history when divorce was not commonplace, Dunham divorced. Twice. Whereas Wally and the Beav's mother was an ever-present fixture dressed in dresses and pearls in her spotless home, Dunham lacked a "Ward" of her own to pay the bills. She had a more disheveled appearance, supporting her children with help from her parents, working as a consultant, and piecing together an academic and anthropological career across the globe.

Of his mother, President Obama told Scott, "she was not a well-organized person. And that disorganization, you know, spilled over."

Dunham worked in Hawaii, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Nairobi over the course of her adult life, sometimes living continents away from her children. When President Obama was 10, for instance, he spent the school year in Hawaii with his grandparents while his mother worked in Indonesia. She would later join him, but again leave him in her parents' care in Hawaii during his four years of high school. Meanwhile, she conducted research for her dissertation and worked in international development in Southeast Asia.

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In Scott's book, striking descriptions of Honolulu where "jagged volcanic ridges parade against the sky like dinosaurs' backbones" or of Indonesian snacks of "sticky black rice sprinkled with coconut" might fill you with the kind of wanderlust that contributed to Dunham's life as an expatriate. But that travel came at a price both for Dunham and her children.

Dunham's daughter, President Obama's half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, describes her and her brother's childhood and "broad" and "adventurous." But, Soetoro-Ng has said, they were "a little untethered" and drifted "in and out of worlds." What Soetoro-Ng and President Obama sometimes longed for, it seems, was more groundedness—a little more June Cleaver and a little less Margaret Mead.

In his interview with Scott, however, President Obama said his mother gave him the "most important gift a parent can give - a sense of unconditional love that was big enough that, with all the surface disturbances of our lives, it sustained me, entirely."

"What is best in me, I owe to her," President Obama has written. "She was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known."

Dunham was deeply curious and empathetic, as Scott's book details, described by some family members and friends as a spiritual person whose life centered on improving the condition of some of the world's least privileged people. But she was not religious. Her daughter said Dunham considered Christ "a wonderful example" but "felt that a lot of Christians behaved in un-Christian ways." Growing up, her family attended a Unitarian church and were, as Scott describes them, "religious humanists."

"At Christmas, children reenacted the birth of Jesus Christ, Confucius, and the Buddha," Scott wrote. "The church encouraged community service and tolerance, and pushed for social justice."

A friend of Dunham's who is a Roman Catholic said he learned not to mention his faith to her. She had what he described as a "mocking quality" about religion. "And a sneer," he told Scott.

Whether she was living in the States or abroad, Dunham was always aware that she didn't "fit in." Indeed, she seemed intent not to do so. Her second marriage ended, Scott suggests, in part because she refused to socialize with her husband's colleagues and their wives at cocktail parties. She was told she should "sit with the women and talk about your children and your servants," but she complained that "middle-aged white Americans talked about inane things." She refused to be the "little wife" and was unperturbed by how others viewed her.

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Dunham was aware that she had more important work to do. In addition to being a key figure in the development of microfinance, she was, however imperfectly, raising a child who would become the 44th President a few years after her death.

That Dunham lived life with an open and broken heart, seeking to empower some of the world's most resource-poor people, is admirable. Perhaps more of us could follow her example of questioning some conventions and dislodging our desire for the things that moth and rust destroy in favor of living authentically and serving others. My best efforts as a Christian are to work to integrate these efforts with my faith and my responsibility to the family given to me by God.