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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Michelle Obama's disservice

You're dammed if you do. You're dammed if you don't. Especially if you're Michelle Obama.

If Michelle Obama had said that she was going to get a high-powered job in Washington, she'd be getting a bunch of slack from the at-home mom consortium about how she was neglecting her children through a difficult transition from Chicago to the White House. But because she said that she was going to be the "mother in chief," she is getting slack because she is sending the message "that high-level paid work and motherhood don't mix, or that women need to be the ones to step down to care for family," according to Maggie Jackson's November 30 column in the Boston Globe.


Can't people just do what they want to do? If she wants to be home to help her young girls through the transition, then she should be able to make that choice in peace. If she wants to eventually go back to work, then she should also be able to make decision in peace. Jackson wrote that, "Obama's controversial message deserves some dissecting, for it's one that our daughters and sons are hearing, too." Yes, I know that she's a public figure and every choice she makes as a woman or parent or wife will be dissected and analyzed until the original goal and her original intention is no longer recognizable. But, I suspect -- and maybe I'm going out on a limb here -- that she is just trying to make the right choice for herself and her marriage and her kids. Period. I doubt there is any hidden message or agenda. I doubt she is speaking for all women or all parents or all wives or all mothers. Jackson wrote: "To hear her try to distance herself now from that role (as a highly successful working mother) does a disservice to our children - and to our country."

Does it really have to mean that much to so many people? Can't it just be about a woman and her family? Does her choice really have to be the reflection of where women are in the world or the workforce or whether they are trapped under a glass ceiling or whether they are oppressed by their husbands or whether they are ambitious enough or if they are sending the right message to our sons and daughters?

And is she really doing a disservice? I'm sure her kids don't see it as a disservice. I'm sure her husband does not see it as a disservice. I'm sure he's grateful that she is willing to sacrifice her own career for a little while to be with their kids. He is going to be pretty darn busy in his new job and I'm sure he's grateful that his children will have some normalcy in their newly-chaotic and very public lives. Does her choice have to be a bad thing? Is is wrong for our sons and daughters see an educated women want to be with her kids for a period of time? If so, then many of the women I know are also sending the wrong message to their own sons and daughters and to their communities. I'm surrounded by highly educated women with all kinds of degrees who are at home with their kids. I'm also surrounded by women who work hard and have their kids in daycare.

It seems to me that this article is just trying to ignite the war (once again) between working parents and non-working parents. Her husband was just elected to be President of the God-Damned United States of America for Christ's sake. It seems to me that Jackson is just trying pick open a scab to get the bleeding to start again. Why are we trying to say that one choice is better than another choice? This old war between working parents and non-working parents is nothing but a reason to argue. One is not better than the other. I think we should focus on more important things, like the fact that our county is going to be a better place simply because Barack and Michelle Obama are in the White House, regardless of whether Michelle is in a playroom with her girls or in a conference room with her colleagues.


  1. A reply: In my column referenced above, I didn't criticize Michelle Obama's choice whatsoever - the column clearly says that I applaud her choice to stay home for now, a decision made for both political and personal reasons I'm sure. And I think she'll make a great role model, whatever role she takes in the White House.
    My article simply says that her message - emphasizing sleepovers etc - doesn't do justice to both the work she'll be doing in the White House, or to the complex realities of both careers and motherhood today.
    Honestly, I've stayed home to raise kids, and I've worked, and I've written for a decade about the increasing flexibility and fluidity in careers for both men and women today. That's why I think Michelle Obama, with all her smarts and experience, can do a bit better at addressing the real issues facing parents today - and perhaps she will! I hope she doesn't miss the next opportunity to discuss work and family life - in all its depth and complexities.

  2. Ms. Jackson,

    I appreciate you taking the time to personally respond to my blog. To be fair, I want to point out that I should have included the word "potentially" when quoting from your article. Therefore, my sentence should have said: "...she is getting slack because she is potentially sending the message 'that high-level paid work and motherhood don't mix, or that women need to be the ones to step down to care for family'."

    Still, I believe the overall message of your column remains the same -- that her choice to stay home has a big impact on our nation of women and their children, and that her decision to stay home for a while is much bigger than just about her family and the impact that decision will have for them. Yes, she'll be the First Lady and people will be watching her, but she is also a mother who is looking out for her family's best interest.

    Finally, I think it's important to note that she is also potentially sending a positive message -- that sometimes, even if you're a Ivy League-educated woman, it's better to raise our own children than to leave it to others. That is a choice that each family needs to make for themselves, even if you are in living in the White House.

    Suzanne Galante
    Mother in Chief

  3. Kudos to you, Suzanne, very well put.

    I agree, the to-work or not-to-work decision for mothers is a a very hot topic - but it's a very personal issue, one for every family to address in their own way. It's a very personal choice, and I applaud Michelle Obama for choosing to focus on her children throughout the transition. I would probably applaud her if she chose to pursue a high-powered job in Washington because, well, that's her decision to make. I think the important thing here is to recognize that she is doing what she thinks is best for her family - and only she and her family can decide whether or not Michelle is doing the right thing.

    PS - I totally love your blog - thank you for pointing out this article, I had not yet seen it!