A plea: can we please—please, please—all stop talking about the “momification of Michelle Obama”? Can we please stop analyzing and agonizing over her career-versus-kids prioritization, and over how the media portray the choices she makes?
All that hyperbolic, telegraphic analysis was understandable in the first days since we learned that Barack Obama would be our next president—and that Michelle would be our next First Lady. We’d engaged in that strain of analysis throughout the campaign, after all—is Michelle too strong? too soft? is she giving up too much for her husband and kids?—so it made sense that we’d need to bring closure to the whole conversation once Michelle As First Lady transitioned from possibility to certainty. (Our first black First Lady! Our second “career woman” First Lady! The third to hold a graduate degree!) The prospect of having an accomplished, highly educated, successful “career woman” in the White House was and is worth conversation, certainly.
But that conversation is becoming cloying—and unproductive and, for that matter, rather insulting. Take Monday’s New York Times analysis of the rather jarring advice offered from former British First Lady Cherie Blair to the soon-to-be U.S. First Lady: Learn to Like the Back Seat.
The unsolicited advice reflects the passionate debate stirring among working mothers here and abroad as they watch Mrs. Obama finalize her transition from hospital executive to self-proclaimed mom-in-chief in the White House. While Mrs. Obama has publicly embraced her soon-to-be assumed role as first lady, many women remain deeply divided over whether she will become a pioneer or a dispiriting symbol of the limitations of modern working motherhood.
The discussion has bubbled up on blogs, Internet magazines, television interviews and radio talk shows among ordinary women and some prominent ones, including Mrs. Blair and Carla Sarkozy, the wife of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. The issue is argued with particular intensity, not simply because Mrs. Obama will be the first black woman in the position, but also because she had maintained a high-powered career and put it on hold to help her husband campaign for the presidency. She had been earning more than $300,000 a year as a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Many women remain deeply divided over whether she will become a pioneer or a dispiriting symbol of the limitations of modern working motherhood. And, indeed, they are. The participants in the Michelle-as-Mom conversation have divided into camps, of sorts, as if they were engaged in some epic game of gender-political Capture the Flag: on the one side, you have those who resent the emphasis the media have placed on Michelle as Mother, rather than on Michelle as Lawyer or Michelle as Activist—or, indeed, Michelle As Michelle. To distill her personality and her accomplishments and her very personhood into her status as a mother, they argue, is to insult her personality and her accomplishments and her very person. On the other hand, though, you have the apologists: Michelle is a mom, they say, which is itself an important career. Don’t bash her for doing that job well. Don’t condemn her for putting her family first.
Both sides have points. (Hey, I’ve made some of them myself.) But what’s becoming frustrating about the entire back-and-forth isn’t the passionate tones in which it’s rendered—put “career” and “mother” in even vague proximity, and sparks are sure to fly—nor even its highly polarized conclusions. What’s sabotaging the conversation is the terms of the conversation themselves. Because “career or family” is, of course, a false choice, one that is neither accurate nor fair. For the vast majority of women, it’s not career or family—it’s career and family. The real question—and the real choice—comes in the proportionality of the two, the tensions between them, the way the one compromises or otherwise complicates the other. The question is not one, to return to the Times, of pioneer or dispiriting symbol of the limitations of modern working motherhood. Sheesh. Could Michelle’s role perhaps be a bit more complex than that? Could the role of her millions of analogues possibly be, as well?
It’s an obvious point, certainly, but one, apparently, in need of being made nonetheless: to distill Women’s Choices—in the sense not only of the decisions they make about their own lives, but also of the options available to them—into a simple question of either/or is to vastly oversimplify the framework of our dialogue. It’s to hinder any conversation we have about those choices: If the vocabulary we rely on to conduct a conversation is simplistic, how can the conversation itself hope to have nuance? It’s chefs’ Quality Product principle writ rhetorical: whatever you cook up can only be as good as the quality of the ingredients that go into it. If we premise our dialogue on glib generalities, how can we expect anything but glib generalities to emerge?
Worse, by framing kids-versus-career as an either/or choice—Career Lady! Or Stay-at-Home Mom!—these arguments give their audiences tacit permission to judge the decisions women make for themselves. (Michelle Obama won’t be working while her husband is president? That is so 1950s. Michelle Obama would consider working while her daughters are facing the challenges of living in the White House? That is so selfish of her. Et cetera.) The one thing these arguments, whether pro-momification or anti-, generally have in common is a profound admiration for Obama herself. But that respect, apparently, is generally distinct from her actions. Sinner versus sin, and all that, apparently. Which somehow frees us to be as condescending of the sin as we want to be (“It’s not a knock on Michelle, or anything, just on her life choices”). But wouldn’t it be great if the takeaway of all our current hand-wringing could be simply that women should be at liberty to make their own choices, without the prospect of disdain and judgment and accusations of being “too soft” on the one hand, “too hard” on the other? Wouldn’t it be great if Michelle Obama, who seems to be at once an accomplished career woman and a great mom, could be a vehicle for detente in the Mommy Wars? And must it be heresy to suggest that one of the ways Michelle can have a lasting impact as First Lady is to be model of committed parenthood?
Because the “momification” arguments conveniently ignore—or, at least, gloss over—the obvious: that Michelle herself has perpetuated her own momification. “All my anticipation is really around the girls, making sure that they’re OK,” Michelle told Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe shortly after her husband’s victory. Indeed, even Rebecca Traister, who popularized “momification” as a term, and is one of the most vocal opponents of the Michelle-as-Mom narrative, acknowledged, “Michelle herself has been flogging the term “mom-in-chief” as the cheerily unthreatening title she’ll assume when she gets to the White House.”
But can we really blame the media for Michelle’s “momification,” such as it is, when it’s Michelle herself who’s perpetuating it? Isn’t it just a bit insulting—to Michelle, to her intelligence, to her accomplishments, to her own agency as a person—to suggest that the media are being sexist in simply repeating what Michelle has said about herself? Traister’s and other anti-momification arguments are convincing only if you buy the notion that Michelle’s “Mom-in-Chief” comments have been made under some kind of political duress, and, for that matter, only if you ignore what Michelle has said about herself and her family—repeatedly and vocally. Doesn’t seem very feminist to me.
These arguments also ignore the fact that being a First Lady is—or, at least, can be—a legitimate job. Sure, you can lounge about all day, nibbling on caviar and attending the occasional party…or you take an active role in policy-making, a la Hillary Clinton. Like the office of the vice president, the office of the First Lady is one that either contracts or expands to fit the desires of its occupant. Michelle would be entirely within her rights to do to the First Lady’s role what Dick Cheney has done to the vice president’s: expand, expand, and then expand some more.
But even if Michelle doesn’t decide to reform healthcare or, you know, fashion herself the nation’s Military Family Czar: she still will be standing behind one of the biggest bully pulpits in the land. To say that that on its own isn’t a valuable career move—or, at least, a perfectly valid way to spend four years—strikes me as rather ridiculous. The overarching point of a career, after all, looking beyond financial considerations, is to make your mark on the world. To, you know, Make a Difference. What better place to do that than the East Wing? Why squander the opportunity to have such a direct and lasting impact on the country and the world? Even if you have that opportunity because of your husband?Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.