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?