Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Suburban Mom's Political Fix: Give Michelle Obama Some Space

After watching the Democratic national convention this summer, and, in particular, Michelle Obama's speech, I was inspired to write a column for Mommy Track'd, about how Michelle had apparently been advised/coached/requested to play down her career achievements -- about which she'd previously spoken at length -- and emphasize traditional First Lady-type issues, like being a mom and wife:

"Michelle Obama’s speech, executed warmly with aplomb, was a Hallmark card to the voters. ('. . . I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president. And I come here as a mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world. They are the first things that I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night.') And, although I’m as much of a sucker for bittersweet, touching family stories as the next gal -- I adore watching the Obamas with their two spunky daughters -- as I watched the convention, I felt as though some of the regalness and the strength that we saw from Michelle: The Primary Season had been replaced by a new version, Michelle: The General Election Edition. While the color of her dress was bright, her tone was somewhat muted. She’d been Lifetime-televisionized."

But I also noted something I'd observed earlier in the campaign, that no matter what any of the female spouses of the presidential candidates (Bill Clinton, obviously, was excluded from this discussion) did regarding their careers, they were screwed. If they were too career-oriented or seemed too tough or smart, they were portrayed as scary and threatening, not a good supporter for the next potential president (think Teresa Heinz Kerry). If they were too soft and maternal, talking about baking cookies and childrearing, they were criticized for being anti-feminists who were setting back the women's movement. If they tried to balance their roles like many of us do -- like hospital executive/attorney Michelle Obama did during the primaries with an assist from her mother -- they were likewise pilloried.

Now that the election is over and Michelle Obama has proclaimed that she plans to be "mom-in-chief" first, stories and blog items have continued to lament the fact that Michelle Obama is blowing this chance to advance the cause of working moms, as in this from the Boston Globe: "Obama's decision to be foremost the 'first mom' potentially sends a wrong 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." And, as someone who did lament that Michelle Obama had to shelve a part of herself (talking about her career) during the general election, I feel nothing but frustration when I read these stories, coupled by sadness that women in the political spotlight still can't just be themselves.

This recent New York Times piece demonstrated that there's no way Obama can win when it comes to what she chooses to do as First Lady:

"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."

I'm a big believer in letting people do what they feel is best for them and their families and it really irritates me when people jump all over candidates' wives or even the candidate herself (in the case of Sarah Palin, mom of five, who dared run for vice president), who also happen to be parents of small children, and lambaste them no matter what choices they make:

"How about you make your own, personal and career decisions. I’ll make mine. [Sarah] Palin, [Michelle] Obama and [Elizabeth] Edwards will make theirs," I wrote in Parents & Kids Magazine. "And we’ll just agree that we don’t all see eye-to-eye on work and parenthood and that we all stand alone in our own shoes. If the mothers who are so quick to attack one another’s choices would instead channel their energies into something other than insulting one another, think of all the time that’d be left to do something more constructive."

As we get closer to Inauguration Day, I hope that people will give Michelle Obama some space and let her carve out her own path instead of trying to dictate her life's journey to her.
Image credit: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Boston Globe.

1 comment:

jamie Woolf said...

I agree with you that there is no need to reignite the Mommy Wars. We all need to carve out our own path. I am delighted that Michelle Obama conveys the importance of motherhood by using the term mom-in-chief. She doesn't apologize but celebrates being a mom first. I have faith that her experience juggling home and work will inform her advocacy for policy change that helps us all be effective moms-in-chief, whether we stay at home or work outside the house.
Jamie, http://www.mominchief.com