Obamas talk about juggling work and parenthood before White House Summit on Working Families


In this Nov. 7, 2012 photo U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha, left, board Air Force One at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Obama says he’s a “good, fun dad” who at times might cause his two teenage daughters to cringe. (AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad)

I can empathize with first lady Michelle Obama’s comment about her husband’s ability — or inability — to do laundry right. (I agree with her — if you don’t sort and you won’t fold, that’s not doing the laundry.)

But it was the more serious challenges they’ve faced in juggling work and family through the years that had me nodding in agreement as I read an interview of the first couple for Sunday’s Parade magazine.

Those issues will be addressed Monday at the White House Summit on Working Families, issues such as the need for a living wage, for equal pay between men and women, for paid family leave and better options for childcare.

As President Obama told Parade, “parenting is the greatest joy in life, but it also creates a strain.” It’s tough to remember that joy when trying to balance motherhood and work. It might be hard to appreciate the beauty of a toddler’s smile when you’ve been standing at a cash register for eight hours straight or waiting tables with cranky customers.

Although I work at home, which does give me added flexibility, I still juggle deadlines against kids’ activities. My husband’s office is about 10 minutes away, and he’s had a phone call more than once asking if he could pick up our son from high school because I’m in the middle of writing.

Even doing this post was a challenge. Friday was the first night in more than a week that we would all be home — both kids have summer jobs — and I had decreed that we would eat dinner together and experience some family time — so I could hardly say nope, Mom’s going to write about balancing work and parenthood. Oh, the irony.

Mrs. Obama told about taking Sasha, who was still nursing, with her to the last job she had before her husband was elected president. “I need flexibility. I need a good salary,” she told her boss.

When my daughter was 10 months old, I packed up the playpen and brought her with me while ghostwriting a book for a local physician, even taking breaks to nurse her. The doctor was a grandfather who enjoyed having my daughter in his office, but most workplaces aren’t that family-friendly or that accommodating for breastfeeding moms who simply want to pump milk to use later.

Even with good childcare, there are often issues: Who stays home with a sick child? Who takes kids to dental appointments and chauffeurs them to dance lessons and baseball practices? Who goes to parent-teacher conferences?

As the president pointed out, when the babysitter canceled, it was Mrs. Obama’s responsibility to figure out what to do. “Because she’s the mom, but also because she’s there,” he said.

It’s Mom’s job.

Yet a record-setting 40 percent of women are now the primary or sole breadwinner in their family, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s up from 11 percent in 1960.

In almost three out of five families, both parents work. It can take two incomes in today’s economy.

Sixty-five percent of all moms work outside of the home.

And finally, 25 percent of families are led by a single mom, and two-thirds of them work in the low-paying fields of retail, service and administrative positions.

The Obamas both worked in minimum-wage jobs like scooping ice cream and waiting tables before earning their Ivy League degrees, and they hope their daughters have the chance for such jobs to get “a taste of that real hard work.” I waited tables and sold tickets at the local movie theater before going to college. My daughter’s experience as a restaurant server has only reinforced her determination for a college degree.

But 62 percent of minimum wage jobs are held by women, while they only constitute 47 percent of the workforce. Making $7.25 an hour means an annual salary of $15,000 — far from enough to raise a family, no matter how frugal you are.

Those jobs rarely give paid time off to take care of a sick child or an aging parent; just 10 percent of employees have paid family leave for caregiving.

When my son was just 5 months old, my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He was dying, and for the next six weeks, I took my son with me to the hospital to spend time with my dad.

We were lucky that we didn’t need my income then. Now we do. What are working moms who get caught in the crunch of taking care of ailing parents while raising kids supposed to do?

We need family-friendly workplace policies to ensure America’s global economic competitiveness, according to the report calling for the White House Summit.

We also need these policies for society. When moms — and dads — aren’t exhausted from working two or three low-paying jobs, we’ll have parents who have time to read to their young children, who can attend parent-teacher conferences, and who will be involved in their kids’ lives.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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