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Correction to This Article
A May 11 Page One article about Michelle Obama mentioned an anecdote in which she said she had been reluctant to date Barack Obama, the only other African American at the Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin. A spokesman for the firm said there were 14 black lawyers in the office at that time.

Michelle Obama's Career Timeout

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

CHICAGO -- For the first time in her adult life, Michelle Obama is about to be unemployed.

She never aspired to be a stay-at-home wife or mother. For years she wrestled with the issues that many professional women with families face, chiefly whether to quit her job. Now, that is what Obama, 43, has decided to do. And though she will hardly be homebound, she admits to being conflicted.

"It is very odd," she said of the prospect of interrupting her career, during one of her first one-on-one interviews since her husband, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), announced he is running for president.

"Every other month [since] I've had children I've struggled with the notion of 'Am I being a good parent? Can I stay home? Should I stay home? How do I balance it all?' " she said. "I have gone back and forth every year about whether I should work." When she finally winds down her duties as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals in the days ahead (she was promoted to the position soon after her husband joined the Senate), she said, it "will be the first time that I haven't gotten up and gone to a job."

"It's a bit disconcerting," she said. "But it's not like I'll be bored."

Identity issues are something Obama has confronted head-on all of her life: as a black student at Princeton, where she wrote her senior thesis based on surveys of black alumni, then as an Ivy League-educated professional woman surrounded by white men, and now as the wife of a man who could become the first black president of the United States. She is no less thoughtful about labels she chooses to apply to herself -- and those she rejects -- than her husband, who has made his half-African, half-Kansan lineage and his part-Hawaiian upbringing a focal point of his narrative. On the campaign trail, she calls herself a mother, a citizen and a "professional," a term that has not always been an asset for potential first ladies.

Yet 15 years after Hillary Rodham Clinton stumbled into the culture wars with comments about pursuing a career rather than staying home "baking cookies," Michelle Obama appears unfazed by questions about her choices. "Yeah, you know, cooking isn't one of my huge things," she admitted, laughing when asked for a favorite recipe. "My view on this stuff is I'm just trying to be myself, trying to be as authentic as I can be. I can't pretend to be somebody else."

Rarely have political spouses played as dynamic a role as in the current presidential campaign, in which a former president (Bill Clinton), a Stage IV breast cancer patient (Elizabeth Edwards) and a person with multiple sclerosis (Ann Romney) have taken turns in the spotlight and could have a measurable effect as voters assess the candidates. The Obama campaign has introduced the family -- Michelle and the couple's two daughters, who are 5 and 8 -- in relatively small doses, expecting to increase their visibility as the campaign continues. Michelle Obama has made 16 joint appearances with her husband since his formal announcement on Feb. 10 and another dozen by herself, including a trip to southern New Hampshire earlier this week.

In conversations with her friends, Obama has expressed some ambivalence about shedding her independent life, if never about her reason for doing so. "It's a sacrifice for her to give that up," said Valerie Jarrett, a friend of the Obamas' and chair of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board, who said she and Michelle Obama discussed the decision as recently as last weekend, during a casual dinner at a neighbor's house.

"On the other hand," Jarrett said, laughing, "the opportunities she will have as first lady are great, too."

Obama does not let herself go that far. She has no ready answer to the question of what she would do as first lady -- whether she would, for example, decide to start working again. "Barack and I have lived very separate professional lives," she said. "He's done his thing, I do my thing. And my focus is on figuring out what's the right thing for me to do given where I am in my life, where my kids are. And I won't know what that looks like in '08 -- it changes," she said.

Only half-joking, she adds: "I might be so tired I won't want to talk to anybody after 2008."


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