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Michelle Obama's 'Mommy' Stamp

Michelle Obama with daughters Malia, left, and Sasha.
Michelle Obama with daughters Malia, left, and Sasha. (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
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Wednesday, November 26, 2008; Page A13

When Michelle Obama took to describing her new role as mom in chief, my first reaction was to wince at her words. My second reaction was to identify with them.

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I was okay, actually, with what Obama said. But I worried: Did she have to say it out loud, quite so explicitly? Is it really good for the team -- the team here being working women -- to have the "mommy" stamp so firmly imprinted on her identity?

And most of all: What does it say about the condition of modern women that Obama, catapulted by her husband's election into the ranks of the most prominent, sounded so strangely retro -- more Jackie Kennedy than Hillary Clinton?

She is, after all -- by résumé, anyway -- more Hillary than Jackie. But the painful paradox of campaign 2008 is that it came tantalizingly close to giving us an Ivy League-educated female lawyer in the Oval Office but yielded an Ivy League-educated female lawyer sketching out a supremely traditional first lady role.

"My first job in all honesty is going to continue to be mom in chief," Obama told Ebony magazine, "making sure that in this transition, which will be even more of a transition for the girls . . . that they are settled and that they know they will continue to be the center of our universe."

This is only sensible; the kids come first, and Obama is a parent before she is a symbol. The girls might be living above the store come Jan. 20, but Daddy's going to be awfully busy. Cherie Blair, who managed to keep her barrister job while her husband was in office, grandly decreed that Tony, prime minister or not, would be taking paternity leave after the birth of their fourth child.

These days, Blair's advice seems a tad more realistic. "You have to learn to take a back seat, not just in public but in private," she advised Michelle Obama in a recent column. "When your spouse is late to put the kids to bed, or for dinner, or your plans for the weekend are turned upside down again, you simply have to accept that he had something more important to do."

Obama seems comfortable, now, in the back seat, but that seeming serenity did not come easy. In "The Audacity of Hope," Barack Obama offers a glimpse of an earlier, more conflicted Michelle, whose "anger toward me seemed barely contained" as she struggled with the pull between work and family while her husband launched a run for Congress.

"No matter how liberated I liked to see myself as . . . the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments," Barack Obama writes. "Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold."

Expected to -- by whom? Had to -- says who? I remember reading this passage two years ago, when the book came out, and thinking: Hey, buddy, she has to scale back only because you're not willing to.

And yet, Barack Obama could have been describing so many women today when he explained that, for Michelle, "two visions of herself were at war with each other -- the desire to be the woman her mother had been, solid, dependable, making a home and always there for her kids; and the desire to excel in her profession, to make her mark on the world and realize all those plans she'd had on the very first day that we met."

This is where the identification comes in. The brutal reality is that, like our president-elect, most men do not wrestle quite so strenuously with these competing desires. So when the needs of our families collide with the demands of our jobs, it is usually the woman's career that yields.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and not only because of Michelle Obama. I'm in the midst of one of those periodic work-family recalibrations, balancing the needs of adolescent daughters, my husband's busy job and my own overextended one.

Meanwhile, I'm watching mini-versions of the Barack and Michelle drama playing out around town as female friends wrestle with whether to sign up to work in the new administration. Their husbands, already in demanding jobs, tend also to be angling for even more demanding ones in Obamaland.

Guess who's not coming home for dinner? If you don't know, Michelle Obama can probably clue you in.

marcusr@washpost.com


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