Michelle Obama gets it done

February 22, 2008 at 10:40 am | Posted in law school, little bug, politics, read this, tax law is sexy, the media | 1 Comment

This week’s Newsweek cover story is a profile of Michelle Obama.  It was a thorough story, and I think more interesting than the actual story itself (as a piece of ground-breaking journalism or anything) was the choice to put her on the cover.  Would they do that for Cindy McCain? I can say with some certainty:  obviously not.  Michelle does play a significant role in her husband’s campaign.  But more important, her appearance on the cover almost celebrates that she’ll be a wholly different model of First Lady — she will reflect the growing cadre of us out here:  women who live first and foremost with intelligence and integrity and, in doing so, can love their jobs, children, and husbands equally. 

To underscore that idea, even more compelling was an accompanying first-person essay by Raina Kelley, “A Real Wife, In a Real Marriage.”  Kelley writes:

Part of Michelle’s strength is that she has been immune to the mommy wars that tripped up Hillary during Bill’s campaigns. The baking-versus-working tension is irrelevant for her; black women have never been burdened with the luxury of choice. Our heritage does not include the gilded cage, and we certainly never fought to labor outside the home—black women have always worked. This is why many of us never inherited the remorse about balancing work and family that plagues our white counterparts. For Michelle, voters have read this as self-assurance—appealing to young voters who are optimistic that they will find a balance between career and home.

This particular passage struck a real chord with me:  how fortunate I am to have the option to work or stay home with my child in the first place.  This hand-wringing and remorse that saturates the internet (blogosphere), fiction (see, e.g., Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It), journalism, and even current television shows (hello Lipstick Jungle/Cashmere Mafia) about women who try to have it all (and, as the story line would go, find out we can’t) is experienced really only by a privileged minority of (white? upper class?) working women.  Yet because it has been built up to have such a modern cultural prevalence, do we perhaps assume this remorse without even truly feeling it?  I think about my own working-mom friends:  amazing women who run their own businesses, practice law, are intricately involved in the world of finance — they know there are sacrifices, but they don’t spend their days going back-and-forth about it.  I particularly think of my doctor friends, who have just six weeks of maternity leave (five if the baby was late!), and with the purpose-driven stoicism so characteristic of physicians, drop their babies at day care and go save lives. 

The “baking-versus-working” tension became culturally relevant during the 1992 Clinton campaign, and Hillary’s clumsy handling of it did nothing to give it any complexity.  At the same time, I can’t blame her:  it probably caught her off guard.  Like Michelle Obama, she had been a high-achieving lawyer and, until others foisted the issue on her, probably engaged in very little back-and-forth remorse about working or staying home. 

I read with some sadness — but little surprise — how isolated and uncomfortable Michelle felt at Princeton; indeed, her senior thesis (which, the article notes, is no longer publicly available at Firestone.  I simply cannot imagine that someone would actually want to read my own thesis, which I can guarantee will never, ever leave those archives…)   was entitled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” By illuminating this cultural difference, then (why had I never thought of it? I feel like Kelley hit me over the head…), Kelley’s analysis of Michelle Obama’s example for a new generation of women articulates a new cultural touchstone.  Instead of “you have to choose, but if you don’t choose, you’ll fail at both,” Michelle’s shining example reframes the issue:  “you are going to work, you are going to have kids, and you are going to find a balance.”  (Even if, as in the Obama’s situation, right now that balance is largely achieved with the help of Michelle’s mother — that’s OK too!)  No hand-wringing, no drama, no remorse.  As one of my favorite law professors and mentor tells me often:  never, ever be defensive about or second-guess the peace of mind that comes with providing for your family when, in fact, for you that might be as an important a part of motherhood as being home with fresh baked goods at 3 o’clock.  That is not, of course, to demean those who are able to provide that.  Rather, what Michelle Obama has crystallized for me is that working — whether as a babysitter or waitress or lawyer — doesn’t have to be labelled (as our society is so wont to do) a right, or a privilege, or a burden, or a luxury.  If it’s what you are going to do, it just is.  Stop over-thinking it and go be a kick-ass lawyer.*  Just get it done.

*Her choice to leave her big-law firm for lower-paying community-focused endeavors is a whole other posting…

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  1. Thanks for this post. I read Dr. Laura’s “Stupid Things People Do To Screw Up Their Kids” after 1L year and felt really bad about wanting to have a professional life and kids. But I didn’t drop out of school, which tells me I didn’t feel bad enough to stop wanting it all.

    I am going to stop over-thinking it and go bake chicken pot pie and write my Securities Reg paper.


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