'First mom' has other roles

Obama can send a message about what women can do

Michelle Obama says she'll be taking time from work to care for her children, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. Michelle Obama says she'll be taking time from work to care for her children, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/file 2008)
By Maggie Jackson
November 30, 2008
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When Michelle Obama wrote this month that her number one job as first lady would be to be a mom, eyebrows were naturally raised. After all, she's a smart, Ivy League-educated lawyer who worked most recently as a top hospital executive.

Is she really opting out, stepping down, making pajama parties her new main aim in life? Or is she trying to make clear that she's not Hillary Clinton, whose aggressive public role in crafting ultimately failed healthcare reform as first lady turned many against her? Obama's controversial message deserves some dissecting, for it's one that our daughters and sons are hearing, too.

Certainly, the mantra "family comes first" is valid, especially in a country that provides so few public or private supports for working families. There are times when we need to dial down or take time from work to care for a sick or disabled relative, or to compensate for the absence of a partner or spouse. While very few women can afford to step completely away from the labor force, all women - and men - deserve flexible work that respects their life as a parent or caregiver. Obama seems to speak from the heart when she expresses concern for her family life - and for the plight of working families in general.

Yet, however politically strategic and privately compelling, 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. Although former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, Cherie, kept up her law career during his time in office and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's spouse, Carla, is still cutting albums, perhaps we're not ready for a dual-earner couple in the White House. (Will we see that milestone reached only after a woman becomes president?)

But that doesn't mean that a high-powered candidate's wife has to hide behind a banner of cookie-baking and sleepovers when she becomes first lady. This is 2008, not 1958.

Applauding Obama's decision to stay home for now, work-family advocate Jessica Degroot said, "It makes sense to figure out how to help the family in this big situation." Yet Degroot said that ideally Obama should stress that dads as well as moms can fill that role.

"Instead of saying mom's needed at home, or mom's going to do this, I'd want to substitute 'parent.' If we had Hillary in the White House, we'd want to see Bill figuring out how to help her do it," said Degroot, head of the Philadelphia nonprofit Third Path Institute.

Of course, many agree that Obama isn't likely to completely shelve her ambitions. In one interview, she expressed regrets about leaving her job and said she'll eventually return to a career. And as Geraldine Brooks points out in her blog "Closet Agenda," Obama will wield a lot of clout in her husband's new administration.

The point is, Michelle Obama has been a highly successful working mother and will be again some day. To hear her try to distance herself now from that role does a disservice to our children - and to our country.

More than ever, we need female role models as we dig out of this horrendous economic mess. The fate of working mothers is a bottom line issue. That's right: Gender equality is a key to a country's economic health, according to a study published this month by the World Economic Forum, the Swiss nonprofit that hosts the swank annual Davos leadership meeting.

The forum's latest global gender gap report found that closing the gender gap in terms of job, education, politics, and health would boost US gross domestic product by as much as 9 percent. This year, the United States ranks 27th overall out of 130 countries, and 12th in terms of "economic participation and opportunity." The Nordic countries, led by Norway, remain on top.

In this current economic downturn, can we afford to lower the bar on gender equality?

Writes forum founder Klaus Schwab: "More than ever, in the current economic downturn, we will need the best minds and the best leadership to find the most creative solutions, revive growth, and prevent such crises in the future. In other words, we will need to ensure that the minds and talents of both men and women are fully engaged in this process."

And role models matter, says Iris Bohnet, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "I'm all for women having choices, including the choice of being a mom and focusing on that role," said Bohnet. "We have to work on the constraints" that keep women from being able to have choices.

Still, she added that, as powerful role models, female political leaders like Obama should make and communicate their choices with care "because they will influence women and women's roles."

More than ever, we need women like Michelle Obama as our national role models, sending a message that "economic opportunity" is just as much for first ladies as for first men.

Maggie Jackson is the author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." She can be reached at

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