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Ruth Marcus on Michelle Obama as Typical Working Mom (Like Us)

November 29th, 2008 . by economistmom

I’m catching up on some material I’ve wanted to post for a few days now…  Last Wednesday, Ruth Marcus’ column in the Washington Post was called “Michelle Obama’s ‘Mommy’ Stamp”–where Ruth reacts to Michelle’s declaration that her primary role in the White House will be as a mom, albeit an important one:

“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.”…

[Michelle] 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…

I remember hearing that passage earlier this year when I listened to the audiobook version, and thinking something quite different–that gee, I guess there are lots of other working moms like me who are their harshest critics and are always trying to be both “super mom” and “super working woman”–and hence always feeling a little inadequate.  I heard “expected to” and I knew just which Obama was doing the “expecting”…It was likely Michelle much more than Barack.

And I think Ruth realizes this, too, for she goes on to say:

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…

And Ruth goes on to mention her own struggles with these competing desires–which sound just like mine, and those of many of her working-mom friends she describes.  If there’s one thing that working moms are SO much better at than working dads, it’s feeling pulled in so many different directions and feeling guilty.  I think men process thoughts and actions too linearly to even notice when there competing demands on their time… Those competing demands typically never even translate into their own competing desires, you see. (They don’t even notice them most of the time.)  Women, especially working women who are also moms, are natural multitaskers.  It’s been my observation that men, even working men who are dads, have a harder time taking in a panoramic view of the world.  They spend much less time worrying about the things on the periphery that they fail to get done, and more time focusing on the things straight ahead that they are able to check off their list.  That’s probably why men generally have much more self confidence; they set much lower standards for themselves.

Yes, I generalize and stereotype and do not have any degree in psychology, so I’m sure this will generate some angry comments from working dads out there.  Here’s the link to the lively online discussion Ruth had with readers on WashingtonPost.com on the day of her column.

And yesterday, this fun post by Ruth on what kind of dog will become the Obamas’ family dog… although having a couple golden retrievers myself (and a beagle that although smaller is far from what I’d call “girly”), I’m a little more sympathetic to the President-elect’s disdain for those “girly dogs.” 

2 Responses to “Ruth Marcus on Michelle Obama as Typical Working Mom (Like Us)”

  1. comment number 1 by: Brooks

    Great pic of Michelle Obama and the girls.

    As for the commentary, I wasn’t able to understand it, but only because I was chewing gum as I read it, and whenever I try to multi-task, things get all screwy. It’s that pesky Y chromosome. But the silver lining is that, also due to that Y thingy, it doesn’t really bother me that I couldn’t do both things; I focused linearly on my task of chewing that gum, which I did excellently (that kind of humility comes as an extra bonus with that Y thingy) ;-)

  2. comment number 2 by: Jason Seligman

    Obama-land and dual career reality-land:
    Perhaps men and women still do specialize within households with children, but mostly on the margin. Perhaps too the first order thing to consider is that we are fortunate they do not both specialize in the same area, but this is not to say they could not. Traditionally couples have been able to farm out child care either on the margin, or in larger chunks (through the continuum from babysitters, nannies, day care, K-12 schooling, and boarding school). It is possible to have someone else raise your kids so that you can give that career your all! If that is what you and yours want…. but usually it is not.

    Our objective function is much more complicated.
    As it happens in my house, and I’m sure in many others, the chores are split, care giving is divided, and no one is running for congress, much less president. Mommy is preferred for stories, but when she is out of town, Daddy can read a good one (or ten) too, and get children to doctors and school, etc, etc.. We may quibble on who is the more career, and who is the more child oriented, but the stakes are seen to be high enough that specialization is very far from complete. Each parent has contingent capabilities at home and office that are drilled and practiced at relatively high frequency. Beyond life insurance policies and workouts, these are the best assurance that our children will be raised to the level of human capital and social development required in the modern world, under any contingency, given a meaningful budget constraint, and limits on borrowing.

    My wife and I both work, but we work at different things, she maximizes her ability given her talent and training, and I do my best to live up to that example as well. She points out that I would not last a minute doing what she does and she is right, it is a magic I would not do well to practice. From time to time I try to explain what I do, and sometimes she thinks it’s pretty neat, but weird and disoriented in terms of its incentives, etc… Specialization occurs again within the household chores, it emerges naturally, (as does competition on the Serengeti, weak areas are culled from ones repertoire). On big decisions we fuddle our way to agreement, the process is less than entirely gentile. We bicker about time to workout and the priority given to certain purchases and processes. We are tired when we go to bed each night, each feels they could do more, always. We are proud of what we do even though we disappoint ourselves, at the margin.

    Obama-land is not a place where we live. Some may say we do not have the guts required to take such high scale specialization bets. I say that we strategically choose to enter lower stakes tournaments, because it is better for us and for ours. When we win big on these smaller bets there may not be a ball in our honor, but we enjoy a nice dinner out, from that dinner we may be inspired to try a new dish at home, or not. That is dual career reality-land. We juggle to entertain and nourish both ourselves and our offspring. We eat our mistakes and thus nothing is feast or famine.

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