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Michelle Obama as Post-Balance Rorschach Test

In September, I predicted, “Sarah Palin’s and Michelle Obama’s impact will be a subtle yet powerful shift away from the “balance” mindset and the “all or nothing” work life dichotomy that drew the battle lines of the unwinnable mommy wars.  They have the power to usher in the post-balance era of countless work life fit choices based upon our unique work and personal realities, and finally begin a productive discussion about the way work is done, life is managed, and business operates.” 

In September, I predicted, “Sarah Palin’s and Michelle Obama’s impact will be a subtle yet powerful shift away from the “balance” mindset and the “all or nothing” work life dichotomy that drew the battle lines of the unwinnable mommy wars.  They have the power to usher in the post-balance era of countless work life fit choices based upon our unique work and personal realities, and finally begin a productive discussion about the way work is done, life is managed, and business operates.” 

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Now Barack Obama is the President-elect, and my prediction is coming true.  How we perceive Michelle Obama’s choices as she moves her family to Washington, and begins her new job as first lady is a rorschach test for our post-balance approach to managing work and life.  Most of us still think in outdated “all or nothing” terms, judging Michelle Obama’s choices from a simplistic viewpoint.  Consider the following myth-based responses: 

Myth #1: She’s being forced into a more “traditional” role

According to a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, “While Obama has publicly embraced her soon-to-be-assumed role as first lady many women remain deeply divided over whether she will become a groundbreaking pioneer, or a dispiriting symbol of the limitations of modern-day, working motherhood.”  Why does it have to be all or nothing, ground-breaking pioneer or dispirited symbol?  Because this is how we think, and in doing so, we label ourselves and others in ways that are often inaccurate.  Michelle Obama seems to understand.  She told the Washington Post, “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 someone else.” 

Like all of us, she is a complex individual whose choices aren’t going to “fit” neatly into any simple category.   I believe she’s going to be a ground-breaking pioneer, who will help us all envision unique possibilities of working and having a life. 

Myth #2: She has “sacrificed” her career, which women are expected to do

Cherie Blair, the wife of England’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, offered her perspective in The Times of London, “It is something of an irony that in these days of pushing for equality, those of us married to our political leaders have to put their own ambitions on hold while their spouses are in office and keep their views to themselves…I, at least, had my career.  That is not an option for Michelle Obama.” 

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First, let’s talk about how she has sacrificed her career.  As of 2006 Michelle Obama made $300,000 a year as a senior executive in a large city hospital.  She left this job to work (albeit unpaid) with her husband in a non-stop, arduous, two-year effort to become President of the United States.  She used every ounce of her professional know-how as she traveled and spoke on his behalf.  I would argue that the campaign was a career in and of itself.   

Now, she is getting ready to be the First Lady of the United States.  In this capacity, she will oversee a substantial staff and independent initiatives of her choosing.  As Karen O’Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University noted, Let’s face it: If he serves one or two terms, when she leaves the White House she’s going to be made a partner at any law firm in the country.”   All of this begs the question: where exactly has she sacrificed her career?

Reality is that her husband now has a very big job that requires their family to relocate to Washington D.C.  Unless she wants a commuter marriage, she can’t continue in her old job unless the University of Chicago Hospital lets her telecommute.  But I would guess that being the VP of Community and External Affairs requires being present in the community.  Also, to attain his big job, her husband needed all the help he could get.  So, being a smart man, he looked around and saw his intelligent, dynamic, beautiful, impressive wife and he wanted her on his team.  They did this together—working side by side.

Again, most importantly, she doesn’t think she’s made an all or nothing sacrifice.  As Michelle Obama told CNN, “I miss my colleagues.  I miss my work, I enjoyed what I was doing…But this is really pretty significant.  My view of career is that I can always have whatever career I want.  That’s why I don’t question that I can go back to that job, or go back to something else interesting.” 

While the research will show that women do “give up” their employment and earning potential more than men, this is no longer the hard-and-fast rule it used to be.  These days, it goes both ways.

For example, our friends Denise and Joe moved to Europe when she got a new international marketing job.  In their case, he decided to quit his full-time job, and become a freelance graphic artist.  He also took on the primary responsibility of transitioning their two children into their new environment.  Far from being a sacrifice, their joint-decision opened up a whole new set of career possibilities for Joe that he probably wouldn’t have explored otherwise.  

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Then, there’s Dan Mulhern.  Like Michelle Obama, he graduated from Harvard Law School in the late 80’s, and is the spouse of a national politician.  As the husband of Governor Jennifer Granholm, Mulhern is the “First Gentleman” of Michigan.  And in that capacity, he runs the First Gentleman’s Club, a vehicle he uses to promote the causes he is passionate about—developing great workplaces in Michigan, increasing the number of male mentors, and hosting a nightly radio show discussing leadership. 

Instead of seeing the changes in their lives in terms of an all-or-nothing sacrifice—he/she wins, I lose–like Michelle Obama, both Joe and Dan saw it as an opportunity to embrace and leverage a new work+life fit. 

Myth #3:  By publicly focusing on her kids during their transition to a new home, school and community, she seems less serious and professionally ambitious which reflects badly on other working moms 

In her Washington Post column, Ruth Marcus wrote, “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….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 being working women—to have the “mommy” stamp so firmly imprinted on her identity?” 

But she is a mom.  And she’s a highly successful professional, who has made a child care decision with her husband.  Right now, Michelle Obama is candidly acknowledging that her daughters are her primary focus.  But that doesn’t make her any less professionally committed or ambitious. 

Someone needs to be there for the girls, but it’s not all she will be doing and it won’t last forever. While she is getting her daughters organized, Michelle Obama will be setting up her office, meeting with her staff, deciding what to focus on.  In other words, she will be working.  And when things settle into a routine, once again, Michelle Obama will redefine her work+life fit.  

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Whether she realizes it or not, Michelle Obama through her words and actions is busting a number of our longest-held biases about the way we manage work and life.  She is showing us that there are no right answers, that change is opportunity, that just because one partner “wins” doesn’t mean the other has to lose, and that shifting focus onto the personal areas of your life doesn’t mean completely eliminating your professional identity.  It’s not “all or nothing,” it’s work+life fit.  And it’s going to look different for all of us.

What do you think?  How are Michelle Obama’s decisions regarding her work and life causing you to think about your own choices?