Michelle Obama on Work-Life Balance and Family Needs

It’s probably no surprise to the folks who read me regularly that I am a fan of our First Lady.  Michelle Obama, who took flak for calling herself America’s Mom-in-Chief several years ago, is a woman and mother I admire and respect in many ways.  Gal’s got it going on, you know what I mean? She can dance with Jimmy Fallon one night, turn around and represent America abroad as an icon, create a garden on the White House lawn, and be honest about the difficulties of achieving the elusive work-life balance so many working women struggle with.

And, you know, those arms.

^^^ Those are the arms I'm talking about, right there.  Those are some guns I could support.
^^^ Those are the arms I’m talking about, right there. Those are some guns I could support.

Noodling through Facebook today, I found a link to an interview Ms. Obama did with Robin Roberts at a White House Summit on Working Families. Given that I no longer work outside the home, I had the 30 minutes to actually watch the interview.  Cue the bon bon comments now. Snark aside, I came away with my respect and admiration for Ms. Obama only grown in scope.

She gets it.

Before I had children I was very career driven.  I was going places and saw my trajectory only going up, up, up.  I presented professionally, wrote an occasional article about my field of expertise, and had, I thought, the world by the career stones.  I put off the decision to have kids because, well, I was pretty happy and fulfilled without them.  Then, in an instant, my life changed.

Sitting in front of one of her beloved slot machines in Biloxi, Mississippi, my Mom experienced a cerebral hemorrhage caused by an undiagnosed brain tumor.  That moment would change everything I valued and believed in about myself and my path.  A few months later, after becoming stable enough to fly to Chicago by air ambulance, a surgery, and weeks of hospitals and rehab, my Mom and Dad moved to a small Chicago apartment to be close to the medical team at Northwestern.

I went from staying at the office every night until 7 to skurrying my little tokus out the door the minute the clock struck 4:30.  My priorities shifted in an instant from career to caregiving.  Suddenly, the things that were most important to me were no longer ambition, conferences, mentoring, and advancement, but watching CNN with my Mom, folding sheets, cooking soft foods, and helping my parents through an inordinately difficult time.

For the first time I understood the impossible push/pull the mothers I worked alongside had struggled with.  I no longer felt like the work mattered to me more than them.  I realized how incredibly naive I had been, and unwittingly, what a jerk.

My Mom died eleven months after that bleed in front of the slot machine. My daughter was born just five months after her death.  I feel so grateful that the last lesson my Mom blessed me with was the knowledge that caring for the people I love is the most important work I will ever do. Because of that caregiving, I was a better mother to my daughter, and now my sons.

I also know how ridiculously privileged I have been in my own work-life balance.

With my Mom, I had a job that I could easily leave every day at 4:30. There were no professional obligations that bled into my caregiving time. When my first child was born, I negotiated moving to a part-time position, allowing me four days at home and three in the office.  When that same child was diagnosed with a brain tumor, I simply walked away from work, as there is no balancing the needs of a a critically ill child, in and out of the hospital with surgeries, chemo, ER visits, and neutropenic fevers, with a job outside the home.  I didn’t return to professional work, part-time again, until our surviving child was two.  And when my husband and I opted to adopt, I quit that job knowing that stay-at-home mothers are more attractive to many women looking to place a child for adoption.

Like I said, I have been ridiculously privileged in my work-life balance.

So has Michelle Obama.

What I love about her, though, is that she, too, seems very aware of the privilege she enjoys, despite her own hardships of parenting while working.  In this 30 minute interview with Robin Roberts, Ms. Obama demonstrates a keen awareness of the difficulty of raising children while working outside the home.  She knocks off facts about the high cost of child care, the difficulty of finding quality child care, the differences women who work hourly versus those women who are salaried face in their dual roles of mother and worker, single parenting, and the need to make work-life balance a family issue, not just a women’s issue — one that both fathers and mothers must consider and plan for.

And like I said, she gets it.

Two summers ago there was a huge Internet reaction to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Like many with a wee little online platform, I criticized her arguments in a blog post.  What riled me the most about her position was how utterly privileged her concerns were.  There are so many working mothers out there whose struggles are so much more dire than whether or not to create a commuter arrangement for career advancement or if it is detrimental to have the nanny cook dinner rather than yourself.  There are mothers out there who get arrested for having their children sit in a locked car while they interview for the job they so desperately need to pay for food and housing.

While many women of privilege struggle over the idea of work-life balance, many more struggle with the reality of work-life balance.  The consequences of losing a job because they were at the hospital with their sick child.  The need to choose between food or rent.  The peril of leaving children alone, unattended, because that is the lesser of two evils — homelessness being the natural consequence.

Our First Lady encourages all of us, men and women, those of privilege and with access to resources and those choosing between untenable options, to start owning this issue of work-life balance.  She encourages us to make it a family issue instead of a women’s issue.  She encourages us to change the conversation and start speaking up for workers’ rights instead of corporate rights.  She wants workers to bring to the discussion the same pull that politcians feel from monied corporations.

Amen, sister.

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