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Who Are You Calling Mom-in-Chief?

Vivia Chen

September 5, 2012

Barack_and_Michelle_Obama_©WikipediaLet me be crystal clear: I thought Michelle Obama gave one hell of a speech at the Democratic convention. It was strong, passionate, and thoughtful—no small feat in a political season where meanness and smugness seem to rule the day.

That said, I must tell you that the First Lady made me cringe when she said at one key juncture during her speech:

At the end of the day, my most important title is still mom-in-chief.

She got a lot of applause (from both the audience and pundits) for deploying that "mom-in-chief" line. But I didn't like it. Actually, I think I uttered an audible "Ugh."

Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with wearing the mommy badge proudly. But isn't there something awfully regressive, limiting, and perhaps dishonest about that self-described role—especially because Obama is a woman of professional achievement? I mean, she is a Harvard Law grad, a one-time Sidley & Austin associate, and a former senior adminstrator for the University of Chicago Hospitals. Did she really have to bury her laurels to make herself palatable to the American public?

The answer is probably yes. That means Obama basically has to follow the script and downplay (or is it erase?) her accomplishments to make herself "likable." (Did Obama even mention that she worked as a lawyer during her speech?) I mean, we are so not ready for a working First Lady. (Remember how Hillary Clinton got roughed up for stepping out of the traditional First Lady role?)

The net effect, unfortunately, is that we are sending our daughters a very mixed signal about women and power. As Emily Bazelon writes in Slate about Obama's speech:

I do wish she could put a bit of her political capital into making her own glittering professional resume part of the story she tells about herself and her family. Doesn’t she want Malia and Sasha to know that she stands behind her own professional achievement as well as their father’s?

I don't know if Michelle Obama genuinely feels being a mom is her ultimate calling and that her professional past is now irrelevant. Maybe she's just bowing to political pressures. Any way you look at it, though, there's the tacit message that no matter your achievements, what really counts for a woman is being a mom.

I find the message deflating and irritating. I mean, can you imagine a man with Michelle Obama's resume reducing himself to being just "dad"?

Related post: I Am Not Ann Romney.


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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.


 

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Ann Daly, Barack didn't mention Harvard in his credentials during his speech anyway - you should go into public service. It appears you are pretty dumbed down, already.

Part of the context of Michelle's speech that seems to have gotten lost in this discussion is how hard the Obamas have to work to ensure as normal a life as possible for their kids -- and how high of a priority that is for both of them. I think they have done the best job of that of any president and first lady in my memory (honorable mention to the Carters whose daughter attended public school). If every child in this country had parents as caring and conscientious as the Obamas -- whatever else was on their resumes -- this world would be a much better place. It's that simple, and anything else is just a bunch of bellyaching that ought to stop.

"The net effect, unfortunately, is that we are sending our daughters a very mixed signal about women and power." Au contraire! The fact that an enormously powerful woman spoke of her dedication to her family is extraordinary. I hope that MORE powerful women follow Michelle's example so that my own daughter does not have to ever apologize for asking to leave early to attend her child's Halloween party. I am far more dismayed by powerful women who have struggled to climb the proverbial ladder only to arrive there with a huge chip on their shoulder that says, "It was hard for me, so I am going to make sure it's hard for you." That is not progress and is as damaging to women as traditional gender bias.

She never said she was "just" a mom -- she said it was her most important role. From your text: "she is a Harvard Law grad, a one-time Sidley & Austin associate, and a former senior adminstrator for the University of Chicago Hospitals."

What would you rather her say, that her most important role was as a Harvard grad? Or that her most important role was as a former senior administrator for the University of Chicago Hospitals? They're all in the past and it sounds a little sad for someone to say that.

So let's look at what she's doing now: ceremonial First Lady role. Would you rather she said that was more important than being a mom?

I am a woman with a lot of laurels -- successful entrepreneur, left a successful career before that, and more -- but at the end of the day, hands down, my most important role in LIFE is mom to my son. I'm also going to throw "wife" in the mix. CRAZY, I KNOW. At the end of the day, that's what I'll be proud of -- not how much money I made, or what titles I attained or created for myself.

correction: "if not you, then who ...?" Note that in her speech at DNC, Dr. Jill Biden did refer to being a professional.

I second the "ugh" - C'mon Michelle, if not you than who can talk about both the pride and the challenges of being a professional working mother? There is a universe of working mothers who would have loved to hear about that part of your life. Very disappointing.

I also had a moment or two of discomfort when Michelle Obama put herself in that “light.” But I think that there’s something else going on. Critics have noted that President Obama has been distant and reserved, almost disconnecedt from the American people. I think the First Lady's job was to “humanize” them again – so she focused on family, a subject that almost everyone can relate to.

Also note that the President focuses on the fact that he’s home every night for dinner, that he won't give up being a father even to be President. This too, is about being "warm & fuzzy" and "human."

Don't kid youself. Lots of folks are still scared of strong, independent women. Otherwise we wouldn't have surveys about how women lawyers are doing, now would we?

Michelle is damned if she did and damned if she didn't. Feminists call her out if she lists being a mom as her life's best accomplishment, but if she doesn't, the traditionalists blast her for not being a good enough mother. She loses either way. Who knows what her true feelings are, but in today's environment, she absolutely must play the traditionalist card. The world is not ready for a radical woman in the white house - not a radical spouse, and certainly not ready for a female president, sadly.

And yes, I am also a mother.

KC Victor and pye "get it". Thank you for articulating so well. We all know Michelle's many accomplishments and she made it very clear that just because one has a brain, a mission and ambition does not mean that one is not a "real" mother.
In any case, how should Michelle have addressed her degrees and credentials? Should she have listed them prior to the speech? Actually, I don't think too many of the male speakers listed their accompluishments and credentials.
Anyone who was listening and did not get it that she is an extremelly bright and successful woman is a little too dense to warrant being provided an explicit list of credentials and accomplishments.
This was a speech about her husband -- our commander-in-chief -- not about her. What she did was show us a measure of the man that she has known and loved for 23 years.
BTW -- by way of background -- I am a radical feminist of the 60s generation whose own ambitions and accomplishments were not realized until much later in life.

I was so amazed to read the comments on this post. As a mom of one beautifully spiritual younger being, i understand the pride and sense of accomplishment we moms feel about the successful development and launch of our children. No question about that. But i think Vivia makes a critical point--this was not a speech to the PTA, and yes, it was about her husband, but the key thing is her husband chose a strong, intelligent ACCOMPLISHED WOMAN (not then a mother) to be his partner. i would have loved for her to have worked that in as a way of saying "he gets it." Clinton sure did. Michelle's speech was wonderful, and i loved it, but I, like Vivia, was disappointed that yet again women's accomplishments don't seem to matter and can never be spoken. the womb police are everywhere!

When we will ever be able to stop instigating mommy wars? If Michelle believes that being a mother is her most important role, so what? It's her right to decide for herself. That's the beauty of freedom for women! For some women their career is their greatest accomplishment (even if they are mothers), and that's okay too. It's sort of like the breast feeding wars. Whatever works best for a woman and her family is the right choice. The opinions of others just don't matter.


Stop judging Michelle Obama's choices. They are hers and hers alone. We women need to begin supporting one another's ability to make the right choices for our families, regardless of whether we agree with another woman's choice. We criticize and judge one another relentlessly, and it's time to put an end to it.

I am curious - do you have children Vivia? If not, I do not feel you can truly judge Michelle's feelings. If she wishes to appeal to moms in this way, I think it is great. As mothers, we have come to realize that all of those achievements have made us good role models for our children, but they have not fulfilled our lives in the way that children have.

As I was listening to the speech, I actually thought that Michelle Obama's "mom-in-chief" remark was a quiet but pointed retort to all the people out there who, sadly, still believe that moms who work outside the home aren't "real" moms because they're not there to run the school bake sale or waiting for the school bus to arrive with a plate of warm cookies (not that there's anything wrong with that, for what it's worth.) These are also the moms who are accused of having "other people" raise their children: daycare, nannies, family members. I thought that she was trying to say that, regardless of the responsibilities that have been imposed on her, either by her career or in her current position as First Lady, she is still, at the end of the day, as worthy of the title of "mother" as someone like Ann Romney, who stayed at home with her sons.


I also applaud her decision not to discuss her own impressive accomplishments. Her speech was supposed to be about her husband. It was. She successfully avoided the ego trip that was present in so many of the speakers at the RNC last week.

I am a professional woman who has had a wonderful career as a social worker helping others. I am also a mother of two young adult children. I can honestly say that bringing 2 smart, hardworking, caring and thoughtful people into the world is my greatest accomplishment. It has been a 24/7, challenging job. I know I have made the world a better place by ensuring that a small piece of the next generation carries the values that I have instilled in them. It is the role in which I take greatest pride. That I feel this way does not diminish my professional accomplishments. I believe your statements are based in early feminist ideology and hope that most of us have moved past feeling that we have to minimize our maternal role in order to appear strong.

Michelle said parenting is crucial and affecting lives paramount. Parents are presented with an opportunity to affect lives just by parenting. The photo of Barack and the Obama children watching Michelle’s speech is evidence she does not do this alone. Michelle does have a back seat in the White House. She strove to say something that resonated with many and showed humanity at its best. I think it was a powerful speech.
We are mammals. We live in a species community. Michelle said that in caring about our children, we are forced to care about our country. Regardless of how well we are doing, even the best parents need help from the community. For me, the line that was most about this election was also most about children, “when you walk through the door, don't shut it behind you”.

And Elizabeth Warren neglected to include Harvard in her credentials. It's the dumbing down of professional women in public service. Is that the only kind of Woman that the American public wants to see?

I always enjoy reading your editorials but you are wrong on this one. Obama didn't say her career accomplishments are "irrelevant"--she simply ranked her job as a mother as her most important one. And I bet most working moms feel exactly the same way--I know I do. I am proud of my accomplishments and my sons have no mixed signals about women and power--they know exactly who I am and what I have accomplished. But at the end of the day, my role as a mother will have a much greater impact on society than any achievement in my career as a lawyer. And that's why motherhood is the most important role I have.

OMG! You really missed the mark on this one. If you decide to be a mom it is the highest and best calling. No matter your other accomplishments the greatest, and miost demanding, one will be to shepherd and guide another human being through the journey into full personhood. That kind of commitment requires putting the well being of another more fragile and helpless before one's own self-centered goals. A smart, driven and accomplished woman or man realizes that and acts accordingly. Every decision that I have made since becoming a mother 31 years ago has always been first and foremost "in the best interest " of my daughter. As a result, she and I are successful and accomplished women.
If all parents focused on this there would be no stopping us!

Thank, thank you Vivia!

Agreed Vivia - deflating and irritating seems to sum it up.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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