A long-time, much loved friend posted a question months ago, which I paraphrase: what do you think about parents who have the resources not to work outside the home and who know, from the get-go, that they will seek full-time employment because they want it?
My answer today is prompted by a piece I read on Politico.com this morning. Writer Michelle Cottle criticizes Michelle Obama for “Leaning Out.” Cottle complains that Obama has wasted her Ivy League education and career as a high-powered lawyer and that when, this week, Obama weighed in on an education system that leaves behind impoverished kids of color — especially impoverished girls — it was too little, too late. Cottle also criticizes the First Lady for choosing a public role that has emphasized traditionally “feminine” issues such as healthy eating and exercise. I am sympathetic to the complaint that Obama might have focused on less traditionally feminine topics, but I draw the line at the following: “Turns out,” Cottle writes, “she was serious about that whole “mom-in-chief” business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice.”
With privilege comes personal choice. People with relatively large amounts of money and power, whether they are men or women, have options that at this point aren’t open to everyone. They get to choose the work/life balance they wish, and they are often — but not always — able to move into increasingly interesting public work as their children mature. This ability to lean in and out, in and out, over the course of a long life is precisely, as The New York Times reported, what many women want. Which way they lean? Doesn’t have much to do with whether they are “good” parents.
Michelle Obama, the most privileged woman in America, has had a choice. As a feminist, I respect her choice to give her daughters the foundation and protection they need growing up in the Klieg-light-glare of the presidency. I’d have respected her had she chosen to allocate her time and attention differently — to “work outside the home” or to take on something other than vegetables and exercise from her spot in the East Wing. But I would not have respected her had she ignored the implications for her daughters of her family’s choice to inhabit the White House for eight years and work in politics at the highest level.
Here’s the thing about having kids: most of them don’t raise themselves. Some children are relatively easy and uncomplicated. Others need extra medical and emotional support. All need attention.
The relatively wealthy are able to pay others to attend if they don’t choose to have the time to do it, themselves. They can enroll kids in good day care, pay private school tuition or buy homes in districts where schools have longer hours. They are also able to make their mortgage or rent payments if one parent chooses not to work or to work part-time. That the choice should appear to rest solely on the shoulders of women is wrong. That the choice isn’t available to all parents, all women, is just plain unfair. Rather than criticizing Michelle Obama — or any other mother, for that matter — for her personal choices regarding work, get out your bullhorn to increase access to the options currently only available to those of relative privilege so that all parents are able to give their children the attention they need.
This past June, I finished my work days by stopping at a pond for a swim at around 6:00. One evening, I noticed two different moms with their kids. Mom # 1 sat on the dock. She caught the rays off the water and periodically yelled at her children. Mom # 2 was in the water. She was talking with her kids, encouraging their diving and swimming, laughing with them. I have no idea what these moms were doing all day — whether they were at work, whether they had nannies, whether they were on vacation. The one I respected and admired from afar leaned in. In her spare time, she leaned in to her children.
And so, dear friend who I have known since our children were two, you have chosen to work full-time outside the home from the beginning. You have had an excellent mate. You’ve had the support of a warm, on-the-scene grandparent. You had access to excellent day care and child care. Your child was relatively easy to raise. And: in the almost 20 years I have known you, there has never been a time when you have not taken every opportunity to lean in and get “in the water” with your kid. I say: hats off to you!