THE PLANK JANUARY 22, 2009
In its Tuesday preview of how Michelle Obama intends to put her imprint on the position of First Lady, the NYT noted that she will focus on her role as mommy-in-chief, as well as adopt a couple of conventional, largely uncontroversial causes (military families, volunteerism...). At the same time, she will hand off some of the traditional details of the job, such as picking the table settings and tasting the food for White House dinners.
This strikes me as both sensible and politically savvy. In this day and age, the role of First Lady is an impossible one, bringing with it beaucoup de baggage concerning issues of gender, power, and the tedious yet endless culture wars. The president's wife is not an elected official (and so must be careful not to look like she's trying to be a player in her own right) and yet is an excruciatingly public figure (whose every word and deed is parsed and imbued with symbolic importance). People expect her to be traditional, but not retro; strong, but not scary or overbearing; independent, but mindful of how her actions reflect on her husband's administration. More difficult still, she needs to find a way to connect with both working moms and stay-at-home types--or at the very least to avoid aggressively alienating either group.
By focusing on her kids but delegating some of the more hostess-y aspects of the job, Michelle is peeling away some of the mustier ideas about what it means to be a good spouse, even as she embraces the fundamentals. The image of a doting wife spending her time organizing the pantry and serving as a sparkling social secretary for her husband is more appropriate to an episode of Mad Men than to 21-century marriage. As Caitlin Flanagan shrewdly noted in To Hell With All That, these days, most women who look after their kids full time are focused on high-intensity mothering rather than on creating an oasis of Donna-Reed-type domestic perfection. (Thus the term "stay-at-home mom" has replaced the term "housewife.") More and more, obsessing over tablecloths and menus seems the stuff of socialites and professional party planners, not garden-variety (or even presidential) wives.
But lest anyone accuse Michelle of thinking she's too modern or important for such domestic duties, she and her people continue to stress--loudly, repeatedly, damn near every chance they get--that her number one focus will be on caring for her daughters. She intends to give Malia and Sasha as normal a life as possible and help them navigate the fundamental unnaturalness of growing up in the White House bubble/fish bowl. She intends the East Wing to be kid-friendly and kid-filled. (Note: Focusing on domestic details such as interior decorating is OK so long as it is in service to the goal of creating a homey refuge for the children.) She is the mother bear standing guard over her cubs. What could be more traditional and family-friendly than that? And yet, what hard-charging career mom could possibly fault Michelle for the impulse--especially when so many of them already feel overwhelmed and strung out by their own efforts to keep close watch over their offspring even as they struggle to juggle career and family?
This is not to suggest that Michelle's positioning is contrived or cynical. But frequently reminding people of it is also whip smart. Honestly, who has time to personally fuss over the flatwear for dinner with some random ambassador when there are sleepovers and science projects to oversee? Any mother can relate to that.