Hail to the Mom-in-Chief, Granny-in-Chief, Sister-in-Chief...
Their family means more to me than the Clintons did because it blows my mind to think that the President and First Lady are finally people of my generation. Here I am writing about motherhood and family, and we just elected a guy who could be another parent at my daughter's soccer game. I turned the corner to 40 just in time for the election, so yes, it is quite formidable and inspiring to know that we elected a post-Boomer (in spirit if not by birth date) President who is also in his 40's. Honestly, it makes me want to up my own game, both professionally and otherwise--when I read that he hits the gym every day it makes me think that if he has time to make that a priority, I should, too. (Hasn't happened quite yet but stay tuned!)
But it's the women behind the man who are most on my mind today. Not only Michelle, but Barack's mother, Ann Dunham, his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, and his mother-in-law, Michelle's mother Marian Robinson.
Like most families, Barack Obama's extended clan has a whole lot of intergenerational caregiving going on. I hope that his family will raise the profile of this issue--the crucial, invisible work that women do all over the world. You have probably heard about Madelyn Dunham helping his single Mom Ann raise Barack. He lived with his grandparents for extended periods of time while Ann did her research in Indonesia. But did you know that Maya Soetoro-Ng was caring for Madelyn Dunham until her death earlier this month? Obama's break from the campaign trail for a final visit with his grandmother made headlines, but Soerto-Ng's contribution remained typically invisible. Women caring for their relatives may be the fabric of life but it's rarely news.
Time Magazine reports on a recent email written by Soetoro-Ng:
Soetoro-Ng could have accepted her brother's invitation to be by his side on election night in Chicago. But, as she had for much of the past eight years, she chose to stay in the apartment on Beretania Street where Dunham raised Obama as a boy and where Soetoro-Ng later cared for her. In the post-election e-mail, Soetoro-Ng writes of the sometimes conflicting emotions surrounding her grandmother's death and brother's success — and of the need to unplug for a while with her husband Konrad and their 4-year-old daughter Suhaila on Oahu's rural North Shore. She writes that she has been flooded with e-mail messages "of both congratulation and condolence .... There's a wide swatch of emotion cutting through me, sometimes swirling, never simple ... a briny mixture of elation, sadness, determination, regret, pride, hope, fatigue. You can imagine ..."
Now that the Obamas know they'll be moving to Washington, Michelle will leave behind her job at the University of Chicago, which paid her $316,962, to become our national (self-described) "Mom-in-Chief." I welcome the discussion about her move, because the truth is that as extraordinary as her experience is, it's typical for women to take time off for family caregiving, an average of 11.5 years over her lifetime. Should it be different? Should this work be shared more equitably, or rewarded with social recognition and benefits (perhaps Social Security credit)? Let's make sure we get to that public aspect of the conversation. In the meantime I don't see how anyone can truly criticize Michelle. Many of us have had to put family first during moves and job transitions. Sometimes it is truly a wrenching decision but still completely necessary to do so. If anything in the world would require family leave, I think it would be one's spouse becoming President. Stanley Greenspan estimates that parents can fill "Four-Thirds" of a full-time job between them before they need supplemental child care. Being President must be like Four full-time jobs in itself.
Even Barack and Michelle together needed help--especially when the long campaign demanded that they hit the trail, together or in separate directions. The woman whose role as an unsung hero is only beginning to be recognized is Marian Robinson. Our new "Granny-in-Chief" made it possible for Barack and Michelle to campaign for the past two years while Mrs. Robinson cared for the girls in Chicago. I am sure that Obama would not have run if he had not had this family care available. Marian Robinson is expected to move to Washington D. C. to continue caring for her granddaughters and giving them as much continuity and normalcy as possible.
I talked to a MomsRising group just last night and one woman talked about how she as a working Mom just could not produce exactly what a single guy could. We have to keep working to open employers' eyes, so that being a worker with family caregiving responsibilities is finally viewed as the norm rather than the exception. I don't think they really want to see that--we're going to have to insist. (I am still depressed by how easy it was for "Joe the Plumber" to hijack the national conversation when he was a completely unrepresentative worker!)
If take the time to look closely, President-elect Obama's example can remind us that while he really is a "great Dad," behind every high-powered man there is not just one woman, but often a whole crew of unsung heroines who help hold family life together.
It's time we shine a spotlight on caregiving and make it count.