Want an example of a working mom successfully compromising to make her marriage work? Then check out Jodi Kantor’s long portrait of Barack and Michelle Obama in yesterday’s New York Times magazine section. What is so refreshing about this article – or really, what’s refreshing about Michelle Obama in general – is how open it is, how open she is, about the amount of effort and negotiation it takes to make a marriage work.
From the beginning of her husband’s career, Michelle Obama has refused to play the role of the deferential political wife. During the seemingly endless 2008 presidential campaign, her own self-confidence, high-powered career, and off-the-cuff comments about Barack’s morning breath and penchant for not picking up after himself set her apart from the usual sea of smiling, nodding, almost automated candidate spouses.
Now, as first lady, Obama is taking on an unexpected leadership role: that of marital role model for a new generation of working parents. According to Kantor
In the end, what seems more unusual than the Obamas’ who-does-what battles — most working parents have one version or another — is the way they turned them into a teachable moment, converting lived experience into both a political message and what sounds like the opposite of standard political shtick.
“If my ups and downs, our ups and downs in our marriage can help young couples sort of realize that good marriages take work. . . .” Michelle Obama said a few minutes later in the interview. The image of a flawless relationship is “the last thing that we want to project,” she said. “It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.”
From earning the majority of her family’s income to doing the lion’s share of child-rearing, Obama temporarily sacrificed her time and perhaps her own ambitions for her husband’s political aspirations. But, even while expounding on the compromises she had to make – noting that “[t]he bumps happen to everybody all the time, and they are continuous” – she gives partners, perhaps wives in particular, a healthy perspective on the give-and-take that all marriages need to succeed: “The equality of any partnership ‘is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,’ the first lady said. ‘We’re going to be married for a very long time.’”
Of course, few spouses can expect to have their sacrifices pay off so grandly – most of us won’t see our husband become leader of the free world all the while acquiring not only a powerful platform for our own interests, but also a fleet of chefs, housekeepers, and stylists. But to me it’s satisfying to see Michelle’s struggles as a working mother culminate in a sort of fairy tale ending.