I adore Michelle Obama—her style, her humor, her easy way with others. Rather than feeling overly scripted, she comes off like a good friend who just dropped by for tea.
I’m reading her book Becoming now, and by comparison to her presence on TV her voice on the page seems a bit too measured, too even maybe, as if she’s still in politics, which I suppose she still is. But there’s one theme to her story that resonates fully with me no matter how it’s written, and that is Obama’s struggle to reconcile the version of womanhood exhibited by her stay-at-home mother Marian Robinson with the funny, striving professional depicted by Mary Tyler Moore on the eponymous show.
Obama’s early life was defined by stability. Her father worked for the city of Chicago’s water filtration plant while her mother managed the family’s home life. This foundation is a key factor in Obama’s narrative, almost another character in it, and is often credited by her as a source of strength,
the very thing that gave her the confidence she needed to move out into the less-stable larger world and engage productively with it. It’s the place she came home to after school to watch that aforementioned sitcom—and the place she set forth from to become her own version of the show’s heroine.
And yet when Obama marries Barak, who was raised in a less conventional manner and by Michelle’s account just seems more comfortable with chaos, and starts to think seriously about having kids, she begins to realize just what it takes to create and maintain that stable place for a family.
“I had so much,” she writes, “an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition—and I was wise enough to credit my mother, in particular, with instilling it in me.” Obama’s mother taught her to read, cooked for her and ensured she ate healthfully, even hand-sewed her prom dress. “She’d given diligently and she’d given everything,” Obama muses. “I was old enough now to realize that all the hours she gave to me and [my brother] Craig were hours she didn’t spend on herself.”
My mother was like that. My grandmother, too. These women managed the day-to-day world on my behalf so I could nurture my own ambitions. You’d think this would make it easy for me, and in a million ways it has, but I still feel a deep internal conflict about what it means to be a woman—a conflict beautifully articulated by Obama:
“I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother. I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all.”
The riddle of how to be both a Mary and a Marian, she calls it.
Looking around in my life, it doesn’t seem like any of my brilliant female friends have the answer. One, a public health professional with a career that takes her around the world, was gleeful when her preschooler wasn’t even sure she had a job, saying instead something like “my mom’s just always around” when asked at school what her job was—a statement my friend took as evidence that her work wasn’t noticeably affecting her kids. Another, a doctor who juggles the competing demands of a powerful academic appointment, a community-enriching clinical position, a husband, two kids, and a house full of pets looked at me one day in exasperation and said, “Everyone needs a wife.” And at least two of my friends have gone all in on Mary, leaving their husbands to pick up the Marian pieces.
I used to have a full-time in-house job at a Fortune 500 company. After that I was a full-time freelancer with lots of different clients. Then I had a child, and my Mary got squelched by my Marian. Meanwhile my husband’s job has continued its steady ascendancy. I’d like to say we made that decision deliberately, but in so many ways it was a foregone conclusion. There was never any real question that if anyone stayed home, it was going to be me. Now I “balance” part-time writing with full-time house holding, and it doesn’t take a math whiz to recognize that that adds up to all-the-time responsibility.
Recently the New York Times published an article discussing the stress gap between men and women. Spoiler alert: By and large, women are more stressed. Why? Because we do more domestic labor, and we do much, much more emotional labor, both of which are undervalued in large part because they’re rarely recognized as labor at all.
And yet how can we overlook that kind of labor when it produces such well-adjusted and self-actualized individuals as Michelle Obama? By her very words, she was made possible by sacrifices made by her mother. On some basic level, is there any more important kind of work? Caring for others is one of the first things we teach our kids—be kind to others! think of other people’s feelings!—and yet I’d be hard pressed in my social circle at least to find the parent whose dream for their child focuses solely on their becoming a caregiver in the form of wife and mother. Those might be part of my friends’ dreams for their children, to be sure, but never the sum total.
There’s lots of discussion as to why this is so, but still women are left wrangling with real-world solutions to the quandary on the ground. Do we lean in or learn to say no? Do we delegate more or lower our expectations? I don’t have the answer. And as of page 174 in her book, Michelle Obama doesn’t seem to have the answer either, which is disappointing but of course completely understandable.
Then again there’s still a couple hundred pages left of Becoming, and even though I know what happens on the outside of this particular story I’ll be curious to hear what happens on the inside.
And maybe there’s still a couple hundred pages left in my own becoming, enough time for me to reconcile my Mary and Marian.
Becoming would be great. But right now, it’s looking a lot more like between.