Mom-In-Chief: Moms Closely Watch Michelle Obama In January, Michelle Obama will make history as the nation's first black First Lady. But Obama, an Ivy-League educated attorney, is a symbol in her own right. As she prepares for her own White House transition, working mothers are watching to see what legacy she will leave on a historic presidency.
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Mom-In-Chief: Moms Closely Watch Michelle Obama

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Mom-In-Chief: Moms Closely Watch Michelle Obama

Mom-In-Chief: Moms Closely Watch Michelle Obama

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We're going to move now to another issue that hits us close to home. Barack Obama has already begun making the transition from lawmaker to chief executive. He's had calls from world leaders, sit downs with top industry chiefs, and meets and greets with former political rivals.

And meanwhile, his wife and future first lady has also begun preparing for a huge transition of her own. Michelle Obama has already put a successful career on pause to support her husband's aspirations. Now, she will become, in essence, our country's most high-profile full-time wife and mother.

In my weekly commentary yesterday, I talked about some of the things this change might mean. Michelle Obama has just been handed this big gift wrapped in a bow. She gets to live in the big house with cooks and drivers and butlers and maids, and she gets to be married to the hottie president and raise those gorgeous girls and run around and do good works and be the black Jacky Kennedy, her, a black girl from the south side of Chicago.

She has to listen to all our nonsense, but so what? She won the big lottery ticket. But can I just tell you, not enough has been said, in my view, about what she's giving up. Not just her privacy, that's a given, but her independence and her vision for herself and not to mention her own income.

With these thoughts, Tell Me More begins a special collaboration with the online magazine, The Root, which invited a group of moms, myself included, to contribute our thoughts about what it means to become the first African-American first lady.

And with us today are Jolene Ivey, co-founder of the parenting support group the Mocha Moms, Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of "The Mommy Wars," that's a collection of essays about the real-life dilemmas faced by moms today, Rebecca Walker, author of the book "Baby Love" a our regular contributor to The Root, and Anna Perez, former press secretary to first lady Barbara Bush. Ladies, moms, welcome. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Founder, Mocha Moms): Hey, Michel.

Ms. REBECCA WALKER (Author, "Baby Love"): Hey, very happy to be here.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Author, "The Mommy Wars"): Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Jolene, I want to start with you. Your essay is called "The Ultimate Mocha Mom." It's very supportive of Mrs. Obama's choice to put her own career aside in order to be completely engaged in supporting her husband and family. Some people might call that choice old fashioned, but you found that it has a modern twist? Tell us how.

Ms. IVEY: There is no better way she can serve her country right now. It's to be a great example to us about one way that really does work, people, to raise your family. It's - I'm not saying it's the only way, but I'm saying that it's a way that African-American women were denied for years.

And now, we have the opportunity to do it. A lot of women already do, obviously. But Michelle Obama is certainly going to be the most high-profile woman, black woman who's ever gotten to do this, and it's going to be wonderful for the country to see her do it.

MARTIN: Rebecca, your essay is called "The End of Feminism As We Know It?" But you - it sounds kind of dire, but you write that Michelle Obama not only embodies feminist goals, she's actually sailed right pass them. What do you mean by that?

Ms. WALKER: One of the things I refer to in the piece is the moment in the Soledad O'Brien interview when Soledad basically asked her, how are you managing to make this transition when one's career as a woman can be so defining? And her response was, well, for me, it's not defining. She said, what is defining is my entire life, not just my career. My career is one part of that. And I think that that is a very profound shift, the idea that one's work isn't the totality of one's identity.

For feminists, that has been one key in addition to financial autonomy and independence, which I think is very important. But this idea of the whole life being important and not just the kind of feminists' measurements that we have been discussing so much over the last couple of decades.

MARTIN: And Leslie, for a totally different perspective, your essay is titled "How Michelle Obama Passed for White." And you wrote in particular about the J. Crew twin sets and what you called the Donna Reed hair. And you said that they are codes to white moms everywhere that Michelle is one of them. But you said you don't think that's necessary, and you actually find it kind of dangerous.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Well, you know, I think a really huge challenge for any presidential candidate and his wife is how do they convince voters that they're just like us. And it was particularly hard for the Obamas because they're black, and so they're obviously not like most voters in America.

But also, they're just so much more elite. They are better educated. They are smarter. They are more fabulous. They are better-looking. And I think it was a big challenge for both of them to come across as people we could really identify with.

And I think that, Michelle, intentionally or unconsciously or perhaps it was her PR people used her clothing incredibly well to reassure white voters that she's just like us, and it sounds so - kind of silly. How could voters possibly be snookered by somebody's clothes? But I think that really, a lot of people who saw her in her Talbot's outfits and her J. Crew twin sets said, wow! You know, she is just like us in some fundamental way, and I think it was part of why she appealed to such an incredibly broad base of voters.

MARTIN: But why is the what you call the mom-first spin dangerous and insulting? And what if she just likes J. Crew or Talbot's? Why does that mean - does she have to turn in her sister-girl card? I mean, what's - they just fit.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: You know, the other part of what I wrote for The Root was that one thing that she had to do in communicating that she's just like us is, she had to fit into white America's stereotype of a supportive wife and mother, and that she really had to quit her job to convince people that she wasn't another Hillary Clinton, that she is not some subversive feminist. She also had to for practical reasons because it's really hard to campaign full time while working full time.

But this is a part that I do find dangerous, and I come at this from the perspective of a mom who's a lot like Michelle Obama, except that I'm white. I'm her age. I have one more child. I went to similar schools.

And what I've seen has happened to white women of privilege who have so much, such incredible educational career credentials is that, when we are kind of forced to become stay-at-home moms for a variety of reasons, people tell us all the time that we're so very, very lucky to have this wonderful choice. And I would argue that it's not really a choice, and I don't think that Michelle Obama has made a choice. I think she had to do this, and there's a downside to it and a dark side to it.

MARTIN: Wow, a lot to think about and talk about here. Anna, one of the reasons, of course, we invited you is, A, you've had a front-row seat to all this, and you are a work-at-home, stay-at-home. I mean, you had all these identities yourself. You've had these very high-profile jobs, and you are a mom, and you were press secretary to former First Lady Barbara Bush, so you know first hand what this fish bowl is going to be like. And how does this strike you so far?

Ms. ANNA PEREZ (Former Press Secretary, First Lady Barbara Bush): I think that Mrs. Obama is more - is as prepared as anyone can possibly be for this fish bowl that she's walking into. But as Barbara Bush said once to me, nothing prepares you for this. And she'd lived in the town for 12 years.

So as much as she thinks she is prepared, she's in for some surprises. And I think most of it is going to be the glare, as I said in my essay or my letter to Mrs. Obama, the glare that's going to follow her everywhere.

But I saw her on "60 Minutes" this week, and she seems at least as comfortable in her own skin as her husband is. I think that she is going to make her priorities. And by the way, one of them is - one of the first things she can decide before she goes in the White House is, does she want to be called first lady? She doesn't have to be, you know?

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. PEREZ: It's not - really, it's not an official title. In fact, Mrs. Bush never used the term herself. Anything that came out of her office said office of Mrs. Bush, never said office of the first lady. So, if Mrs. Obama doesn't like that term, she don't have to use it. In other words, while the White House is full of traditions, they're not rules. She makes the rules now.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you what you make of Leslie's argument in her essay that white America demands that candidate's spouses be non-threatening, deferential, attractive, stay-at-home moms.

What do you make of it, particularly because Barbara Bush did not - you know, by the time she became first lady, she had kind of passed into that grandmother stage of life where people will pretty much let you do whatever you want, you know. But she didn't always come across as being Miss, you know, shy and keep your - you know, keep your mouth shut. She was kind of - had a reputation for saying...

Ms. WALKER: Actually, she's not.

MARTIN: Yeah. But she kind of had a reputation for saying what she had to say. On the other hand, she did have a very traditional profile. She had been a stay-at-home, work-at-home mom, if you prefer that term.

Ms. PEREZ: I think there's more leeway for a spouse going into the White House, for instance. I don't think if Mrs. Clinton had - if Senator Clinton had one the nomination, I don't think Bill would have been subject to quite the same number of constraints we think that Mrs. Obama will be or should be constrained by. I really do think she has a lot more leeway to do exactly what she wants to do, though I would recommend that she follow another one of Mrs. Bush's rules, never make your husband spend a dime of political capital cleaning up after you.

MARTIN: We're going to pause here. And when we come back, we're going to continue our conversation with Jolene Ivey, Rebecca Walker, Anna Perez, and Leslie Morgan Steiner about Michelle Obama's role as, if she wants to be called that, first lady and mom-in-chief. Please stay with us.

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're going to continue our discussion about future first lady - if she chooses to be called that - Michelle Obama. It's part of a special collaboration with the online magazine, The Root. I'm talking with moms and writers, Jolene Ivey, Rebecca Walker, Anna Perez, and Leslie Morgan Steiner. Anna Perez has the added distinction of having served as press secretary to first lady Barbara Bush.

Before the break, we were talking about Michelle Obama's decision to put her paid career on hold and what that might mean. And Leslie made the point that it's not that she really had a choice. And I think, as a lawyer and from a standpoint - I'm not a lawyer, but she's a lawyer - from the standpoint of conflicts of interest and all that, one can easily see. Why do you say, you think, she's really has no choice?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Well, it's something that I see among a lot of my peers, white women, very well-educated who had successful careers of their own, much like Michelle Obama. Although our husbands didn't become president, they had very demanding jobs.

And many of us felt that, although we were just as ambitious, somebody had to be home taking care of the kids. And then once we did stay home, we were sort of told ad infinitum by our culture and by other people that we were just so incredibly fortunate to stay home.

And it's really one thing to make a choice for yourself what you want to do and another thing when it's a compromise. And I see her as - she doesn't have a choice. She can't be working full time, and it's not just because of conflicts of interest. I don't think her husband could have gotten elected if she had continued to work. It's because the vast majority of voters, and there's also a lot of media pressure, too, that says that supportive wives and good mothers stay home. They don't work. They don't put themselves first.

MARTIN: Rebecca, how does it strike you, as a person who's written a lot about what you call third-wave feminism? Do you think that Leslie has a point?

Ms. WALKER: I think she definitely has a point. I don't know that I would agree. I think it's a very nuanced discussion. I think Michelle probably didn't have a choice, and yet, I don't think her identity was built upon her having a choice or not. I think her identity is much more about working in partnership with Barack and figuring out how they as a family can move forward in a productive and powerful way.

And I think, in that way, she's really connected to a long history of African-American feminists and thinkers who basically felt that their empowerment was connected to the empowerment of others, to their husbands, to their children, to other people who had been oppressed. So they didn't have a paradigm of having to claim this independence in order to feel empowered. They had a fluidity about their identity as women and human beings that I don't see as much in white feminist thought.

So I think, when I think about Michelle, I think about her ancestral introductory roots, and I think about how black women often did not have the choice to stay home, and how important it is for us to even be able to explore that realm and how she might be quite happy to be able to spend a lot of time not having to work that nine to five job.

Ms. PEREZ: This is Anna. Somehow, I think - I could be completely wrong, but somehow, I think that, if the positions were reversed, and we are getting close to that day when there will be a female president, but if the positions were reversed in the Obama family, I don't think President-elect Obama would have a problem with being the bulwark of the household, continuing his writing or doing whatever else he felt that he wanted to do within that sphere.

I don't think that it was a choice forced upon Mrs. Obama. I think, from what I can tell - and, of course, you never know the real deal in any marriage - but it looks to me as if they really do make these decisions together. And once that decision is made, it's not a matter of did I have a choice or not. This is what I want for my family and for me.

MARTIN: Jolene, what did you want to say about this?

Ms. IVEY: I tell you, I think it's obvious...

MARTIN: And I mentioned this just because I also think it's important to point out that Jolene, in addition to being the co-founder of the Mocha Moms and the mom of five boys, is also a state representative, so she kind of has a different definition of the stay-at-home thing. I don't know what she's talking about there, but her - she's also married to an elected official.

Ms. IVEY: Absolutely. And, you know, I think that Michelle might be - and I will just call her Michelle, if you don't mind today, Michel - she might be giving up a paycheck, but she is gaining a huge amount of power. So, although we're all saying, oh, she's going to be giving up so much, and she's going to be home, as a former at-home mom, I'm obviously not home as much as I used to be. I can see that she's still not going to be completely a traditional at-home mom because she is going to be wielding as much power, I'll bet, as she wants.

MARTIN: Well, this is, you know - this is interesting because we're not all saying the same thing. I think that what I think has been unspoken is, there is a sense of loss. I see this as not just with high-powered professional women, but also see with, say, the spouses of clergy members, right?

You know, this is a traditional role in both white and black communities where, you know, pastor's wife often is working very hard to help pastor have his career and often is called first lady and supposed to be oh so happy to go to all these teas and to do all this, but I think sometimes what is forgotten is the self-effacement that comes with that.

Ms. IVEY: I think that that is...

MARTIN: And I don't think that we're supposed to even notice that. We're all just supposed to be so happy to lose that part of yourself that gets to, as Anna was pointing out, that actually gets to put your foot in it and have nobody to apologize to but yourself.

Ms. IVEY: I think...

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: And this is Leslie here. I would say that I would add to that category military wives, that, you know, you probably feel so patriotic, but it's not your choice. And it's a very difficult - it's a different position when you're in - when you're - such a huge part of your life as to where you live and raise your kids and who your friends are is dictated by your husband's profession. It's always - it's tricky, and I don't care what the color of your skin is, I think it's hard. And I think some women adapt to it much better than others.

MARTIN: Jolene has been trying to get in. Jolene, what's this power that you're talking about here?

Ms. IVEY: That she's going to have?

MARTIN: Yeah, that she's going to have.

Ms. IVEY: Well, when you are first lady of the United States of America, if there's something you want done, I think you're going to get it done. And you might not pay...

MARTIN: Pay equity for women?

Ms. IVEY: Well, all kinds of things, local...

MARTIN: Universal child care, whatever...

Ms. IVEY: On "60 Minutes," she's talking about the work and home balance. I mean, she said that's one of her priorities.

MARTIN: Healthcare.

Ms. IVEY: Healthcare reforms. She's got all kinds of things...

MARTIN: Healthcare, this is a must.

Ms. IVEY: She's going to advocate for it, and she's in the position to do it. I would love to have that as...

MARTIN: Rebecca, then Anna.

Ms. WALKER: OK. Well, I just - it's shocking to me that people don't talk about the - she's going to have an incredible amount of power. She's going to be the first lady of the United States of America, and I think that's one of the most powerful positions that any woman can have in the world, you know.

MARTIN: Well, exactly. Rebecca, can I just interrupt you because...

Ms. WALKER: Sure.

MARTIN: Excuse me, when first - when Hillary Clinton ran for president...

Ms. WALKER: Healthcare reform.

MARTIN: What were some of the people - things that people dog her about. Number one, the fact that she was put in charge of healthcare reform as an un-elected official who didn't have to go through Senate approval, number one. And then number two, people dismissed her experience as first lady. They said, you're just first lady having all those dinners. What do you know to qualify you to be president?

Ms. WALKER: Yeah, but I don't think this is about, you know, making policy and healthcare. I mean, she's going to have power. That is behind-the-scenes power. She's going to have symbolic power. She can work through many different avenues that don't have to do with trying to do major legislation. I think Hillary took it one way. I think Michelle is going to be able to figure out how to wield her power in a whole different way that we may not be familiar with.

MARTIN: Anna, does the first lady have power?

Ms. PEREZ: None. What she has is enormous amounts of influence. And there is a difference. She can have impact on ideas. She can have influence over everything from childcare morays to - almost anything she can have influence over, but as to be - as for being a power base? None.

Nancy Reagan was a huge influence in that White House. Mrs. Clinton was a huge influence in that White House. But it's not power, and any first lady, witness Hillary Clinton, I believe that any spouse of the president - any female, right now a female spouse, but going forward - spouse of the president who actually thinks they have that kind of power is cruising for bruising.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner, Rebecca Walker, and Anna Perez about Michelle Obama's future role as first lady and mom-in-chief, if she chooses to describe herself that way. Leslie, you wrote in your piece that you want Michelle Obama to be co-president?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I absolutely do.

MARTIN: Who elected her?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: You know, I feel like the Obamas are so unusual in that they do make an incredible team. And it's hard to separate them from each other. They're very complementary. But I just want to comment on some - the whole discussion of how much power she has. I think, if anybody can use the position of first lady in a way to bring about change, it's Michelle Obama because of her tremendous intelligence and social diplomacy, and, you know, I think we've got somebody very unusual coming into the White House.

But what I see happening already is the media and perhaps our country unconsciously or consciously trying to put her in a box and relegate her to a certain role. And I've wrote in my piece for The Root how disturbed I am by the headlines that mainstream media have used to describe her, that it's almost exclusively mom first, first mom, mom-in-chief, and I see that already as our society saying, OK, it's so wonderful to have this great woman in the White House, but it's only wonderful as long as she really knows her place. And her place, as far as we are concerned, is as a mother first, and we don't want her to have a seat at the table.

MARTIN: What if it's her choice? What if she's saying, this is a really big deal for my family. My children are very young. There is a season for everything, and when I was in my 20s, it was my season to go all out on my career. And this is my season to focus on these girls...

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: And I say bravo. I think that that's great. I'm all for what's known as choice feminism, that there is no right answer and that I don't have the right to judge another woman's choices. And it's funny because this - Jolene and I come at this from very different angles. But I think this is where we agree that her choices are her choices. And as long as she is the one making them and swear nobody else is making them for her, I am totally supportive.

MARTIN: But it's like, we wish what we wish. That it's her choices are her choices, but we each have our wishes, right?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: That's true, totally true. Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, isn't that really the truth of it? Isn't half of what we're talking about really about what we want for ourselves? I mean, if we're really honest of that.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: It's true. We see in other women what we want for ourselves in our own struggles.

MARTIN: Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: Well, what I saw with her interview in "60 Minutes" is a woman who absolutely loves what she's about to do. She looked excited. She looked happy. She did not look conflicted to me. And I was happy to see that.

And this is the phase of her life where she's got an opportunity to not just be a mother to her girls, but demonstrate to other people how a great mother behaves. And there are people out in our world who need that kind of example, and I think she's going to be a great one.

MARTIN: Can I just ask this, though? This was an issue that arose when the - you referenced that - "The Cosby Show," Jolene, in your piece about Claire Huxtable, who was a full-time where as well she had five kids and was a partner in the law firm. Her husband is a doctor, and - and amazingly, there was no childcare ever in sight. I'm not quite sure how they worked all that, but, you know, whatever, whatever - but, you know, and apparently, no take-out dinners, either. But I'm not bitter, I'm really not - but the argument...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WALKER: And no microwaves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: And no microwaves.

MARTIN: She said to do...

Ms. IVEY: She only had to do it for 22 minutes a week…

MARTIN: Two sets of grandparents, though, who all apparently were nice and got along. So that might have been a clue. But one of the things that I'm interested in, this is a question of - you referenced the fact that people, and Bill Cosby has talked about this, the fact that people looked at the Cosbys and said, well, you know, that's not really how it is for most black people.

Jolene, do you think that people are going to say the same thing about the Obamas? Well, that's fine for them, but that's not really how it is for most black people.

Ms. IVEY: I did point that out in my piece that I'm not sure how people are going to take it. But at least we'll have this example to start with. And, you know, they are different from most people in a way, but on the other hand, they're very similar to everybody.

MARTIN: And let's just go around before we go. And I wanted to ask each of you if you have any advice for the Obamas, or if you have any wish for the Obamas or a wish about what they would do for you. Leslie, why don't you go first?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Rebecca in her piece in The Roots said something that I would - I hope that Michelle Obama reads. And this is a quote. It says, "Michelle Obama doesn't need a message. She is the message." And to me, that says, you know, that Michelle Obama is comfortable in her own skin and that she's going to run her household and be the kind of first lady that she wants to be and that she is completely unique.

And to me, this is the most important message in life and in motherhood, is that we're all completely unique, and we have the right to defy every stereotype out there, whether it's black stereotype or white stereotype or what have you. We have the right to be who we are, and I think she is, and she's just going to keep on doing that.

MARTIN: Rebecca, any advice?

Ms. WALKER: My hope is that the Obamas can keep their partnership strong and healthy and happy because I think that their partnership is really the true engine of their success, that their ability to sacrifice for one another, to grow together to be best friends, to be comfortable with their sexuality and sensuality, and for Barack to be able to be a different kind of father, a different kind of husband, all that whole package is so important not just for them, but for young people coming up, you know, to see what a successful partnership can look like.


Ms. PEREZ: I think I said this in my essay. They are going to be the objects of unprecedented and relentless curiosity by a global news and information media. To me, the best thing, at least based on the experience that I've had, is accept it, use it, and then ignore it.

MARTIN: Ignore it?

Ms. PEREZ: Ignore it - and you can. You can draw boundaries. But just remember, for instance, if you, unlike the Kennedys, who could dole out a picture now and then of the children, it's a whole different media world now. So, if you look at that media as a beast, as some of us do - sorry, Michel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEREZ: If you look at it as a beast, just remember, when you identify yourself or your children as food for the beast, you do not get to call the dinner bell. They come whenever they want.

MARTIN: Jolene, final thought from you.

Ms. IVEY: Yeah, regardless of what Michelle Obama wants to be called in the U.S., she's still going to be the first lady. It doesn't really matter what she wants to be called. And then second part is, of course, she's going to be the first mom, and I'm really happy she's going to be like the first Mocha Mom.

And since, to me, she is like really a great mom from what I can tell, just based on how great her kids are turning out, I think that she should just do whatever she's been doing to keep those girls going the way they're going because in the end, that's really all that matters.

MARTIN: Jolene Ivey is a co-founder of the Mocha Moms. It's a nationwide parent support group. Leslie Morgan Steiner is author of "The Mommy Wars." She joined us along with Jolene in our Washington studio. Rebecca Walker is a contributor to the online magazine, The Root, and author of "Baby Love" among her other books. She joined us from Maui, Hawaii. And Anna Perez is the former press secretary to first lady Barbara Bush. She joined us from KQED in San Francisco.

If you want to read all of our guest's essays on Michelle Obama, they are all published at the online magazine For a link to the essays, you can also go to the Tell Me More page at Ladies, moms, I thank you so much.

Ms. IVEY: Thank you, Michelle.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Thank you.

Ms. WALKER: I love the conversation.

Ms. PEREZ: Thank you.

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