Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Whose Children Are They Anyway?

Ruth Marcus has written a column in the Washington Post about the gendered division of labor in the Obama household. It sounds like many, many similar columns and books I've read about during my feminist years: It points out the problem and then sort of hides behind the back of the idea of general confusion felt by all women (read: all upper-middle class women who have careers) about how to balance family and work and the writer's great identification with women confused in that manner:

When Michelle Obama took to describing her new role as mom in chief, my first reaction was to wince at her words. My second reaction was to identify with them.

I was okay, actually, with what Obama said. But I worried: Did she have to say it out loud, quite so explicitly? Is it really good for the team -- the team here being working women -- to have the "mommy" stamp so firmly imprinted on her identity?

And most of all: What does it say about the condition of modern women that Obama, catapulted by her husband's election into the ranks of the most prominent, sounded so strangely retro -- more Jackie Kennedy than Hillary Clinton?


"My first job in all honesty is going to continue to be mom in chief," Obama told Ebony magazine, "making sure that in this transition, which will be even more of a transition for the girls . . . that they are settled and that they know they will continue to be the center of our universe."

Note the very beginning of this quote: It's not really possible for a female columnist in public just to say that she winced at Michelle Obama's words, because of what they meant from the wider angle of taking women's professional achievements seriously. She also has to say that she identifies with those concerns.

And of course she does. And if she did not, her column would be interpreted as an attack against all those women who struggle with the problem and who have solved it by cutting back on their own ambitions. So then Ruth Marcus had to add a bit about how she is facing the very same problem and appears to be ready to give in on her professional ambitions. That's what good women do, you know.

I understand the difficulty women have when writing about topics like this one. I even agree that the children should come first for Michelle Obama during the transition, because Barack certainly won't spend time with them. But it's really very unfortunate that these types of columns always shift around in this way, because we as readers end up discussing the question of how ambitious women can balance work and family, and then we fight over whether they should have careers at all and so on, when really what Marcus is talking about is this:

Obama seems comfortable, now, in the back seat, but that seeming serenity did not come easy. In "The Audacity of Hope," Barack Obama offers a glimpse of an earlier, more conflicted Michelle, whose "anger toward me seemed barely contained" as she struggled with the pull between work and family while her husband launched a run for Congress.

"No matter how liberated I liked to see myself as . . . the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments," Barack Obama writes. "Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold."

Expected to -- by whom? Had to -- says who? I remember reading this passage two years ago, when the book came out, and thinking: Hey, buddy, she has to scale back only because you're not willing to.

And yet, Barack Obama could have been describing so many women today when he explained that, for Michelle, "two visions of herself were at war with each other -- the desire to be the woman her mother had been, solid, dependable, making a home and always there for her kids; and the desire to excel in her profession, to make her mark on the world and realize all those plans she'd had on the very first day that we met."

Marcus gets my admiration, actually, for daring to write on this topic at all. But still. See how that "Hey, buddy, she has to scale back only because you're not willing to" leads to a sudden escape back into putting the whole problem on the laps of women. I don't like it, because there's no way in hell women alone, without any change in the society or in the role of men can solve that problem. It. Cannot. Be. Done.

To pretend that it can be done only tells us that women can be a little more than the ever-hovering but silent and undemanding female angels traditionally assumed to take care of every successful man: they can also be the junior assistant office managers in the families of famous men.

Women can balance their own work, their partners' work, the children, the parents and grandparents, the Thanksgiving turkey, the birthday cards, the care of the sick, the need to look young and sexy, the dustbunnies under the beds, the school menus, the parental chauffeuring services. They can balance all that, somehow, while walking on the tightrope of cultural femininity, the demands of a labor market which still assumes that every worker has a little lady at home to give succor and psychological counseling and cleaning services. And then the woman-haters write how women don't have the same genius as men do, how no woman has ever invented something like the automobile or designed a great church, how women therefore are obviously biologically incapable of anything but -- well --- playing the role of Girl Fridays for famous men.

So I'm angry. How very awkward for me. But really, why can't we keep the limelight on the real question Ruth Marcus asked, for longer than one fleeting second: What can be done to make the sexual division of labor within families more egalitarian? And if we don't want to make those changes, how do we provide women with equal opportunities in other spheres of life? The answer must not focus on all the ways that women alone could somehow achieve that. Days are still only twenty-four hours long, even for us of the girly persuasion.