Hanna , I have a confession to make, one which apparently condemns me to a life as someone our first lady wouldn’t even care to know: My children are not the center of my world. And when I hear world-traveling Michelle Obama, campaigner for kids’ health and a savvy politician in her own right, offer us a lame trope about putting her kids first as she did earlier this week, my back goes up. “Like every parent I know, my children are the center of my world,” she said. “My hopes for their future are at the heart of every single thing I do.” It’s a generic first lady line. But coming from someone who, before reluctantly donning the first apron, worked high-profile and demanding jobs with young children at home, it’s both disingenuous and troubling. Why do women, even women like Obama, feel compelled to pretend to embrace and then to saddle one another with this ridiculous standard?
Would Obama have said “my children are the center of my world” to her boss at the University of Chicago Hospitals? I doubt it. Do Michelle Pfeiffer or Allison Sweeney (both recent contributors to the persistent magazine interview myth that successful actresses put their children first) inform the director on the first day of shooting that they’re delighted to be there but that their children will always take precedence over the role? Doubted, again. Do Obama, Pfeiffer, Sweeney, and other successful women really put their children at the center of their worlds? How’s this for a perfectly acceptable answer: sometimes.
I’ve no doubt that in between meetings and the other demands of her life, Obama puts her girls front and center. Some of the time, on some days, I have no doubt that they’re the entire focus of her attention and talents. But Obama is a talented and successful woman, and she has a partner (and, for that matter, a mother, a staff, and a community) to help raise her children. She has-and she should have-a whole lot going on that goes above, around, beyond, and along with her girls’ daily lives. Further, can you imagine how she’d respond if Malia and Sasha turned to her and said, “Mom, when I grow up, I’m going to have children and I’m going to put them at the center of my life?”
You may think I’m ascribing too much to a small comment, a single moment in one of hundreds of speeches. “The center of my life,” you could say, could mean a whole range of things-and I agree. Obama could, and probably would, say that much of the outside work she does is done with thoughts of her girls and their future in mind. But giving credence to that “my children are the center of my life” line of thinking feeds into the kind of doubt, spoken and unspoken, that still pursues working mothers. When Sarah Palin was in the race for vice president, both men and women questioned whether a woman with five kids, one pregnant and one still in diapers, belonged in the White House. In my home state, New Hampshire, Republican Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte has been attacked for considering spending six years in Washington while leaving her 2- and 5- year-old children at home with her husband. Those objecting usually put a gender-neutral spin on it, claiming no parent should leave kids that young-but the fact remains that this is simply not a question that comes up for men, no matter how young their progeny.
Men are allowed to hold out their young families as evidence of their ties to the real world and their good intentions toward the future. Women, doing the same, are immediately saddled with the baggage of “my children come first.” Because no woman who puts her children at the center of her world would even consider a job where she might one day be required to put a congressional hearing over watching Junior perform the role of Native American No. 3 in the Thanksgiving pageant. And every time a prominent woman endorses that particular cliché, she makes it harder for other women who are, and should be, considering doing just that.