First ladies goes through a rite of initiation

Published 8:45 am Friday, January 16, 2009

While I’m aware that there’s no official inauguration for a first lady — no oath to take, no speech to make — we do manage to have an initiation rite. So, Michelle Obama, Princeton and Harvard Law grad, lawyer and mother, has been subject to the usual mix of mild hazing and wild admiration on her way to the East Wing.

It all reached a crescendo this week with breathless tales of the First Fashionista appearing everywhere. The chatter ranged from complaints that “her popster look is much too short and tight” to starry-eyed views of her as a new Jackie Kennedy who will single-handedly bail out the American fashion industry.

The talk of ball gowns and decorating raised the disheartening possibility that even after Hillary and, gulp, Sarah, we are going back to the first lady beat. Yes, to those wonderful yesteryears when the media focused their lonely eyes on the Four F’s of first ladydom: fashion, furnishing, food and family.

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But (hope alert!) there is also the possibility that the fourth F — the family — will turn into a serious agenda that cements a bond between the woman in the White House and the women in Every House.

Michelle Obama wisely listed her first priority as seeing her daughters through the transition. But as she told “60 Minutes,” “Women are capable of doing more than one thing well at the same time.”

Indeed, Obama presented herself as a woman who’s “had to juggle being mom in chief and having a career for long time.” If, as she routinely said during the campaign, it’s a struggle for her — a woman with resources and a grandma in chief — imagine how much harder it must be for others.

So what will happen if this 45-year-old mom in chief, and wife of a man who “gets it,” makes the personal her political issue? What would a serious work-and-family policy look like?

For most of a generation, juggling has been framed as an individual talent in the Good Mom Pageant. As Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute says, “Work and family were seen as separate worlds. We all imagined other people were doing it well and only we weren’t.”

The last major piece of family legislation was the Family and Medical Leave Act passed 15 years ago. It only guarantees unpaid leave to people in workplaces with 50 or more employees. Meanwhile, just half the nation’s workers get a single paid sick day for themselves and far fewer get it for a child. As for the elusive flextime? Even among those eligible, 39 percent believe they’ll jeopardize their jobs if they take it.

And by the way, while we’ve been stalled, a tsunami of elder care has been added to the responsibilities of child care.

Just to get rolling again, we need to expand family leave to workplaces with 25 or more employees. We need to increase the number of states with paid family leave beyond California, Washington and New Jersey, and add to the handful of districts and cities with at least seven days of paid sick leave.

At the same time, we can support bills guaranteeing a paltry 24 hours a year to attend school conferences. And surely, any new jobs created with stimulus funds ought to include pro-family policies.

In this economy, many workers are afraid of asking for such “frills.” When times are tough, says Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women and Families, “we are told the sky will fall … we can’t do it now.”

But the first minimum-wage bill, the first child-labor law, and the law setting maximum hours were passed during the Depression. We can’t get out of this mess by making it harder for families.

As for the Obamas? They’ve found a unique way to resolve their own work and family dichotomy. In the words of the outgoing president, “He’s a 45-second commute away from a great wife and two little girls that love him dearly.”

Every president’s wife has a list of jobs including that of trusted adviser, the role often trivialized as pillow talk. But what a chance this is to use the spotlight on the first family to illuminate other families. What a chance Michelle Obama has to become mom in chief to a nation struggling to keep it together.

As her husband said, “I believe in the general theory that if Mom is happy, everybody’s happy.” That sounds like a pretty good national policy.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is