How Michelle Obama Made Me a Bad Mother

The first lady’s all about work-life balance. But for one working mother/journalist, being part of the East Wing press corps meant that her personal work-life balance got thrown out of whack.

“Mom,” he says, “would you trade me?”

“No, not for a mountain of diamonds. Not for an ocean of gold. Not for a necklace of stars.”

“Mom,” he says, “how much do you love me?”

“To the moon and back, honey.”

“Is that all?”

“No to Pluto and back. Remember, a mother’s love is the most powerful force in the universe.”

And yet sometimes a mother has to do what a mother has to do. In my case, work hard in an incredibly demanding profession among ambitious people and bloggers who mean you harm.

I remember my mother-in-law once said, “Don’t let the baby stop you from doing what you need to do.” I took those words to heart, got my son’s passport when he was only nine months and since then, we have traveled the world, to the Arctic, to Iceland, to Denmark, to the Czech Republic, to Germany. To Mayan ruins of Chichen-Itza in Mexico. To beaches and deserts, and mountains and waterfalls. To view poverty in the Dominican Republic, and crocodiles in Costa Rica.

But that was before this assignment. And if I was to do this job completely, being on the ground when something was happening, he was going to have to share my attention, which meant my work-balance formula would be tilted. Really, really tilted.

During the early days of the administration, the East Wing had declared that Mrs. Obama would make it a priority to address the issue of work-life balance because she cared about parents out there who are working and trying to balance things. But as I raced across town to follow her to different events–at schools, at the White House, at day-care centers, soup kitchens–my own work-life balance was falling apart.

It was an East Wing irony, I thought. And my kid was eyeing me warily. I couldn’t keep dentist appointments. Could not keep play dates. I was working morning, noon and night. On weekends, I frantically searched the Internet to see what the Obamas were doing. (Hamil Harris, another journalist, called me one Saturday morning, “Did you know the Obamas were going to the Lincoln Memorial?” No. “Well, they went last night.” Fear struck my heart. How were we supposed to keep up with them?)

This was no job for a “good mom,” I thought, all the while admiring how it seemed Mrs. Obama seemed to have it all together: Two great kids, flat abs, biceps, an adoring husband, a killer wardrobe, perfect hair. A staff. Caterers. Maids.

I admired the way she can get her kids off for school, be there when they arrive home, and dad can fly off across the country on Air Force One, then come home in time for dinner. I admired the fact that her mother lives with her and therefore makes it a bit easier–a lot easier–to take care of the kids when she can’t. I love my mother, too, but I  wished I had a Marian Robinson, a mother independent enough, down to earth enough and fun enough to live with. From across all the federal agencies, I admired the handlers Mrs. Obama has, the car that is waiting outside and the fact that she can come in, give her speech and get back home to be there when the children arrive from school.

On the other hand, my real work starts when the speech ends. I’d race back to the news room, deliver the video, write fast enough to beat a continuous, instantaneous news cycle. Wait and wait and wait to be edited, then run like a mad woman to get the kid from day care.

I was trying to be superwoman, the reporter in the hot-pink coat standing in the cold outside the White House gates.