I am awed by Michelle Obama. Totally taken by her. Thrilled, cheering, jumping inside with glee! It’s not just because she’s black. Or because she went to Princeton with my husband. In large part, it’s because she’s making the same choice now that I made—putting her own career aside for a time to be completely engaged in raising her children and supporting her husband. She is going to be the first lady of the United States of America, and more than that, first Mocha Mom in the White House!
How will she mold that role? I can hardly wait to find out. I just hope she’s ready to relish this opportunity. Michelle Obama is about to become a role model for the rest of the world, representing what an at-home African-American mother in a fabulously functioning family looks like. Is she ready for that? And are we?
When I became a mother, I left my job as a press secretary for a congressman and stayed home until my fifth (and final!) son was in school all day. While I was in graduate school, my parents watched our first born but only for the hours I was in class. Being with my children for most of their waking hours was my priority for 16 years. I’m glad I did it. It’s not for every family, but it worked for ours. Those experiences led me and a friend to start a newsletter called “Mocha Moms,” which grew into a national support group for at-home mothers of color. We needed the kinship of other moms who were going through the same adventure, with few guides.
It’s a path that can be both lonely and strangely controversial, especially for African-American women, even among those of us who operate out of public scrutiny. The fact that, historically, black women have rarely had the luxury to choose not to work has helped to enforce an expectation that we must work. Black mothers who choose to stay home sometimes face particularly harsh judgment, as if stepping away from our professional degrees and careers is a thoughtless slap at our ancestors, who endured back-breaking, knuckle-skinning work for us to have the opportunities that we have today.
Michelle Obama won’t have to endure the patronizing attitudes of people who think that a woman is powerless and unimportant if she doesn’t have a paid position. She has the potential to help the country rethink how they view all modern, at-home moms! And she can help at-home moms rethink how they view themselves. Few will be having tea with foreign dignitaries, but most can have a positive impact on their own corners of the world.
And regardless of which phase of life Michelle Obama has been in—either in her successful law career or her more recent role, after leaving her job—her confident, smart, delightful and well-behaved girls are proof that she is a good mother. That’s the highest compliment I can pay to another woman. I know Michelle hasn’t done it by herself. But all that time Barack was following his star—from being a community organizer to being a breath away from taking over the Oval Office—Michelle had the daily grind of balancing both a legal career and the details of raising two girls—diapers, sleep deprivation, teaching them to share, worrying over their relationships with each other and their friends, making sure they practiced the piano and did their homework. Right now, while Barack is picking his cabinet, she’s helping their girls through the wonderful trauma of moving into the White House and their roles as first kids. For now, she cannot return to a traditional work role, but make no mistake, she has much important work to do in keeping her family safe and centered.
Before Michelle, Clair Huxtable was the icon of perfect African-American motherhood. Our community—the whole country, really—expects black mothers to work for pay and Clair did it splendidly. She stayed at the top of the lawyer track and kept her household—and her husband’s heart—ticking. And she looked great while she did it. Of course, she wasn’t real. She only had to do it for 22 minutes at a time, once a week. Most of us could handle it for that long, right?
Michelle Obama has a chance to paint a new picture of motherhood. She won’t have commercial breaks. Plenty of ratings, but no breaks. She’ll be helping Malia and Sasha with homework then greeting foreign dignitaries. Watching over their friendships and giving speeches. And though she has said she will not seek a place at the policy table, it is hard to imagine that a woman with her smarts and experience won’t make an influential impact.
I am jumping inside with glee at the thought of what this African-American first lady can say to all of us—black mothers, all mothers, all Americans. Will she be viewed as the exception, someone so out-of-the-ordinary that what she’s doing—taking a career break in the interest of family—will seem like a quaint impossibility? Or will we use her as a template to create new visions of what a fully functioning African-American family can be? What a fully functioning American family can be? Michelle Obama’s greatest gift to our country will be in showing the world how it’s done.
Jolene Ivey, co-founder of Mocha Moms, Inc., is a Maryland State Delegate, and mother of five beautiful boys. She’s married to Glenn Ivey, the State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County, Md.