There were several unforgettable moments in the Obama campaign—Barack’s impassioned speech about race, the DNC finale at Invesco, Madelyn Dunham’s death just before her grandson became president-elect—but none meant more to me than a two-minute bit of tape, a simple but monumental exchange between Michelle Obama and Soledad O’Brien.
In her interview with Michelle, Soledad circled around the issues placed at the center of every discussion about female identity by second-wave feminism. O’Brien wondered how Michelle felt about following a dream that wasn’t hers. She asked about leaving a “high-powered and highly compensated” career.
Michelle acknowledged the challenges. She graciously offered that she missed her colleagues and her work. But, she continued, she could always find another career. With only the slightest hint of irony, she said if she had more time, she might bemoan the loss, but she “had a lot on her plate” and what she was doing was “pretty significant.”
I thought, “You go, girl!” As if working with the love of her life and the father of her children to become the first family of the United States while radically transforming the world as we know it isn’t the most empowering choice a brilliant and self-determining woman could make.
But the real moment came in the next beat, 30 seconds that remain forever etched in my mind as the final blow to an ideology in which women’s empowerment is narrowly defined by financial independence, emotional autonomy and professional advancement.
O’Brien went in for the kill, the coup de grâce of second-wave feminism. “But sometimes your career helps to define who you are,” she said, probing.
“It doesn’t for me,” Michelle said immediately. “What I do in my life defines me. A career is one of the many things I do in my life. I am a mother first. Where do I get my joy and my energy first and foremost? From my kids.”
As a mother, I understood the second half of what Michelle said. But as a woman, as a human being, it was the first part of her answer that I realized I—and the rest of the world—needed and still need to hear. What I do in my life defines me. Not my career, not money, not awards or accolades, but the whole thing, the sum of all of the parts. My life.
You know, life? The one that includes showing up and embracing all of it: financial pressure and anniversary dinners, security details and ballet recitals, demeaning attacks and uplifting stump speeches, grueling late-night conversations and awesome feats of self-sacrifice, tidal waves of overwhelming satisfaction and grim truths of mistakes made and opportunities lost.