I want to call this story: How Michelle Obama Made Me a Bad Mother.
But that wouldn't be fair to Mrs. Obama, whom I temporarily covered from behind the velvet ropes of the press corps during the early days of the new administration.
With my apologies to Mrs. Obama for my title, I think I will tell the story any way.
It begins on a cold day in February.
I had promised that I would pick up the kid after school on time at school aftercare, but like many of my promises as a mother after this assignment, they were weak. Promises often sprinkled with "but" and "if," as in, if I can finish my work, if there are no events today, if I can fly across town. Impossible promises.
As a journalist, I had no set hours and so I worked all the time—morning, noon, middle of the night, weekends. All. Of. The. Time.
When I promise I will pick the kid up on time, he looked at me as if he didn't trust me. His confidence is wavering.
But then I tell him, "Call me. If I can't make it, you will just have to walk."
The morning of that promise melted into afternoon.
The call came on time. (The kid, who is a young teen, is the responsible one):
"Hey Mom! Where are you?"
"At Arlington Cemetery."
"What are you doing there?
"Well, Michelle Obama has a program here on women in the military, and I'm writing about it."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Honey, you are going to have to walk home."
"But it's cold."
"And my face is cold."
"But my coat doesn't have a zipper."
"I know, honey, I meant to get that fixed, but I didn't have time."
"I know, but you can do it. I know you can."
He hung up. And that cold guilt that any working mother has felt shot up my spine. I tucked the guilt back in with the other emotions, behind the folders that can't properly contain a mother's guilt neatly. The emotions are always spilling over. A mother's love is this way sometimes. Messy.
"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.
The event would begin at 9 a.m. There would be an evening event, as well. The press needed to be at the White House by 8 a.m. I told the kid that he would have to get to bed early, so he could get to school early and I could get to the White House on time. He complained.
The next morning, everything went as planned. I made it to the White House, wrote the story. Editors were pleased. Another White House event was planned that same evening at 6 p.m. I told my editor I would have to get the kid from school first. I raced across town. Got the kid from school. Rushed home. Helped him with his homework. Fed him the quickest dinner I could prepare: pasta, an apple and a glass of milk. Called the Dadster, who told me I could drop him off at his office by 5. His office was near the White House and that would give me enough time to get to the White House by 6.
The kid and I left for downtown later than expected. But there was still time. We hit traffic near Thomas Circle, but managed. We got to 16th Street. By then, it was 5:30. I called the Dadster on the phone. "Didn't you get my e-mail," he said. "I'm at home." There was no way I could get the kid back uptown then make it to the White House on time.
Superwoman needed help. I called all my friends at the office. Everybody is busy when you need them most.
So I did what a good mother would do. "Hey," I said, "there is the Hay Adams hotel. That's where the Obamas stayed before the inauguration. It's a great hotel. Why don't you have dinner here and wait for dad."
"I'm not hungry."
"Well, you could have a soda."
I rushed in. There was no time to spare. I gave him $60 in cash, sat him at a table with a white table cloth near the window overlooking the White House, and I told the hostess the kid would be having dinner. He was accustomed to five-star restaurants and hotels from his travels.
Then I left.
I raced across Lafayette Park in high heels. Made it through security checks for the media, just in enough time to wait. The event would start in an hour.
I had no way to confirm that my kid was OK.
I had to have faith.
"Honey, you have no idea how bad I feel, but you are a seasoned traveler. I knew you would be OK."
The day done, he wants more attention. He wants to play Monopoly.
I am exhausted, but I sit on the carpet in the sun room. I am right in the middle of buying some property on the cheap side of the board when the phone rings and someone is telling me about something the Obamas are doing.
And I excuse myself from the Monopoly game. Run to the computer. File what I need to file. Then run back to the Monopoly board and the kid looks at me and says, "Next time the phone rings, don't answer it. Even if it is the White House!"
I apologize. The next question comes from one of the folders. The Mother's Guilt Folder. Why I asked it then, I don't know. But clearly, I needed reassurance: "Am I a good mother?"
"Yes," the kid says.
He lines up the fake Monopoly money.
"But now," he says, "you are the banker."
DeNeen Brown is a staff writer in the Style section of the Washington Post.