Nov. 27, 2008—In this season of thanksgiving, I'm grateful for women. Not just my female friends, relatives and colleagues but women whose oft-uncelebrated sacrifices keep the world running.
Women like the ones President-elect Barack Obama has lost, and the one with whom he remains. They all remind me of a beautiful, little-known song: "Roots and Wings."
They're what great parents and spouses give their loved ones: grounding to feel secure, wings to soar. The song, written by Washington, D.C.-area guitarist-songwriter Lea, says that having roots and wings give people an unmistakable feeling: "I'm not scared of anything."
Today, Michelle Obama, the President-elect's most visible source of both roots and wings, is consumed with preparing her daughters to leave their lifelong home. As jubilant as Michelle Obama must be over her husband's victory—and over finally having her family "under one roof," as she described it on 60 Minutes—part of her must be aching.
The world, of course, is fixated on her husband. After a brutal campaign, he has taken on a perfect storm of wars and economic woes—all while mourning his beloved grandmother. With so much distracting us, it's easy to forget it's only been three weeks.
What's it like, losing your life's most powerful link to your past while achieving its greatest triumph?
Madelyn Dunham—the grandmother with whom Obama came of age in Hawaii—provided Obama with his early life's roots. His mother gave him his wings. In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama describes Stanley Ann Dunham—his mother hated her masculine first moniker—as a sensitive child who rejected organized religion when she observed "godly" people hiding their dirty secrets under sanctity's cloak. Yet she took her son to churches, Buddhist temples and Hawaiian burial sites to see how religion helps people "understand the deeper truths in their lives."
This Midwestern girl's openness allowed her to marry men from Kenya and Indonesia—choices no doubt astounding to her peers. The gifts of her compassion, years abroad, and receptivity to seeing foreign worlds through an embracing lens would influence her son's global vision, his search for common ground with opponents, and his seemingly crazy, "I'm not scared of anything" belief, which enabled him to become President.
As a black mother, I've been scared of plenty, especially the limitations racism would place on my sons. On Nov. 4, two white women—Obama's mother and grandmother, the Bank of Hawaii vice-president who taught him to embrace hard work—helped to change that.
But they're gone. Now, the woman in whose capable hands they left him has her own concerns.
Talk about a First Lady; Michelle will be the first black woman to occupy that exalted post. Such cultural pioneers feel tremendous responsibility—even without the world's scrutiny. Daughters Sasha and Malia will be the first young kids to occupy the White House in decades; their every slumber party, mall visit and public pout will be duly noted.
But my concern for Michelle Obama has less to do with firsts and more to do with being second–to the 300 million Americans to whom her husband has pledged himself. Though hugely accomplished in her own right—Harvard Law grad, corporate attorney, major hospital executive—she has repeatedly taken a back seat to her husband's ambition and sense of purpose.
Now it's to the whole country.
On 60 Minutes, Obama showed both her fondness and feistiness—holding her husband's hand as she teasingly challenged his claim of enjoying dishwashing. Asked what causes might espouse as First Lady, Michelle mentioned being concerned about women's struggle to balance work and family.
She isn't alone. While interviewing women for a book on the subject, I've listened to countless wives' frustration over working hard at jobs while carrying the lioness' share of housework and childcare. Some have tears in their eyes as they describe how torn they feel between fulfilling careers and endless duties performed for the families they love.
Michelle Obama feels their pain. In "Audacity" her husband wrote that after Malia's birth "my failure to clean up the kitchen suddenly became less endearing." After Sasha appeared, his frequent absences resulted in "my wife's anger toward me [seeming] barely contained."
In an April 2007 speech, Michelle Obama put it this way: "More often than not, we as women are [our homes'] primary caretakers….Scheduling babysitters, planning play dates, keeping up with regular doctor's appointments… supervising homework, handling our discipline…laundry, cleaning, cooking, shopping, home repairs."
Her tone turned joking: "You know Barack has my back." The crowd laughed.
Now a large staff will have Michelle Obama's back. Though the mundane duties that overwhelm most women will in her case be taken care of, some things won't change. Her girls will see less of their daddy than she'd prefer and it will fall to her to fill in the blanks. She'll worry even more than the rest of us about her mate's safety. Considering the nation's reaction to Hillary Clinton's ill-fated "co-presidency," her powerful influence on her husband may be muted. And in the tradition of "firsts," she will be dissected like no presidential wife in history (already, Internet denizens are arguing whether appreciating her Afrocentric rear end is simple pride or sexist piffle.)
But when people's jobs and savings are being lost, few will get worked up about one wealthy woman's tough balancing act.
Especially if her husband is saving the world.
Whatever causes this gifted woman supports, Michelle Obama's top job may be providing roots and wings for Ann's and Madelyn's—and now her nation's—Barack. Supplying these to one's husband is a vocation millions of women embrace—and feel torn and resentful about in ways they find difficult to express.
No man will need his wife's sustenance more. Yet some part of Michelle Obama may be unfulfilled.
I'm grateful to the three women whose devotion gave roots to the President-elect who has the world's hopes soaring. And to millions more who, even in these liberated times, make largely unnoticed sacrifices to provide wings to their men and families.
Even when it means clipping their own.
Donna Britt is currently writing a memoir for Little, Brown and Company.
Hear recording artist Lea's song "Roots and Wings" at Stumbleaudio.com.
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