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Mother's Day, Redefined

By Claire Shipman and Katty Kay

This Sunday Michelle Obama will spend her first mother’s day in the White House. We don’t know much about the surprises planned — other than that they will almost certainly involve her two daughters, her happens-to-be-President of a husband and a dog named Bo.

Yes, she already gets a fantastic breakfast every day, superbly prepared by the White House Chef, but she’s no doubt looking forward to something more . . . authentic.

You know, the burned waffle, soggy bacon, and over-filled orange juice glass combination that somehow, inexplicably, makes our insides glow. You can just tell that Mrs. Obama, First Lady or not, relishes those prosaic joys. Though she’s been busy with a number of issues in her first 100 plus days in office, the one impression that really sticks so far — she’s just crazy about those girls. (O.K. And the clothes.)

How refreshing. Think about it. This is also the first mother’s day that we’ve had a new role model in the White House. Our first post-feminist first lady. Mrs.Obama, that hugely accomplished, highly-educated lawyer, with a Harvard and Princeton pedigree no less, did not arrive on the East Lawn with any chip on her shoulder. (A boulder of the sort that we later learned had been crushing poor Cherie Blair, for example. Her advice to the incoming first lady — learn to like the back seat.)

No — Michelle doesn’t seem to have anything to prove — any angst over the fact that her “career” might be on hold for a while — any frustration because she might technically be as “smart” as that guy next to her who’s running the country.

Mrs. O. represents instead a new wave of women in their 40s who are starting to embrace the fact that their career may come in waves, instead of a straight path to a questionable “top.” Women more and more are making seemingly counter-intuitive decisions about work — rejecting promotions, turning down better paid positions, in order to gain what they really want — time.

Time with kids, time for marathons, time for their lives. They are dialling back careers, working three or four day weeks, whatever the formula — knowing it’s the right decision for right now. True, for many of us it hasn’t been easy to reach this modern nirvana. And yes, many of us do worry about the future.

But having Michelle Obama out there making the moves all look so strong and sensible sure helps.
It’s extraordinary, really, to have somebody as alpha and a-list and accomplished as Mrs.Obama basically saying — it’s O.K. to savour your family, to put them first for a while. It should seem 1950’s — but it doesn’t, somehow, coming from her. (Despite the occasional full pleated skirt we’ve noticed in her wardrobe.)

And this isn’t a choice she made recently, by the way. Sure, you might think. Easy to dial back when your fallback position is FIRST LADY! But even as a young lawyer in fact, Michelle seems to have known instinctively that in life you CAN have it all, but you don’t have to have it all or even do it all, at the same time.

She made career trade-offs early on. She left her big salary, and the hard-to-abandon “prestige” of a slot at a top Chicago law firm after a few years — rejecting the hours and the stress to pursue city government work. Just as many hours and as much stress, but she liked it better.

When her children were born, she knew she needed time and flexibility. She sought a job with the University of Chicago Hospital system — near her home and the children’s school.

Indeed she often tells the story of how she actually had a babysitter bail on her the day of her interview — and decided, at the last minute, instead of cancelling, to bring Malia, in stroller, along. That way, she figured, her priorities would be clear. Now that’s confidence.

She understood that careers are no longer straight, forbidding ladders than need to be climbed with gritted teeth. And she also understood that she wanted a hand in raising her children. That it’s finally fine to admit women are not the same as men. She understood the genius of what we call Womenomics, a workplace revolution led by and designed for all professional women.

Women have more power in the marketplace than ever before. We are more valuable to companies than we realize. Indeed, businesses that employ more senior women actually make more money. We are better educated than men. We consume more. Our management styles are not only different, but essential. We’re, you guessed it, more feminine. We consult, conciliate, and avoid high-risk. And it works.

Companies need and want us, and that power is enabling us to remake the workplace into a more flexible, less linear place. Women everywhere are negotiating for what they really want — control over their time. A majority of career women say they would happily trade status and money for more of that invaluable commodity.

And really — doesn’t it make sense, isn’t it nice, to be able to get what we really want? Oh we’re not all ruling out the top, mind you. We’d just like the option to take another path.

So when we hear, occasionally, the argument that Mrs. Obama is somehow committing professional suicide and betraying her feminist forebears by giving up her career, or in focusing to heavily on being a home-maker as First Lady, we beg to differ. Big time.

Does anybody really doubt that Michelle Obama, or other women like her, will be able get back into the workforce? Please. In fact, she’s helping all women by continuing to redefine feminism in ways that really work for us. Saner careers, that might ebb and flow. Isn’t that a feminist victory?

Claire Shipman & Katty Kay are co-authors of Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success. Claire, senior national correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America, lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.

Katty, Washington correspondent and anchor for BBC World News America, lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and four children.

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