Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. According to Wikipedia, this is “is a celebration honoring the mother of the family, as well as motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society.” That Mother’s Day is upon us is no doubt a significant part of the reason why there have been a number of reports in recent days about comments Michelle Obama makes in the Netflix documentary “Becoming” about being a mother.
Peter Debruge’s article for Variety begins by pointing out that while the official White House web site has biographies of the first ladies, and many begin with “some variation on the phrase ‘So-and-So was the wife of President Such-and-Such,’” Michelle Obama’s entry begins, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is a lawyer, writer, and the wife of the 44th President, Barack Obama.” That is noteworthy, Debruge writes: “Lawyer first, writer second and then wife.”
It is interesting that Debruge highlights that, because if you look at the full White House biography, the second paragraph begins, “When people ask Michelle Obama to describe herself, she doesn’t hesitate to say that first and foremost, she is Malia and Sasha’s mom.” That the appearance of Obama’s daughters comes so early in her biography is also notable. The biography of Melania Trump, for example, does not mention until paragraph five that “she is first and foremost a mother and wife.” The biography of Hillary Clinton does not mention daughter Chelsea until the seventh paragraph and the biography of Laura Bush does not mention her twin daughters Jenna and Barbara until the last paragraph.
Why am I beginning a post on motherhood by examining Michelle Obama’s White House biography? Precisely because, as I said in the first paragraph, Obama made comments about motherhood in the Netflix documentary that are unsettling to some.
Writing earlier this week for The Western Journal, Carmine Sabia began an article, “It is astounding how members of the Democratic Party openly discuss the miracle of giving birth as if it were a disease.” I do not necessarily disagree with that statement in principle; there have been plenty of notable instances of denigrating motherhood and celebrating abortion. But Sabia, and Joshua Caplan in an article on Breitbart the day before, both fixated on the fact that Obama says during the documentary that she gave up some of her own aspirations and dreams to become a mother.
“My relationship with Barack was all about our equal partnership,” Obama says. “If I was going to have a unique voice with this very opinionated man, I had to get myself up and set myself off to a place where I was going to be his equal.” No real surprise there; we all know that Michelle Obama was a Harvard-educated attorney. But she goes on to say, “The thing that really changed it was the birth of our children. I wasn’t really ready for that. That really made it harder. Something had to give and it was my aspirations and dreams.”
Sabia and Caplan both make this the emphasis. Michelle Obama is saying that motherhood cost her her aspirations and dreams! “Imagine being Sasha and Malia Obama — two accomplished, beautiful young ladies who just learned that they ruined their mother’s life,” Sabia writes. “Imagine the pain of hearing those words, to know that your life was a ‘concession’ that caused your mother to ‘tone down’ her aspirations.”
Sadly, I think Sabia and Caplan both miss the point in their effort to denigrate Obama and Democrats in general. She also says in the documentary, “I made that concession not because he [Barack Obama] said ‘you have to quit your job,’ but it felt like ‘I can’t do all of this so I have to tone down my aspirations, I have to dial it back.” That is a stark and worthy contrast to what Michelle Williams said when in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in January. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without employing a woman’s right to choose, to choose when to have my children and with whom,” she said. That is a deeply troubling statement. Williams was publicly celebrating the fact that she ended the life of her unborn child in order to pursue her own dreams and to achieve success in her chosen profession. Obama acknowledged that in choosing motherhood she also chose to forego some of the other things she might have done without having children or without choosing to be a devoted mother.
That is really what motherhood is, though. Every mother could do something different with her life if she did not have children. Caitlin Weaver wrote an article in February 2019 entitled “The Inconvenience of Motherhood.” Weaver’s thoughts are honest reflections on what it costs to be a mother. “I seesawed wildly back and forth about having kids,” she wrote on the day her son turned one. “Even while actively trying to get pregnant, all I could think about were the sacrifices ahead.” She goes on, however, to say this:
Far from robbing me of my identity, motherhood has brought it into sharper focus.
I have never been clearer about the things I value. I worried that as a mother I wouldn’t have time for the long list of things I thought made me me. As it turns out, I didn’t. Motherhood, however, has made me ruthlessly honest about how many of those were things that truly brought me joy….
Motherhood has a way of changing what is important, Weaver admits. “So yes, there have been sacrifices. Along the way, though, life sneakily reprioritized itself so that the changes I feared don’t feel so important after all. I do love my child more than I ever thought possible, and it is an honor to be his mother.” I find Weaver’s comments to be refreshingly honest. She is well aware of the things that she gave up to become a mother and she finds that being a mother is worth far more than what she could have done instead. Indeed, she has come to a place where she wonders how much time she was wasting on things that did not—and do not—matter. In thinking back to the minutes she “squandered pre-children” Weaver wonders, “How is it that I didn’t train for an Iron Man, cure cancer, and write a heavily footnoted historical novel?” I am not sure, of course, but I think it is fair to say that she would not now give up being a mother in order to do any of those things. Could Michelle Obama have won dozens or court cases, been a successful politician herself, or written more best-selling books had she not become a mother? Who knows. Probably. But I do not think that she would give up Sasha and Malia to do that.
In fact, I think just the opposite. Last July, when Megan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, had a baby, USA Today ran an article highlighting Obama’s “best quotes on motherhood.” Obama told Markle, “When Malia and Sasha were newborns, Barack and I could lose hours just watching them sleep. We loved to listen to the little sounds they’d make – especially the way they cooed when they were deep into dreaming.” I do not know of a parent who cannot remember the sheer pleasure of watching a newborn sleeping. “Savor it all,” Obama said.
In a 2015 commencement address at Tuskegee University Obama said,
I love our daughters more than anything in the world ― more than life itself. And while that may not be the first thing that some folks want to hear from an Ivy-league-educated lawyer, it is truly who I am. So for me, being Mom-in-Chief is, and always will be, job number one.
That does not sound like a mother who resents the sacrifices that she made or the aspirations that she gave up to become a mother. Far from criticizing her honesty, then, let’s express admiration and appreciation to Michelle Obama for the choice that she made to be a mother. We do not have to agree with everything that she has done or said or everything that she stands for. We do not even have to like her. But she made the conscious choice to put her own aspirations aside in order to be a mother.
Whether they have ever said it so clearly or bluntly as Michelle Obama, every mother made a similar decision. And every one of us who is alive owes our lives to mothers who made that decision. So, thank you, Mrs. Obama. And Happy Mother’s Day.
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