Michelle Obama Knows ‘Having It All’ Is a Lie, and We Need to Talk About Why
When Michelle Obama dropped an S-bomb during a promotional event for her new memoir, Becoming, it became a national news story. The otherwise preternaturally composed former First Lady was addressing a Brooklyn, New York audience on Saturday night when, reflecting on the challenges women face in balancing career success with family life, she remarked, “It’s not enough to ‘lean in.’ Because that shit doesn’t work all the time.”
PG-13 language aside (Obama quickly apologized), her dig at the coinage of currently embattled Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t go unnoticed — nor did Obama take it back.
The central argument of Sandberg’s 2013 memoir-cum-self-help manifesto, Lean In, is that women’s failure to professionally advance at the rate of their male colleagues is owed, in part, to a gender-informed hesitancy to self-advocate, or “lean in.” Sandberg urged women to do just that, instructing them to bullishly ascend corporate hierarchies in order to transform their workplaces into more equitable institutions, from the inside.
The argument has been widely panned for its downplaying of the systemic and institutional barriers to career success that are posed against women (and especially women of color and marginalized identities) in and outside the workplace. Yet, Sandberg’s call to arms was also cautiously embraced by a number of prominent progressive feminists, including Naomi Wolf and Jessica Valenti.
“The detractors underestimate how radical Sandberg’s messages are for a mainstream audience,” Valenti wrote in response to the mounting backlash that precipitated Lean In’s release. Valenti went on to praise Sandberg for arguing “that women should insist that their partners do an equal share of domestic work and child care.”
Whether there’s any merit in relitigating the half-decade-long debate that’s surrounded Sandberg’s mantra for professionally ambitious women is a matter of personal taste. But the sheer fact of the catchphrase’s cultural staying power is worth paying attention to, especially in light of the OTHER thing Michelle Obama said in her talk on Saturday: that “having it all” is impossible.
“That whole ‘so you can have it all’? Nope, not at the same time,” said the 54-year-old Harvard Law School graduate. “That’s a lie.”
Obama would know better than most. Daughters Sasha and Malia were, respectively, 7 and 10 when husband Barack campaigned for the US presidency — a move that, by sheer logistics alone, required Michelle to step down from her executive-level role at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
Michelle Obama’s relinquishment of her career path to take on the role of First Lady is just one example of the type of sacrifice many modern women may feel disinclined to make, on principle, in the quest to have it all — or, at least, do it all. We might reasonably ask ourselves why we should be the ones to forfeit career aspirations for the sake of the family unit.
But, in Michelle Obama’s case and many others, stepping back from her work seems like a logical concession, something that notions of “having it all” don’t leave room for. When women’s professional success is equated to female advancement at-large, individual women may feel like feminist letdowns for sidelining their careers.
The fact is that, for working parents, there are always compromises. Sure, Michelle Obama had to put aside her career when her husband decided to try for the presidency. But, in many cases, people with professional demands like those of the pre-2008 Obamas need to outsource a sizable share of child-minding and household duties to paid, outside staff. In order to advance in one arena of their lives (say, their careers), people sacrifice their availability to others (like time spent at home with family).
The flipside of corporate, careerist metrics of social advancement for women is — ironically — a further devaluing of the traditionally female domain of domestic labor. What incentive is there for men to pull their weight at home — or, heck, for anyone to hang with the kids but paid staff — when it’s seen as so lowly to do just that?
Yes, women’s rise in the workplace has blown open doors. But the conflation of women’s professional success with the gender’s liberation at-large has made the important work of childrearing and household management something of an afterthought — before we even make the case that men have a duty to participate. It effectively means that the emotionally intensive work of child care and household management is treated as insubstantial gruntwork, relegated to (usually female) low-wage workers.
An idea of “having it all” that relies on a thriving work and family life, compromise-free, contributes to a less equitable society, and not the other way around. The sooner we get real about this, the sooner we’ll be able to get past petty debates about which way to lean.
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)