"First and foremost, I am struggling every day to try to keep it together."
This was Michelle Obama, current embodiment of "put together" woman, chatting with a group of suburban moms in an Episcopal church in a well-heeled Philadelphia suburb on Thursday, part of a daylong swing across southeastern Pennsylvania in advance of the the state's all-important April 22 primary. Around her sat five women, all working moms of preschoolers, all with fresh hairdos and nice handbags and, it must be said, all white -- though not all Democrats. Their children's class had just been treated to a reading of Dr. Seuss by Mrs. Obama, who then came upstairs for a little girl talk.
[Obligatory Michelle Obama fashion report: Gray wide-legged chalk-stripe pants, white scoop-neck top with wide black belt, with a black cardigan. Call it Daytime Fierce.]
Carla Van Winkle said the Child Care Tax Credit is nice and all, but seems unrealistic given what day-care really costs. "I pay a lot more than $5,000 a year," she said. High school teacher Michelle Daniszewski talked about how she was torn over whether to return to work after the birth of her second child, now 20 months old, but "it really made sense just for the benefits." The flip side? "I'm spending over $40,000 a year in day care," more than half her salary, she said.
Maria Spahr, whose job at 3M means frequent travel away from her young daughter, said without family members nearby to help out, her own delicate domestic balancing act would fail. Obama talked about how fortunate she was to have her mother alive, available and willing to help her care for Malia and Sasha while she and Barack are out campaigning, saying "She is helping me raise my girls, which is allowing me to breathe." At this point even I couldn't suppress a knowing smile, thinking about how my mother would be greeting my son's school bus that afternoon.
Ann Londergan, a certified nurse midwife who works with a Philadelphia based-nonprofit, talked about inadequate health care that clogs hospital emergency rooms, and how No Child Left Behind is killing our schools. Several of the women wondered whether money we're pouring into the war effort wouldn't be better spent at home. Obama plugged her husband's promise of universal health care and reminded them of his plans to bring troops home. Obama also acknowledged the struggles of women who, unlike those sitting around her, are trying to keep it all together without living wages, health insurance, a second family income or even a first.
Obama framed these challenges around her own struggle as a "hundred-and-ten percent-er," part of a generation of women raised to believe they could "have it all" but never actually told what that means or most importantly, how to achieve it. "As a hundred and ten percent-er, I always feel like I'm failing," Obama said. She sees herself as part of a "a generation of women plagued with guilt, dealing with the guilt of that failure and what kind of psychological effect is that having?" It's becoming a familiar refrain lately -- Tina Fey recently described the life of a working parent as "constantly saying, 'This is impossible,' and then you just keep doing it."
Through it all, I couldn't help thinking about Abigail Adams, and what America's second First Lady might have taken away from the conversation. Michelle Obama's "keeping it together" comment reminded me a lot of something similar I'd heard earlier in the week from Mrs. Adams. OK, it was actress Laura Linney playing Abigail Adams in HBO miniseries John Adams, which premieres Sunday.
There's a part in the series' second episode, during the hard months leading up to the Declaration of Independence, in which Abigail is seen struggling to keep the family's Massachusetts farm running, to raise a passel of kids (including a future president) and to keep "the pox" at bay. Meanwhile, her husband is off in Philadelphia doing the "man's work" of politics. Yet Abigail wonders: when she opens the kitchen pantry to find it empty, isn't that politics? When half-dead soldiers show up at her door looking for food or water, isn't that politics? When her children huddle in her bed at night, frightened by the sound of British Navy cannons firing on Boston, isn't that politics? Her words stuck with me with all week, as political women from Geraldine Ferraro to Silda Spitzer made their way across the front pages.
Adams' point, of course, wasn't just "Remember the ladies." It was that not only are all politics local, they are personal, a kind of trickle-down socioeconomics in which the decisions made and actions taken (or untaken) by politicians far away resound in the homes of every American like the cannons fire in the distance. In her own very modern, and very put together way, I think Michelle Obama and was saying the same thing.