As I’ve written here previously, I’m an ardent admirer of Michelle Obama, particularly her ability to make the seamless life seem so easy. This upcoming book on the Obamas by Chris Anderson, which is intended to portray Mrs. Obama as an insolent, money-hungry shrew of a wife, makes me like her even more.
Anderson’s book describes that in the early years of her marriage, Mrs. Obama — who herself was working full time — had the audacity to demand that her husband, a rising political star in the Illinois state senate, assume his fair share of responsibility for house cleaning and child-rearing. Not only that, but Mrs. Obama stands accused of being overly materialistic: she derided her husband for staying in the state senate instead of taking a job at a major law firm where he could earn “real money” at a time when the couple had just had their first child and they were “poor as church mice.”
On the surface, it’s not unreasonable to criticize Mrs. Obama. After all, didn’t she act selfishly by trying to hold her husband back from a promising career just to accommodate her more ordinary one? As the partner in her marriage with less potential, shouldn’t Mrs. Obama have kept her mouth shut, stepped aside and subordinated her career to that of her husband?
Absolutely not. Irrespective of whose job carried more promise, both Obamas worked full time. As such, Mrs. Obama was justified in expecting her husband to carry out his fair share in house cleaning and child rearing. To demand any less would have required Mrs. Obama to accept second class status within her marriage and also in the eyes of her daughters.
So how do Michelle Obama’s demands for equality and respect within her marriage relate to starting a law firm? Well often, the partner in the marriage who starts a firm is expected, as Mrs. Obama was, to play second fiddle. To accept the lion’s share of child-rearing and grocery shopping. To take the day off when the kids are sick or on vacation. And to do it all while starting or running a law firm. Even now, on those days when my daughters have a day off from school and my husband needs to stay home so that I can work, my mom will ask “How is it that Bruce can take off from his job?” To which I respond, “Well, how is that I always manage to take time off from my job? How is Bruce’s situation any different?” Fortunately, my husband never bought into this line of thinking.
Of course, in many instances, one parent often decides to start a practice and accept an initial cut in pay to achieve more flexibility. In that situation, it’s fair for the parent with more flexibility to shoulder more of the child-rearing burden. But at the same time, accepting more responsibility because of a flexible work situation doesn’t mean accepting all responsibility. I’ve seen situations where lawyers who solo need more support from their spouse, but they don’t feel justified in asking either because (1) they don’t view their practice as a “real” job or (2) they feel guilty for failing to contribute financially to the family. Yet without support — which might take the form of a spouse coming home early to allow his wife to get to a networking event or or cutting back on eating lunches out to free up funds so she can afford a legal training class — a solo’s practice will inevitably flounder. And the ensuing failure only makes the solo feel guiltier for starting a firm and compromising the household’s financial security.
That’s where Michelle Obama inspires. Mrs. Obama had the guts to demand that her husband — a future President of the United States of America — start picking up his socks and doing his fair share of raising their daughters. Why should those of us who run our own practices demand any less from our partners?