Michelle Obama’s Balancing Act

Rebecca M. Blank
Rebecca M. Blank Chancellor - University of Wisconsin-Madison, Former Brookings Expert

January 30, 2009

Michelle Obama stepped into the policy spotlight as first lady on Thursday at President Barack Obama’s signing of the equal-pay bill. How might Mrs. Obama bring her voice to issues of work-life balance? Rebecca Blank along with other experts comment on what issues Mrs. Obama should elevate in an

op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Michelle Obama knows what it’s like to balance a more-than-full-time job with parenting and did it almost as a single mother when her husband was on the campaign trail. Of course, she also has a mother willing to babysit and the financial ability to pay for good child care when she needs it.

Both men and women struggle with work-family choices, wanting to be good parents but also needing to work full-time. How can Mrs. Obama help these people?

First, she can speak to the importance of employers being willing to recognize that most employees also have family obligations. Too many workers (and especially women) fear they will be punished in the workplace if they occasionally prioritize their children over their jobs.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted under President Bill Clinton, allows people with major family needs to take unpaid time off without retribution and this was an important step. But it doesn’t solve the problem for parents whose children have snow days, or whose child care arrangements fall through, or who want to show up at school occasionally in the afternoon to be part of what’s happening in their child’s classroom.

Many parents don’t have flexible jobs, and they can deal with these situations only if they have a boss who will let them occasionally come in early, or work late, or make up time in another way.

Mrs. Obama can make it clear that good employers do this, perhaps by recognizing firms known for their family-friendly practices. This doesn’t mean that parents work fewer hours or work less intensively than others, just that they and other workers who face serious family needs have the ability to go to their boss and say: “Can we work out a way in which I can continue to do my job well, but can also respond to the occasional needs of my children or other family members?”

Second, Mrs. Obama could give recognition to the very real child care needs in this country. In too many communities, high-quality child care slots are limited, or too expensive for many families. For those parents who work weekend or evening hours, there are often no child care options outside of piecing together care from friends and nearby family.

During the last decade, both state and federal child care supplements to lower-income working mothers have become much more available. But there is still a long way to go. When low-income single mothers are asked about the problems they face in holding full-time employment, stable, affordable and high-quality child care is usually the No. 1 topic. Since the mid-1990s, we’ve reorganized our social assistance programs to assume that single mothers will work. If we demand work, we have to make sure that child care is available as well.

There is growing evidence that children’s healthy development is helped by high-quality preschool programs, just as there is evidence that parents who are actively involved in their children’s lives are more effective parents. Let’s set up our society in a way that recognizes the importance of good child care and good parenting. That’s a topic Mrs. Obama can say a lot about in the next four years.