The Obamas’ “seesaw marriage” could be a model for modern relationships. Leading up to their engagement, Michelle and Barack Obama had very different
The Obamas’ “seesaw marriage” could be a model for modern relationships. Leading up to their engagement, Michelle and Barack Obama had very different ideas of what marriage should be.
“He saw marriage as the loving alignment of two people who could lead parallel lives but without forgoing any independent dreams or ambitions,” Michelle Obama writes in her memoir Becoming, released on Tuesday. “For me, marriage was more like a full-on merger, a reconfiguring of two lives into one, with the well-being of a family taking precedence over any one agenda or goal.”
What they forged in the years that followed, Obama writes in Becoming, was a little bit of both: a marriage in which each supported the other, and each person sometimes made sacrifices for the other’s career.
It’s a high-profile version of what journalist Hanna Rosin has called the “seesaw marriage.” In such a marriage, she writes in her 2012 book The End of Men, “the division of earnings might be 40:60 or 80:20 — and a year or two later may flip, giving each partner a shot at satisfaction.”
Such marriages may be becoming more common. Couples are saying, “We’re no longer going to just assume that the man’s job has priority,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at the Evergreen State College. “I think that’s a sea change in marriages.”
The Obamas’ marriage reveals some of the strengths of seesaw marriages — both partners have been able to have fulfilling careers, and take risks, even while raising two children. At the same time, the setup has potential pitfalls: The partner who steps back to support the other’s career may not get the chance to step forward again. And because of the gendered nature of work and child care in America, the partner who gets short shrift in a heterosexual couple is often the woman.
Michelle Obama took a big step away from her career path when her husband became president, leaving her job at the University of Chicago Medical Center to become the first lady — a big job, certainly, but not one she necessarily would have chosen on her own.
Now that the Obamas are no longer in the White House, it may be Michelle’s time to step forward again — and what both she and her husband do next could be a model for couples nationwide.
She took the job. Soon after they were married, Obama made another job change, this time becoming executive director of Public Allies, an organization that trained future community leaders. Again, her husband encouraged her to make the leap, and he worked multiple jobs, in part to compensate for the pay cut she’d taken when she left the law.
Soon, however, it was her turn to support him. When he wanted to run for Illinois state Senate in 1996, she wasn’t sure it was a good idea. But, she writes, “he was the lone person who had waved me forward when I wanted to leave my law career,” and “in our six years together, he hadn’t once doubted my instincts or my capabilities.” She gave him her blessing, and he ran and won.
So began a political career for Barack Obama during which his wife would have to make many sacrifices — in an already much-cited passage in Becoming, she writes about giving herself the injections she needed for IVF while her husband was consumed by his job in the state legislature.
But when his family needed him, he was capable of saying no to politics — when their daughter Malia, then a toddler, got sick on a trip to Hawaii, Barack missed a crucial state Senate vote to stay with the family.
Perhaps in part as a result, he lost his primary bid to represent Illinois’s First District in Congress in 2000 — after a brutal campaign in which, Michelle Obama writes, “it was almost as if every day he were forced to cast another vote, between family and politics, politics and family.”
Those kinds of choices are still more familiar to mothers than to fathers, who are expected to go all-in on their careers — but for her husband, Obama writes, family was always crucial, even when work was at its most intense.
Of course, it was Michelle Obama who ended up making some of the biggest sacrifices of their marriage. When her husband’s presidential campaign kicked into high gear after the 2008 Iowa caucus, she took a leave of absence from her job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, “knowing that it would be impossible, really, to stay on and be effective.”
“It had been painful,” she writes, “to step away from my work, but there was no choice: My family needed me, and that mattered more.” Obama became an active first lady, and made the role her own, based on what she’d already learned in a successful and varied career: “After all I’d done to lever myself out of corporate law and into more meaningful community-minded work, I knew I’d be happiest if I could engage actively and work toward achieving measurable results.”
Still, she hadn’t wanted her husband to run for office in the first place, and living in the White House wasn’t one of her goals when she agreed to marry Barack Obama. When he ran for president, the seesaw of their marriage tipped, out of necessity, toward him.
Source: MSN News