Michelle Obama, high-level
Juxtapose Harvard Law School graduate Obama’s comments with the recent Newsweek  cover story , “Women & Power: Do Women Really Lead Differently Than Men? Lessons From the Front.” Clearly something is going on. Women -- successful and powerful women -- are loudly speaking out and telling the world that trying to have flourishing careers PLUS shouldering a disproportionate burden of the child-rearing and housework isn’t easy (or even simultaneously possible), and that no one individual really corners the market on how to do it “the right way.” Because there is no one right way.
After reading Newsweek’s profiles of politicians, academics, athletes, businesswomen, actresses, philanthropists, Hollywood writers/producers, scientists and civic activists, I found them to be inspiring. There was a distinct potency to reading this collection of diverse stories – about women who climbed the traditional corporate ladder, who took off-ramps, who were at-home parents, who became entrepreneurs or took avenues they never imagined they’d venture when their lives took unpredictable turns. Women’s civic and business power, the Newsweek package seemed to be saying, comes in different forms than traditional male power. And there isn’t one definite manner of getting it.
Take the essay, “An Authentic Life,” written by former NBC journalist Maria Shriver , wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Writing bluntly about what a shock it was to go from being a well-known, national newswoman to being a state’s “first lady” (which she said is “not an official position at all”), Shriver said: “I now understand that true power has very little to do with what’s on your resume. It’s about being true to yourself and finding your own voice and path in the world.” Saying that there are powerful women who take alternate career routes than men, Shriver questioned why some folks think that the men’s direct route is the only way to achieve. “So many women my age thought that success meant being like a man: wanting the same job a man would have and getting paid the same money – basically copying the male resume,” Shriver said. “But I think a lot of us who went that route now feel ambivalent about the sacrifices we made. What were we really accomplishing? What was the cost, not just to others, but to ourselves? Was there another way to do it? . . . I think this ambivalence explains why you now see so many women working to craft jobs that fit into their overall lives as opposed to blindly accepting the model in which power is achieved solely by climbing the corporate ladder.”
Then there was award-winning actress Kyra Sedgwick, star of TV’s “The Closer,” who wrote an essay  about how, after becoming a mother, she took a few years off from acting and subsequently felt conflicted about her identity as a mother and a professional. “I had this dream that somehow I’d be so fulfilled, and I wouldn’t need to work,” she wrote. “I bought into this ideal that one should just stay home and be with one’s children, that that should be enough. It’s taken me a really long time to embrace my ambition and to embrace my need to express myself and to accept it in a loving way as part of who I am instead of putting myself down for it.” Now, as she reflects on the angst of her early years of motherhood, she said, “. . . [I]f there’s anything I wish I could look back on and change about my life, it’s that I wish I hadn’t given myself such a hard time.”
A few pages later, accompanying an article about female governors  changing the way voters perceive elected officials, was an interesting photo  of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, mother of four: Palin was in a crosswalk, reading her BlackBerry, carrying a can of Red Bull and sporting red power blazer. Trailing behind her were two of her children, including a girl skipping rope. Aside from the fact that Palin’s a governor, this image could well have been of any generic, professional, multi-tasking mom of young kids.
Later in the Newsweek package were short “What I Learned” responses from women about how they overcame career obstacles. Among them was Swanee Hunt , the founding director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard, who urged women to recognize that they’re not alone with the challenges they face. “All over the world, women leaders struggle to balance the responsibilities of their families and their jobs,” Hunt wrote. “We need to pass on to the next generation the idea that your family is more than your own children. This will allow women to let other people help raise their kids, for one thing. You don’t have to be the sole person, the sole influence on your kids. That will then allow more women to be out in the world, working with their passions, shaping the future of many, many, many more kids.”
Hearing from the likes of Obama, Shriver and Sedgwick, about their harried, less-than-perfect job-life situations is comforting to the rest of us mere mortals who likewise find it difficult to be exclusively career-oriented while trying to keep heaps of dirty dishes from taking over the kitchen and to remember that the eldest kid has soccer practice in an hour although her soccer uniform is still in the massive heap that is two weeks’ worth of stinky laundry. It’s not just us who have trouble with trying to work and raise children. It’s all moms. And, perhaps after recognizing that we’re in similar boats, we could give ourselves permission to, as Sedgwick said, ease up on ourselves and stop feeling guilty about our work-life choices. And maybe it’ll allow us to cut one another a little slack as well.
But, at the same time, despite the so-called evolution of today’s fathers, Gen X and beyond, I don’t tend to see magazine cover stories devoted to how men are managing to remain masters of the universe in the board rooms and state capitals, while they also serve up homemade, healthy fare to their kids, check homework assignments and remember that it’s their son’s turn to bring orange slices to his baseball game. When I start seeing those kinds of articles in the mainstream media and when journalists start asking politician and business leader dads how they manage to balance the professional, the personal and the child-rearing aspects of their lives, then I’ll really feel as though as if all parents are truly in this together.