Michelle Obama and the Power of Mom

Much of the Internet appeared awash with love for Michelle Obama last night, and today, as the analyses of her speech at the Democratic National Convention come through, there is more praise, much of it dealing with Michelle as the self-dubbed "mom-in-chief."

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Much of the Internet appeared awash with love for Michelle Obama last night, and today, as the analyses of her speech at the Democratic National Convention come through, there is more praise, much of it dealing with Michelle as the self-dubbed "mom-in-chief." That's testament to her skill as an orator—after all, she told us right there from the stage that that was her most important role; she coined the phrase: "And I say all of this tonight not just as First Lady, and not just as a wife. You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’ My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.”

It's also a message clearly put forth by the campaign, for instance, with the photo of Malia, Sasha, and Barack watching Michelle from the comfort of a couch in the Treaty Room of the White House. It's hard not to look at that picture and think of not just the Obamas but also our own families, our own moms—the women who hugged us and made us chicken soup when we were sick and put Band-Aids on our skinned knees, but who beyond that moved deftly between multifaceted roles: working mom, taking-care-of-us mom, teaching mom, mom who kept us on the straight and narrow, Mom mom. There is pride in the faces of that family for their mom, as there, we hope, would be in our own.

Irin Carmon writes at Salon that Michelle is "not just mom-in-chief," and that's true. Never mind that what "mom-in-chief" is, exactly, remains vague. What if it meant, for instance, president, and not simply First Lady? The point is, in an election season that's threaded through with an oft rancid undercurrent of how capital-W Women must be won—that there's a war on, a battle not just for women but also against them—it's not surprising that Mom has been the focus of so many political speeches so far, nor that Michelle Obama would announce that the most important role in her life was being a mom. Is there anything more powerful than a mom? There's bipartisan appeal here, even as the Democrats and Republicans promote Mom a little differently.

Chris Christie and Paul Ryan both talked glowingly about their own moms and the impact those women had on their lives. Ann Romney's momhood, and reaching out to women (I looooovvee women!"), was central to her own speech, and part of her effort to "humanize" her husband. Mom is the touchstone, mom conveys meaning. The dark side of that is that women who aren't moms are still, frequently, looked on with suspicion, or with sadness—clearly they haven't achieved what they should want, is the message; perhaps they are broken. Mom is the ultimate humanity, the example of that unconditional love that Michelle explains her parents gave to her. More than Dad (dads are important, too!), moms are engrained in our culture as that nurturing, supportive, incredibly human entity that we can all depend on. This is also why society really, really hates the woman we deem a bad mom.

On from Good Mom, though, there is the future, both biologically and metaphorically. As Michelle said, "We get there because of folks like my dad, folks like Barack's grandmother, men and women who said to themselves, I may not have a chance to fulfill my dreams, but maybe my children will, maybe my grandchildren will." With parenting, but especially with Mom, there is sacrifice. Michelle paints a picture of this sacrifice, for her, though, as empowering, as a choice, as, even, a form of having it all. "Helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself," she says. She appears to really mean this.

For all this talk of moms, though, there's something a little bit odd. In the New York Times' breakdown of most frequently used words at the DNC, it's not mom (with 18 mentions) but women that appears more often, 111 times, per the graphic, followed by families at 77. Michelle talks frequently of women, for instance, of Barack's grandmother, who worked as a secretary at a bank, climbing the ranks until she hit that inevitable glass ceiling. She's a woman and a mom, and through her we get to why "he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to help women get equal pay for equal work," as well as how "he believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care." Women are women, but moms are stories, even when we're not using the word "mom."

From the RNC speeches, by comparison, mom (used 45 times) and women (59 times) are trumped by 147 uses of the word families. From Ann Romney, for example, a woman who, as The New Republic's Noreen Malone describes, is "career stay-at-home mom": "And I can tell you, probably like every other girl who finds herself in a new life, far from family and friends, with a new baby and a new husband, that it dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into." As Carmon points out, Romney's version of mother is one of "immutable hardship:" “It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right." It's the moms who must sigh. But it's the moms, not the women, who are relatable, as well.

Michelle Obama's is certainly the more empowering take, the more "where-we-are" now discussion of feminism, in a lot of ways. Is this a phase beyond the mom-ificiation of the First Lady that Rebecca Traister wrote of for Salon in 2008, the appellation of "Mom" to make a powerful, well-educated, formerly breadwinning woman less "threatening"? Maybe. It's not that Michelle Obama wasn't apparently happy to be a mom in 2008. But there's a shift in the way she's talking about it. As Jennifer Skalka Tulumello writes for the Christian Science Monitor, "By placing a substantive but stylish imprint on the job, Obama has also shown herself to be a model of post-baby-boomer success, a highly educated career woman who has lived her life in chapters: Ivy League student, gritty young professional, wife, mother, and, with her husband’s ascent to the top job in government, public servant. It is her commitment to family, though, to daughters Malia and Sasha, that the campaign has happily touted as the president courts the crucial women’s vote this election cycle."

Again, it sounds suspiciously similar to recent discussions of "having it all." But if Michelle is truly happy in her place as "mom-in-chief," well, maybe she does? Or maybe we're just supposed to think that.

There's something inherently not cynical here, though. Perhaps that's the reason so many people applauded Michelle Obama's speech with tears in their eyes, or the reason so many women (and men) posted or tweeted "I love Michelle Obama!" after she spoke last night. We can all relate to the power of mom, but we are primed and eager for this burgeoning concept of motherhood. She's not "just a mom." She's a mom-in-chief. Maybe later, she will be something else, go back to her career, surpass Barack in a powerful position. But for now, she's where she is and owning it. As Malone writes, perhaps this is somehow encapsulated by those push-ups, those hugs she doles out freely, the brand of nurturing strength she represents: "That combination of warmth and toughness telegraphs what she can't quite spell out explicitly in her speeches, I suppose, about what her version of mothering (and working) consists of. Goodbye, muscular feminism. Hello, muscular mom-ism."

Just like there can only be one president, there can only be one mom-in-chief, though. It seems wise strategy to have claimed the role for herself. Mom, after all, is a powerful platform, but it's also far more than a platform. As Michelle said in her speech of what Barack hopes to achieve, “these issues aren’t political, they’re personal.” Unlike "woman," a word that gets thrown around and attached to issues and political stances, our notion of mom is pretty personal, too. Clearly that's a good thing in the political spectrum.

Inset via AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.