Friday, January 16, 2009

If Mom's Happy ...

Ellen Goodman has written another terrific column, one which posts a wish list for families during the new administration. She frames that wish list with the peculiar role that the presidential spouse plays in this nation. Ellen Goodman believes, and I share in that belief, that Michelle Obama could very well be key to pushing the administration and Congress towards policies which will make raising a family easier, especially during times of economic turmoil.

Michelle Obama wisely listed her first priority as seeing her daughters through the transition. But as she told "60 Minutes," "Women are capable of doing more than one thing well at the same time." ...

So what will happen if this 45-year-old mom-in-chief, and wife of a man who "gets it," makes the personal her political issue? What would a serious work-and-family policy look like? ...

The last major piece of family legislation was the Family and Medical Leave Act passed 15 years ago. It only guarantees unpaid leave to people in workplaces with 50 or more employees. Meanwhile, just half the nation's workers get a single paid sick day for themselves and far fewer get it for a child. As for the elusive flextime? Even among those eligible, 39 percent believe they'll jeopardize their jobs if they take it.

And, by the way, while we've been stalled, a tsunami of elder care has been added to the responsibilities of child care.

Just to get rolling again, we need to expand family leave to workplaces with 25 or more employees. We need to increase the number of states with paid family leave beyond California, Washington, and New Jersey, and add to the handful of districts and cities with at least seven days of paid sick leave.

At the same time, we can support bills guaranteeing a paltry 24 hours a year to attend school conferences. And surely, any jobs created with stimulus funds should include pro-family policies.

In this economy, many workers are afraid of asking for such "frills." When times are tough, says Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women and Families, "we are told the sky will fall . . . we can't do it now."

But the first minimum-wage bill, the first child-labor law, and the law setting maximum hours were passed during the Depression. We can't get out of this mess by making it harder for families.

While the emphasis in coverage of the First Lady traditionally has been on the superficial, what she wears, what food she selects for important state dinners, how she furnishes her new home, it is also possible for a strong First Lady to push for issues important to all families, not just the First Family. Michelle Obama, who has balanced career and family for years, has proven herself to be just as adept as all working mothers have had to be. She also knows the enormous amount of energy that takes, more energy than it should.

I agree with Ellen Goodman: Michelle Obama could very well be a critical factor in her husband's administration. And her husband, who indeed appears to get it, has already indicated his appreciation of her role: "I believe in the general theory that if Mom is happy, everybody's happy."

Are you listening, Ms. Obama?



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