Giving a rare insight into their pre-White House days, US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle have spoken about their family life when both of them were in jobs and found it tough to spend time together.
“Barack was in Springfield; then he was in Washington. I was in Chicago, trying to manage these two beautiful girls, trying to still hold down a part-time job,” the First Lady said while addressing the first White House Summit of Working Families.
“The first thing I tried to do, which was a mistake, was that I tried the part-time thing. But what I realised was that I got gipped on that front, because when you are working a professional job, what happened was I got a part-time salary but continued to work full-time,” she said amidst applause.
Before Michelle spoke, Obama too gave a glimpse of the what the family life was before he becoming the US President.
“But before I moved into the White House, I was away a lot sometimes with work, sometimes with campaigning. Michelle was working full-time and was at home with the responsibility all too often of dealing with everything that the girls needed,” he said.
“I understand how lucky we are now, because there was a big chunk of time when we were doing what so many of you have to deal with every day, and that is figuring out how do we make this whole thing work,” Obama said.
Narrating her experience, Michelle said she lost the baby sitter after Sasha was born.
This, she said, “was probably the worst time of my motherhood”. “I was so devastated because that balance, that work-family balance is so fragile, and you realise how fragile it is that with a blink of an eye of a broken toilet, a sick child, a sick parent, that balance is thrown off,” Michelle said.
“After we lost that first babysitter, someone we developed trust with, you let them in their home, they were wonderful, they loved your kid, and then she left for good reason; she left because she needed to make more money. But it was devastating. And I said then, I quit. Just forget it. I’m ot doing it again,” she said.
The First Lady said soon after that she received a call from the University of Chicago Hospital for a job interview.
“And by then I was ready to be done, but that empowered me. I said I don’t even want this job, so I’m going to go to the interview and I’m just going to be whoever I’m going to be,” Michelle said.
“They’re going to have to deal with it. And who I was at the time was a breast-feeding mother of a four-month old…and I didn’t have a babysitter, so I promptly took Sasha to the interview with me,” she said.
“And I thought, look, this is who I am. I’ve got a husband who’s away. I’ve got two little babies. They are my priority. If you want me to do the job, you’ve got to pay me to do the job and you’ve got to give me flexibility,” Michelle said.
The First Lady went on to describe how she told her prospective employers that she would need flexibility even as she was willing to work hard for them.
“And the guy said, of course.I thought, are you kidding?” she said amidst laughter.
“So I became a vice president at the University of Chicago Hospital, and it was one of the best experiences that I had because he put my family first and I felt like I owed that hospital because they were supporting me,” Michelle said.
She emphasised that it was necessary to make the employers understand the importance of family.
“You look at something like workplace flexibility. This was so important to our family when I was away, because if Malia or Sasha got sick, or the babysitter did not show up, it was Michelle who got the call,” she said.
The US President earlier told the audience that, “fortunately, she (Michelle) had an employer who understood if she needed to leave work in the middle of the day or change her schedule suddenly.”
“In fact, actually when she applied for the job, she brought Sasha…in her car seat into the interview just to kind of explain this is what you will be dealing with if you hire me,” he said.
“So, they signed up for that. That flexibility made all the difference to our families. But a lot of working moms and dads can’t do that. They don’t have the leverage,” Obama said.
The US President noted that working mothers were notbeing recruited necessarily where they can dictate terms of employment.
“As a consequence, if they need to bring their mom to the doctor or take an afternoon off to see their kid’s school play, it would mean them losing income that they can’t afford to lose,” Obama said.
“Even when working from home from time to time is doable, it’s often not an option — even though studies show that flexibility makes workers happier and helps companies lower turnover and raise productivity,” he said.