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.
In Becoming, Michelle Obama writes that even before they were married, Barack inspired her to seek her true calling — and supported her when that meant taking a step in an uncertain direction. In her late 20s, when they were engaged, Obama was feeling dissatisfied with her career as a corporate lawyer. Valerie Jarrett, who would later become a senior adviser to President Obama, was then working for Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, and she offered Michelle a job as assistant to the mayor.
The opportunity excited Michelle, but it would mean a career change and a significant pay cut at a time when the Obamas were thinking about starting a family. Her mother had taught her to play it safe: “Make the money first and worry about your happiness later” was her advice. Barack saw things differently.
“His was the lone voice telling me to just go for it, to erase the worries and go toward whatever I thought would make me happy,” Michelle writes. “Don’t worry, Barack was saying. You can do this. We’ll figure it out.”
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.
There’s not much data on seesaw marriages yet, Coontz said. But the pay gap in heterosexual marriages — the amount by which husbands, on average, out-earn their wives — is decreasing. And couples today, especially those on the younger side, are less and less likely to assume that the woman should be the one to sacrifice career for family.
“In most families, we don’t face the kind of jobs that require someone to completely quit when the other one is working,” Coontz noted. But for many couples, an egalitarian marriage can involve a certain amount of seesawing over time.
And that can be a good thing, she said. Research has found that when men in heterosexual marriages take parental leave, they boost their wives’ future earnings. Meanwhile, men who take parental leave also become more involved fathers, an effect that holds when they go back to work.
“I think you would see a similar thing in seesaw marriages,” Coontz said. When the seesaw tilts toward the wife’s career, men get “much more experience in hands-on partnership and parenting” — when it tilts toward the husband’s, the wife can still reap some of the benefits of her previous investment in work.
What’s more, having each partner play both caregiver and breadwinner roles “protects in the same way that financial investors tell you to diversify your portfolio” — if one person loses his or her job, the other is more prepared to pick up the slack.
But there is also a risk in seesaw marriages, Coontz said, that once the seesaw tilts toward one person’s career, it may never tilt back. “It’s a particular risk for women,” she said, because of discrimination against mothers in the workplace. But men bear some risk too, as fathers can also face discrimination in the workplace when they take time out to be with their kids.
Meanwhile, the option of a seesaw marriage isn’t available to everyone. Single parents frequently have to assume both breadwinner and primary caregiver roles at once. People whose spouses are ill or disabled may find themselves in one (or both) roles for long periods of time, with little choice in the matter. Same-sex couples may have seesaw marriages, but their decisions may be complicated by the sexuality pay gap and by anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace.
For those who are willing and able to enter into seesaw marriages, better support systems for parents and families, including health care that’s not tied to employment, would help mitigate the risks. “We need the policies that allow people to move in and out” of caregiver and breadwinner roles, Coontz said.
Now that the Obamas are no longer in the White House, the seesaw may be swinging back in Michelle Obama’s direction.
“I am now at a new beginning, in a new phase of life,” Obama writes in the epilogue of Becoming. “For the first time in many years, I’m unhooked from any obligation as a political spouse, unencumbered by other people’s expectations.”
It’s not clear what she’ll do with her new freedom — she states categorically that she has “no intention of running for office, ever.”
But, she writes, “at fifty-four, I am still in progress, and I hope that I always will be.”
According to Becoming, both the Obamas have been “in progress” throughout their marriage. They have supported each other’s goals through risks and difficult times, in the interests of living by President Obama’s maxim: “You can do this.”
When Barack Obama became president, Michelle’s progress took a turn that she didn’t see coming when she met him at their law firm many years ago. Now it may be his role to support her through turns he can’t anticipate. If he does, the Obamas will continue to do what they’ve long been doing — modeling a marriage that, while not always perfect, allows each partner the freedom to grow and change while remaining committed to the family.
“What did Barack and I want?” Obama writes of the time before their marriage. “We wanted a modern partnership that suited us both.”
The work of forging that partnership, year by year, in ways that serve and nourish both partners and their family as a whole, will go down as part of their legacy.