The inspirational Michelle Obama


DENVER -- There's never been anyone like her.

Yet when you have a chance to talk with Michelle Obama in person, it isn't what makes her exceptional that stands out.

Yes, she is the first black woman with the chance to be first lady. But it's her common experience -- that of a working mother, not a political spouse -- that shows how real she is.

Women watching her speech Monday began making that connection for the first time.

"I think the reaction that folks had in the center is similar to what I get when I'm on the campaign trail," she said during a lengthy conversation with several female columnists Tuesday. "That's the me that I know."

One of the most enduring parts of her convention speech was her anecdote about Barack re-checking the rearview mirror as he drove his new daughter home from the hospital.

Anyone who has had children can connect with that emotion.

"The weight of your child is so human, and it is so real for everyone," Michelle Obama said. "Once they have that experience, they have that first child, their whole perspective switches. You no longer are the focus. You are now worried about that little being that you immediately love more than anything you can ever imagine."

That universal emotion -- bound not by race or gender or anything -- is part of the Obama story. Perceptions, she said, are hard when you have no image of some realities.

Michelle Obama talked about growing up watching "The Cosby Show" and its groundbreaking portrayal of an upper-class black family. "When the country doesn't see a variety of different models out there -- whether you're African-American or a working mother or a gay mayor -- if we don't see those images, we don't know they exist," she said. "Sometimes I do feel that people don't believe that I exist."

Sometimes Michelle Obama has seen two versions of her husband's campaign. In Iowa before the caucuses, she said she was well-received and felt positive about the energy and crowds. Yet the press was saying he wouldn't win.

Michelle Obama also stopped a career track when the reality didn't fit. Despite the debt that accompanies being a Princeton-educated, Harvard-trained lawyer, she opted to leave a firm that was paying her enough to help pay off that education.

"You were being offered salaries that were double what your parents ever made," she said. "Now you can say, 'I'm a lawyer at a corporate firm,' and everybody goes, 'Oh, wonderful.' "

But she didn't expect the emptiness and left for a community organizing job.

One summer during college she scrapped a well-paying office job for work at a children's camp, even though it cost her family money to send her there. "I felt guilt because this money (was to pay) for my books," she said.

Many women struggle with that guilt or make sacrifices for financial or personal reasons. Michelle Obama called part-time work for mothers a scam. "It's full-time work for part-time pay and no benefits, and I'm paying for a full-time baby sitter," she said. "If you have a meeting on Thursday that they couldn't reschedule, you've got to go. And you have to have a baby sitter because you have to be professional."

The tension between women and work and women with and without children can be testy. But Michelle Obama's experience can place her in any camp.

"I fully understand and respect a person's decision to walk away from the career and the money to take care of their kids," she said. "I also understand the women who say if I would stay home with my kids all day, I would die.

"I've felt both things, and they are both legitimate and equal, and it doesn't make a woman less of a mother, less of a professional." Today, she said, women are often trapped without a real choice.

The Obamas are like many Americans -- worried about school or health care -- and, until recently, concerned about how to pay the bills. Michelle joked about how many houses the Obamas own in light of the trouble John McCain had remembering his. "We technically don't have one, because we have a mortgage," she said.

As the campaign progresses, you'll see more of Michelle Obama, but not of her daughters, Malia and Sasha. "Trust me," she said. "You will not see them much at all."

Michelle Obama realizes she is standing in a historic role with the possibility of a black couple moving into the White House. And while she expected some of the bigotry and racism the campaign has encountered, what has been the most surprising to her is that she and her husband are here.

"That's the truth of this, too," she said. "I just believe that people connect with the truth, and I think people can tell the difference if they get a chance to see the whole story."

The Michelle Obama I saw here is as real as women get.

 

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906 or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

 

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