Michelle Obama: What Does She Mean By 'Mom In Chief'?

It was the only off-key moment in the whole transcendent address -- one that had been, until then, a pitch-perfect blend of the personal as political.
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Three. For those who were counting, that's how many times Michelle Obama used the word mom in her speech at the Democratic National Convention last night.

Not one of those was said in the head-patting, aren't-all-you-moms-just-amazing tone that many of us sensed coming from the podium last week in Tampa. The first was a reference to her own mother, the second was about how date night "for Barack and me was either dinner or a movie, because as an exhausted mom, I couldn't stay awake for both," and the last was about how "at the end of the day, my most important title is still 'mom-in-chief.'"

That's the one I want to talk about.

It was, I think, the only off-key moment in the whole transcendent address. Until then, the First Lady's speech (another phrase we need to talk about, another day) was a pitch-perfect blend of the personal as political; it was about leaders as parents ("strategizing about middle school friendships"), and about how we are all shaped by our past. It reached a crescendo when describing "farmers and blacksmiths" winning "independence from an empire," and women being "dragged to jail for seeking the vote," and a young preacher lifting "us to the mountaintop with his righteous dream."

Then, somehow, it ended back at sea level. As Hanna Rosin tweeted:

This is not the first time Michelle Obama has described herself this way, to be sure, and not the first time those of us who measure and monitor the national conversation about gender have worried over what it means. Back in 2008, Rebecca Traister wrote "[t]he Momification of Michelle Obama" for Salon and put forth the theory that "The exoticism and difference of Obama's race was all the progress the American people could take in one election ... A threateningly competent woman might put them over the edge."

I confess that back then I was moved by Obama's reflections on her role as a mother. I didn't see it as a retreat when she put motherhood front and center while her daughters adjusted to a completely new life. I identified with her struggle, as her husband wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," between the "two visions of herself ... at war with each other. The desire to be the woman her mother had been, solid, dependable, making a home and always there for her kids, and the desire to excel in her profession, to make her mark on the world..."

Looked at that way, I heard "mom in chief" as slightly seditious, wry -- and temporary.

Maybe that is why it was so jarring to hear again last night. So much about the context has changed -- the Republicans are being accused of launching a "war on women"; the word "mom" is being used as shorthand for a sweet lady who knows her place; Michelle Obama has spent four years showing us that she is a mother, yes, but also a force of nature. All this makes the phrase feels loaded and out of place.

As Jessica Valenti tweeted this morning:

Here we have a Princeton- and Harvard-educated woman, one who out-earned her husband for much of their marriage, and could bring down the house at the Democratic Convention with one of the best political speeches in memory, telling her life story without a mention of her own legal career. A woman whose political instincts -- ones that have been shown to be formidable -- clearly tell her that her bona fides, her palatability, is still tied to being seen as mom and wife.

I am not disappointed because I think she is wrong. I am worried because I fear she is right.

In the New Republic last night, Noreen Malone took on this disconnect, and redefined "mom in chief" as having an interim meaning. No longer a direct-response fear of a woman seen as "angry" if not cloaked in motherhood, and not yet a time when using motherhood as universal shorthand is over. This in-between, Malone wrote, is a "muscular mom-ism" (a phrase that itself was a play on Camille Paglia's attempt to paint Sarah Palin as the first symbol of a new "muscular feminism," which lasted from the convention until the sit-down with Katie Couric). A muscular mom not only rocks a sleeveless dress, but also sees parenting as an "and" not an "or."

I can live with that. For now. I take heart, for this moment, in the fact that other pieces of the context have also changed in the four years since Obama first dubbed herself the MOC. There was, for instance, Julian Castro's keynote address, in which he touchingly described taking his daughter to her first day of preschool. There was the photograph of Michelle's daughters watching their mother speak while curled on the couch with the president, and the fact that he had stayed back in Washington to be with Malia on her first day of high school, while Mom went off on a, um, business trip. There were the tweets flying all evening suggesting a Hillary/Michelle ticket in 2016.

Change is incremental, but it is happening. And one day, soon perhaps, it might be complete. Maybe when there's a woman accepting the nomination on a Thursday night in the not too distant future and her husband (I betcha we don't call him the First Man...) fills the slot on Tuesday.

That might take any last belittling notes out of the use of the word mom, no? It would certainly complete the evolution of the title "mom in chief," while we all hum along.

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