Zanesville, Ohio — “Everywhere I go, no matter what, the women in the audience, their first question for me is, ‘How on earth are you managing it, how are you keeping it all together?’”
Michelle Obama is sitting with a group of six women around a table in the basement playroom of the Zanesville Day Nursery, here in economically troubled central Ohio. Her talk is of struggle — her own struggle, the women’s struggles, the struggles of women across the country. There are struggles over money, over kids, over jobs, over husbands and ex-husbands. And perhaps most of all, there is the struggle inside.
“It’s a constant sense of guilt,” Obama, dressed simply in a blue sweater with a triple strand of pearls, tells the women of her own dilemma as a working mother. “It’s guilt, feeling guilty all the time.”
So how does she keep it all together? “I’m fine, because I have a strong informal support network,” Obama says. “I have a mother who lives five minutes from me. I don’t know what I would do, even if we weren’t running, I don’t know what I would do as a professional without having that kind of support system. So that keeps me sane.”
But not everyone has a close relative living nearby. And not everyone can afford to keep it all together, especially here in Muskingum County, where, according to the census, the median household income in 2004 was $37,192, below both the Ohio and national average. Out of that, there’s the mortgage. And child care. Health care. Education. Lessons. “I know we’re spending — I added it up for the first time — we spend between the two kids, on extracurriculars outside the classroom, we’re spending about $10,000 a year on piano and dance and sports supplements and so on and so forth,” Mrs. Obama tells the women. “And summer programs. That’s the other huge cost. Barack is saying, ‘Whyyyyyy are we spending that?’ And I’m saying, ‘Do you know what summer camp costs?’”
With all those concerns, one might wonder whether the women should be comforting Mrs. Obama, but she assures them that she’s really O.K. “We don’t complain because we’ve got resources because of our education. We’ve got family structure,” she says. “So I tell people don’t cry for me.”
But there are still problems. As she has many times in the past, Mrs. Obama complains about the lasting burden of student loans dating from her days at Princeton and Harvard Law School. She talks about people who end up taking years and years, until middle age, to pay off their debts. “The salaries don’t keep up with the cost of paying off the debt, so you’re in your 40s, still paying off your debt at a time when you have to save for your kids,” she says.
“Barack and I were in that position,” she continues. “The only reason we’re not in that position is that Barack wrote two best-selling books… It was like Jack and his magic beans. But up until a few years ago, we were struggling to figure out how we would save for our kids.” A former attorney with the white-shoe Chicago firm of Sidley & Austin, Obama explains that she and her husband made the choice to give up lucrative jobs in favor of community service. “We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do,” she tells the women. “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.” Faced with that reality, she adds, “many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management.”
What she doesn’t mention is that the helping industry has treated her pretty well. In 2006, the Chicago Tribune reported that Mrs. Obama’s compensation at the University of Chicago Hospital, where she is a vice president for community affairs, jumped from $121,910 in 2004, just before her husband was elected to the Senate, to $316,962 in 2005, just after he took office. And that does not count the money Mrs. Obama receives from serving on corporate boards. She would have been O.K. even without Jack’s magic beans.
So her struggle appears to be somewhat different from the struggles of the women sitting at the table. In addition to its below-average median household income, Muskingum County’s unemployment rate has risen in recent years. And it is not filled with Harvard-educated lawyers. According to census data, just 12.2 percent of adults in the county have a bachelor’s degree or higher — well below the Ohio and national average. About 20 percent don’t even have a high school degree. They won’t face the wrenching choice of whether to go into hedge fund management or the helping industry.
None of the women at the table has had it particularly easy, but as each tells her story, one, Heather Snoddy, a hairdresser in Zanesville, remains silent. At the end, after hearing from everyone else, Mrs. Obama looks toward Snoddy and asks if there is anything she wants to say. “The only thing that we’re concerned about in our family is bringing more jobs to this area,” Snoddy says. Her husband works in Columbus, nearly 60 miles away. “We are so fortunate and grateful that he has a job there,” Snoddy adds, but the price of gas adds to the problem of an already-difficult schedule. “He leaves at 4 A.M. to be at work by 5:30, and doesn’t get home until 5 at night. With my job, I’m not home sometimes ‘til 8 or 9, because my job works better because I serve people who have been working all day. So when it comes down to it, we only have one family day a week, on Sunday, that all of us are together.”
Mrs. Obama nods in agreement and says she and her husband do much the same thing. “We do that split day,” she says. “‘O.K. — you’ve got them, I’ve got them.’ When we’re together, we’re like, ‘Oh, everybody’s here — isn’t that strange?’”
I talk to Snoddy afterward, and she is genuinely touched by her time with Mrs. Obama. “I just thought it was an amazing experience, that she actually took the time out of her schedule to come and speak with us,” Snoddy tells me. “It really does make you feel like your opinion matters and that they really are listening to what we have to say. She was a wonderful woman.” I ask whether Snoddy felt Mrs. Obama could understand her life. “Yes, I feel like she can relate to us as working-class mothers, being a mother herself,” Snoddy says, “even though she has the higher education, which is wonderful. I do feel like she can relate to us, just because she takes the time to come and meet people and understand what it’s about.”