Mrs. Obama's Example a Valuable Lesson in Raising Families

Kang In-sun Kang In-sun

Michelle Obama is redefining the role of the American First Lady. Previous presidential spouses approached the position in their unique ways, but as is the case in countries, the First Lady is supposed to add a human element to the top level of state power. Mrs. Obama's version offers a candid view of her everyday life as a working mom. She has called herself the "mom-in-chief," openly complains about her husband, and speaks frankly about her daily challenges as a mother. Her approach has been warmly received by the American public.

But Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is also a professional whose background is as solid as that of any White House aide. She is said to have a deep understanding of the major issues and policies, and take part in policy planning to support the underprivileged and NGOs, all without making a big deal about it. In a New York Times/CBS News poll last April, 67 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of Mrs. Obama and 84 percent gave her a positive approval rating for her duties as First Lady.

As such a likable figure, expectations were high for President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Asia because Mrs. Obama would be a fresh presence for Korea. However, she did not accompany her husband on his trip to Asia, instead staying home to take care of their two school-age daughters.

Protocol requires the U.S. First Lady to carry out certain duties. This might include accompanying the President and putting on an impressive “performance” during a diplomatic visit to Asia. Mrs. Obama, however, decided to tend to her family. Her decision reflects an attitude that is pleasantly surprising. Rather than being consumed by her White House role, she focuses on what she cares about most.

Americans talk openly and often about how working women can be successful in their careers while raising their children. Karen Hughes, an advisor to former President George W. Bush, once left the White House to take care of her high-school-age son and then returned to work in the State Department after her son had registered for college. In the case of Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, her husband took care of the children.

Perhaps giving working parents more time to raise their children while maintaining their careers could be more effective than any other measure to raise Korea’s low birthrate. The government seems willing to try anything to fix the problem. The measures it has actually been taking, however, have been ineffective. Past efforts have consisted of little more than telling people to have babies and giving some supportive incentives. For women, such incentives are unappealing. With statistics suggesting that Koreans will no longer exist by 2300 if the current birthrate continues, having a child becomes a civic duty, a way of ensuring the future of the nation and its people.

To solve the low birthrate problem, we need to make a social environment where family values are more considered. People must be able to enjoy raising children while maintaining a healthy work-life balance, regardless of their gender. Perhaps Cheong Wa Dae could provide a role model for such change? President Lee Myung-bak could take time out of his workday to drop by an event at his grandchildren's school? Male staff members could be allowed paternity leave? Female staffers who need to nurse their infants could have flextime? Without such an example from our top leaders, any further efforts are diminished, and future measures will also fail to raise the birthrate.

By Kang In-sun from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

englishnews@chosun.com / Dec. 01, 2009 13:03 KST