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Mom-in-Chief Michelle Obama

Dubbed the “commander in sheath” by Vanity Fair and the “first lady of fashion” by ABC News, it’s little wonder why her wardrobe keeps us buzzing.

But beyond her shoes and bags, what I hope more people will highlight is how helpful it is to have a new role model for a generation of mothers trying to figure out how to balance work and family. Whether you’ve opted out, opted in, on-ramped, off-ramped and back again, you have to appreciate what a breath of fresh air it is to finally hear a striving Supermom like Obama admit that even she needs to make tough choices when it comes to career and family. By focusing on her self-titled role, “mom-in-chief,” for the first year in the White House, she seems to be a woman who understands that having it all doesn’t necessarily mean having it all at the same time.

I don’t know about you, but I know a lot of moms who could really appreciate that message. It takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence and courage to say family comes first when one decides to downshift her career—whether it is to care for children, an ill spouse or an aging parent. The sacrifices transcend personal fulfillment. As many families know, there are real dollars and cents to be considered.

“Women lose 38 percent of their earning power when they take a three year off-ramp. Nowadays, few working moms can afford that type of hit,” explains author and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President of the Center for Work-Life Policy.

And in spite of that risk, many women do take the mommy track for a while. The fact that Michelle Obama is choosing to do so on a public stage should inspire moms to value that decision.

Author Jamie Woolf of the forthcoming book coincidentally titled, Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos (Wiley, February 2009), says that, “By calling herself ‘Mom-in-Chief,’ Obama sends a strong message that being a mom means being a leader, an attribute that mothers often overlook in their parenting roles. By celebrating her position rather than apologizing for it, she connects the notion of leadership beyond the walls of corporate suites and presidential mansions to the homes of average parents.”

This thinking runs counter to some of the harsh criticism Obama received from women who feel that focusing on mothering as her husband takes office detracts from her own personal achievements and potential for leadership in the public arena.

“Prior to Hillary Clinton, we’d never had a first lady who had a post-graduate degree. Michelle Obama went to college at Princeton and law school at Harvard,” argued columnist Rebecca Traister shortly after Election Day.

“What does it say about the condition of modern women that Obama, catapulted by her husband’s election into the ranks of the most prominent, sounded so strangely retro—more Jackie Kennedy than Hillary Clinton?” asked Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post.

I think it says that the new First Lady has a firm grip on reality. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, how large your salary is, or how big your ego is, at the end of the day, a mother’s work is never done. Nurturing is a 24/7 job. So why not admit that it’s not easy to do it all and if you have the rare opportunity to focus on the home front for a while, why no do it? It’s not forever—especially in what Tina Brown terms our new “gig economy.”

And in the middle of this recession, when many women now face an imperative to work (perhaps returning after years at home), Obama’s voice on the issue of work-life balance may resonate strongly. She knows what it’s like to be the breadwinner, too. Hewlett suggests that perhaps the new first lady will want to take up the cause of “time off” among employers so that a resume gap doesn’t carry such a high price.

With her Ivy League credentials and professional accomplishments, it won’t be surprising if and when Obama eventually takes a stand on issues. But for now, calling herself the “Mom-in-Chief” drives home the point that the old school feminist notion of being everything to all people in your life and to yourself at the same time is outdated and unrealistic.

Photo courtesy of Statsministerens kontor