Working moms look to Michelle Obama for change

CINCINNATI Sun Feb 8, 2009 8:08am EST

First lady Michelle Obama shakes hands with well-wishers as she departs Georgia Brown's restaurant in Washington January 30, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

First lady Michelle Obama shakes hands with well-wishers as she departs Georgia Brown's restaurant in Washington January 30, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Maternity leave. Affordable child-care. Flexible work arrangements. When first lady Michelle Obama said she wanted to help working women balance career and family, American moms applauded -- and immediately came up with a wish-list of policy changes.

"I'm so psyched she is bringing this issue to the forefront," said Geniene Pernotto, 43, a marketing director and single mother of one in Youngstown, Ohio.

Pernotto quit her demanding corporate job in New York City in exchange for a pay cut and shorter hours at a nonprofit in northeastern Ohio. But she laments that she had to choose.

"When working for a corporation, if you're happy to stay at your current level for a few years you get tagged as unambitious or a bad worker," she said of her choice.

It's a story Obama can relate to. A corporate lawyer and mother of two girls, she abandoned her career to support her husband during his two-year campaign for the presidency and has since said caring for Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, will be her top priority while her husband is in the White House.

In the earliest days of the campaign, Obama began meeting with small groups of working mothers to hear their concerns and share tit-for-tat stories about the joy of raising children, the thrill of a great career -- and the frustration of feeling you're not quite doing either as well as you'd like.

"She wanted to have discussions with women as extensions of the conversations she was having with her own girlfriends," said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Obama's spokeswoman. "She's saying: 'I'm here and I get it and let's do something about it,' ... because she was living it."

OVERDUE

The list of demands from working parents in the United States is long, in part because family policies lag far behind most industrialized nations.

There is no paid maternity leave mandated in the United States, a situation shared by only three other countries: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Liberia, according to a 2007 study by Harvard and McGill universities.

Cincinnati pharmaceutical researcher Kathy Fleming, 37, remembers how hard it was to go back to work 12 weeks after her daughter Molly was born. But she's not convinced corporate America is ready to change.

"I've heard mothers in some European countries get paid to stay home," said Fleming, somewhat incredulously. "I don't see that happening, companies (here) don't value it as much."

Instead she just wants more affordable child-care.

"I work, my husband works, and child-care is like $1,500 a month for an infant. That's crazy. You can hardly afford to work and pay the bill," Fleming said.

Beth Myers Graham, a 36-year-old mother of two and full-time environmental consultant, said the government's current $5,000 a year tax credit for child-care should be increased to reflect the real cost of care.

"Anyone who has one child knows that doesn't even cover that child's care, let alone additional children," she said.

POLICIES 'STUCK IN THE 1950S'

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and co-founder of MomsRising, a lobby group for families, said she is not surprised Obama's embrace of working parents has hit a nerve.

"Our family economic security policies are stuck in the 1950s but we have a modern workforce ... 72 percent of moms are now in the labor force," Rowe-Finkbeiner said.

"But because we don't have any paid leave and 80 percent of low-wage workers don't have paid sick days, people often end up having to quit jobs when they have babies, and of course then they lose their health care (insurance coverage)," she said.

Obama has not yet indicated whether she will try to rewrite family and workplace policies directly, as former First Lady Hillary Clinton tried and failed to do with healthcare, or simply use her profile to bring a spotlight to issues as a way of persuading lawmakers in Congress to act.

POTENTIAL FOR INFLUENCE

"No matter how she goes about it, she will have enormous influence -- just the bully pulpit that she has will have an extraordinary influence on the debate," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a Washington lobby group.

Ness also thinks the U.S. recession should help efforts to reform family policy.

"The same vested interests that oppose any improvements in workplace standards, who argue it will hurt business, diminish jobs, diminish wages (will oppose changes)," Ness said.

"But sometimes out of crisis comes the greatest opportunity and we seem to be at a unique time in history with a great hunger and expectation of change."

Pittsburgh mother Colleen Kimberlin, an account manager, is convinced Michelle Obama will be just the catalyst needed.

"I am thrilled Mrs. Obama is talking about these issues. It is way overdue," said Kimberlin, who has a small daughter.

(Reporting by Andrea Hopkins, Editing by Frances Kerry)

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