First Marriage

Yesterday, when I went on the Internet on my office computer, the headline was, “State of Their Union,” referring to a sneak preview of a long story in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “The Obama Marriage.” Earlier that day, when I turned on my home computer,  my internet provider listed as one of the top videos of the week  “Michelle Obama’s Love Tips.” Intrigued, I clicked on the site, which took me to a segment on E!News, with a story on “The First Lady sounds off on finding love” in the December issue of Glamour magazine.  Suddenly, we are awash not just in the usual glamorous photos of the First Couple, but also in stories of the First Marriage.  Since marriage promotion happens to be the next topic in my Family Law course,  and is a topic in which I have more than a passing interest, I thought I would write here about this very public marriage and how it might relate, if at all, to the federal government’s campaign of promoting healthy marriage (which, at the moment, due to DOMA, excludes same-sex couples from its purview) and to the more general question of marriage and gender relations.

During the Bush Administration (No. 43, that is) promoting healthy marriage emerged as a much-touted cornerstone for welfare reform and as a key to strengthening families. There was bipartisan support for promoting both responsible fatherhood (a big theme in the Clinton Administration as well) and healthy marriage. As a Senator, Barack Obama supported a responsible fatherhood and healthy family bill.  As President, he held a special Father’s Day summit on fatherhood, urging a “national conversation” on “fatherhood and personal responsibiltiy.”  What was striking to me in his remarks and in those of a number of the speakers was the lack on an explicit reference to marriage. Similarly, in his House Agenda on Family, he repeats a oft-used rhetorical phrase: “A strong nation is made up of strong families” and commits himself to “responsible fatherhood,” stating that he knows first hand the “difficulties that young people face when their fathers are absent.”  He has explained that government should support those parents who are trying to do the right thing and hold accountable those who do not. But again, by contrast to the Bush Administration’s rhetoric, marriage is not front and center in this rhetoric.

Nonetheless, marriage is certainly part of the agenda, as a visit to the website of the federal government’s Healthy Marriage Intiative, launched by DHHS’s Administration for Children and Families under President Bush, indicates. Updated to reflect the new Administration, it leads with a statement from Barack Obama’s The Audacity of  Hope, that “preliminary research shows that  marriage education workshops can make a real difference in helping married couples stay together and in encouraging unmarried couples who are living together to form a more lasting bond.”  Candidate Obama, this quote continues, supports expanding access to such services to low-income couple as a point that should garner agreement. Many of us may encounter various healthy marriage campaigns, funded by partnerships with the federal government, on television, on our daily commutes to work, or browsing on the web. And for those of us who support expanding access to civil marriage to same-sex couples, these promotion campaigns, whatever their merits or flaws, are in disturbing contrast to the federal government’s exclusionary policies.

Given the federal government’s ongoing campaign to promote responsible fatherhood and healthy marriage, and given the prominence of marriage itself in ongoing struggles over who should have access to it, stories about the First Marriage cannot help but suggest a blurring between the political and the private, or the relationship between the White Houses and our houses. Indeed, the author of the New York Times story, Jodi Kantor, observes that “the Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before,” and that “the centrality of the Obama marriage to the president’s political brand opens a new chapter in the debate that has run through, even helped define, their union.”ance of healthy marriage.  What is striking, then, to me is that not one word is uttered by either President Obama or the First Lady about promoting marriage as a governmental policy. Rather, in a variant of using the bully pulpit, the Obamas, Kantor observes, seems to be turned their own “who-does-what battles” in their own marriage into a “teachable moment , converting lived experiences” into a “political message.”

What is the message?:  Marriage is hard work and an ongoing negotiation over role division and who makes sacrifices. The article makes clear that, to date, the costs have been largely borne by Michelle Obama as she resisted, resigned herself to, and then actively supported her husband’s political career. Says the First Lady of the challenges she has faced: “If my ups and downs, our ups and downs in our marriage can help young couples sort of realize that good marriages take work. . . . ”  She makes clear that a flawless relationships is “the last thing that we want to project. It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.”   Perhaps this message is not so far from the sorts of marriage education and skills programs being funded by the government.  But what is particularly striking is the emphasis on the challenges the Obamas face in trying to have an equal partnership. The “healthy marriage iniative,” by contrast, avoids an explicit focus on equality as a component of marriage, instead defining “healthy marriage’ as being “mutally enriching” and entailing  that spouses have “deep respect” for each other. (Elsewhere, I have critiqued the federal government’s marriage initiative for failing explicitly to embrace equality as an element of healthy marriage.)

The Obama marriage, so far, has been led by the President’s political ambitions and career. On a recent day, for example, the Internet featured both the stunning news that the President had won the Noble Peace Prize and a “top video” of the week of Michelle Obama’s fitness tips. The video referred to an interview in Prevention magazine, in which she explained that women, particularly mothers, need to give themselves “permission” to care about their own happiness, to take time for themselves. She described her own “aha” moment when she realized the birth of her first child had changed her life, but not her husband’s and how she renegotiated their routines to (to borrow an old phrase from Carol Gilligan) include herself in the circle of care.  For this interview and similar statements about work/life balance, the First Lady has become an inspiration and role model for many women. At the same time, the notion that women have to “give themselves permission,” while men’s lives go on as usual is an all too familiar problem and suggests the challenges that remain for reaching an ideal of equal partnership. But the First Lady observes, at the conclusion of the article that “the equality of any partnership ‘is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years  or either years or two,’  . . .  ‘We’re going to be marriage for a very long time.'”

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