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Ann Romney, Michelle Obama call 'mom' defining role

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 6:43 a.m. MDT

In a Jan. 10, 2012 file photo Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, celebrates with sons, from left, Matt, Tagg, Craig, Ben, Josh and wife Ann, after his New Hampshire Primary Election win in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012.   (Charles Dharapak, ASSOCIATED PRESS) In a Jan. 10, 2012 file photo Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, celebrates with sons, from left, Matt, Tagg, Craig, Ben, Josh and wife Ann, after his New Hampshire Primary Election win in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. (Charles Dharapak, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As the presidential election nears, the candidates' wives have been called to many roles, not least of which is drawing a picture of their husbands as real people to whom voters can relate.

Along the way, Ann Romney, 63, and Michelle Obama, 48, have painted a portrait of themselves, as well. The two women have been shown in different roles from intimate advisers to savvy individuals with their own interests and passions outside of family. But one of the points both Obama and Romney have underscored is that family matters and "mom" is a name they proudly use to describe themselves.

"This face-off between Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama marks a major change in the role of political wives," Charles Dunn, presidential scholar and professor at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., told The Christian Science Monitor's Gloria Goodale in an article titled "First lady face off."

First lady Michelle Obama, right, is joined by daughters Malia, left, and Sasha, while watching President Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012.  (David Goldman, AP) First lady Michelle Obama, right, is joined by daughters Malia, left, and Sasha, while watching President Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (David Goldman, AP)

"Political wives now serve as character witnesses for their husbands, soften their images made hard by the rigors of the constant bombardment of negative attack ads, and make credible advocates of policy position," he said.

Here's a nonpartisan look at how family roles of wife and mom play into the lives of these two accomplished women, presented in the reverse order the Deseret News presented the candidates themselves as family men.

Ann Romney:

"The 63-year-old mother of five and grandmother of 18 has embraced the homemaker image that Hillary Rodham Clinton so openly scorned," wrote Allen G. Breed for the Associated Press. "On the campaign trail, she's been filmed baking pies and serving her grandmother's Welsh skillet cakes on the media bus. But while Ann Romney is more Betty Crocker than Betty Ford, it's clear she's not going to be Mitt Romney's silent partner ….

"Critics have painted her as the dutiful, starry-eyed wife, standing by — and behind — her man. Friends say that's an over-simplification.

"With Mitt, it's always going to be 'we,’ ” Pamela Hayes Peterson, one of Ann Romney's childhood friends, told Breed. "She is NOT subordinate, trust me. Did she want to be in the public eye? Probably not. She is so gracious and she loves him so much that, if it's important to him, she will come outside of her comfort zone to be where she needs to be for him. But he will do the same thing for her."

The AP story also chronicles Romney's medical challenges. She has multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, and she is a breast cancer survivor.

Breed quoted her on the challenges that a chronic condition like MS can bring to family life. “You know what it’s like to work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work and then come home to help with that book report which just has to be done."

In an op-ed article she wrote for USA Today, Romney talked about her life, from child to mother to grandmother. And she described the transition between the first two. Her own mother, she said, "let me be who I was, which meant playing baseball and football with the boys, and catching frogs and hunting for snakes out behind the house. I think the thing she loved the most was that I was always the ringleader, always more likely to get others into trouble than to follow along."

Her mother was her example of being a mother. And having five boys, she has noted, is tough. "I won't sugarcoat it. There were times I wanted to tear my hair out. I can remember visiting my friends' houses, seeing their daughters' manners, the way they helped with the chores. Then I would return home to my boys, hoping only that my house was still intact," she wrote.

While she was shaping her sons, she added, they were shaping her. "My boys had a way of putting their emotions and their disputes on the table. And more important, they had a way of leaving them there, of walking away without worrying about the things that might distance them, or letting hard feelings fester and grow. That directness and forgiveness shaped me into who I am today."

Family is about caring and it stretches past the front door. Her charity work, according to Breed, has included being a volunteer instructor at Boston's Mother Caroline Academy for middle school girls and directing a foundation that encourages inner-city girls not to use alcohol or drugs or engage in sex.

In her recent speech to the Republican National Convention, Romney noted that they do many of their acts of charity without fanfare. "We are no different than the millions of Americans who quietly help their neighbors, their churches, and their communities."

Middle son Josh Romney wrote of his mother in "Life Lessons from Mothers of Faith": "On one occasion, she was asked to speak at a women’s conference, where other accomplished women also spoke, many of whom were lawyers, doctors and business professionals. She initially felt sheepish about being included with such a group of distinguished career women. She questioned how those in the audience would think that she measured up, since she was “only a housewife.” She stood before the audience and reported proudly that as a mother, she practiced psychology, nursing and business and had become skilled in a host of other professions, all of which she learned on her own without any formal training. The audience responded enthusiastically with the loudest cheers of the day."

Michelle Obama:

At the Democratic National Convention, Obama, mother to Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, gave herself a new nickname. Stephanie Hanes in the Christian Science Monitor wrote that she "talked of her worries about uprooting them for life in the White House, for instance, and said, emotionally, that 'my most important title is still mom in chief. My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.’ ”

It is a role Obama said she learned from her family, the Robinsons. In a profile of Michelle Obama for a Princeton newsletter, Peter Slevin wrote: "Barack Obama has written that visiting the Robinsons was 'like dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver.' As someone who felt he had 'bloodlines scattered to the four winds' ... he found an anchor at the Robinsons, where he said 'there were uncles and aunts and cousins everywhere, stopping by to sit around the kitchen table and eat until they burst and tell wild stories and listen to Grandpa’s old jazz collection and laugh deep into the night.’ ”

Salon’s Rebecca Traister quoted Barack Obama's description of the personal choices and challenges his wife has made in his book, “The Audacity of Hope”: “In her own mind, two visions of herself were at war with each other. The desire to be the woman her mother had been, solid, dependable, making a home and always there for her kids, and the desire to excel in her profession, to make her mark on the world and realize all those plans she’d had on the very first day that we met.”

It's not a task Obama has taken lightly. When her husband was elected president, she turned to women who had lived through it to help her figure out the impact on her girls. Obama got advice from Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Rodham Clinton on, as Newsweek's Suzanne Smalley put it, "how to raise daughters in the national spotlight, how to keep them out of it as much as possible and keep them normal as much as possible."

Right after the 2008 election, Michelle Obama's role as a mother was highlighted repeatedly in the media as reporters covered not only the quest to decide where the girls would go to school, but also what message it might send. The Washington Post reported at the time that "Although Mrs. Obama has said that public schools were under consideration and consulted with D.C. school officials, the decision narrowed this week after she and the girls visited Sidwell and the private Georgetown Day School. Malia, (then) 10, and Sasha, (then) 7, visited classes and met with students while their mother talked with administration officials and parents. Mrs. Obama also visited both schools last week when she came to Washington with her husband to tour the White House and meet with President and Mrs. Bush."

Some of Obama's motherhood challenges relate to raising children in a very public situation. In the Newsweek article, written in late 2008, Smalley wrote that "the Obamas may enforce a bit of normalcy by making the kids do chores and make their beds — advice that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave to Hillary in 1992. But the Obama family will grapple with issues that former first kids haven't had to face. Chelsea Clinton, the last girl of a similar age in the White House, grew up well before the era of Facebook and cell-phone snapshots. Banning Facebook entirely could risk alienating the Obama girls from their peers, but restrictions will almost certainly be necessary for their own protection. Schools that were once valued for their ability to protect famous kids from prying eyes are now wide open if their students choose to post photos or status updates."

Obama, too, has been passionate and involved with causes and trying to improve the lives of others. For instance, an article in the New York Times noted that "she has shimmied, skipped, hopscotched, hula-hooped, jumping jacked and potato-sack-raced her way through her tenure as first lady, using not just her position but her body to push for more exercise and better nutrition for children. (She is fighting an obesity crisis and trying to convince corporations to change products and advertising, yet she sticks to a Mom in Chief tone.)"

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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