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Exclusive: First Lady Michelle Obama on Being Successful & Having It All

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The big question on every young woman’s mind of late is, “Can I truly have it all?”

You see it discussed in forums, on panels, in the media, on social media in offices and college campuses all around America. This past week I had a chance to ask First Lady Michelle Obama to give us her thoughts on this important subject, in light of a feature article written for The Atlantic last month by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter. The article, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” was read and shared by over 1 million readers online alone.

Slaughter’s article struck a nerve with women of “GenX” (born 1964-1980) and “Gen Y” or “Millennials” (those born after 1981) because of the hype that our respective generations were fed that we could in fact be superwomen, have it all in love and romance, and thrive in our careers just the same. The reality, however, has been quite different. And the truth is women of all ages are lamenting the “cost” that we all pay for attempting to be that woman who can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let our Mister forget he’s a man.

Despite the palpable gains that women of my generation (Gen X) and my mother’s generation (Baby Boomers born post-WWII) have made in the workplace, in media, and in academia, we can all agree that the personal toll is great. These days it takes a lot for a young woman to pursue her education, pay for it, start a career, date, fall in love (if she has time to even do so), marry, take care of her personal wellness, have a baby, be a good friend, spend quality time with her kids, and still be a good wife and career girl. Even in the 21st century, sisters, the truth is we simply have only 24 hours in a day, and wearing the proverbial “S” on our chests at some point breaks us down as human beings.

I asked First Lady Michelle Obama what her advice is to younger women on being successful, and how we as older, hopefully wiser women, can help ease the load. Here are her thoughts:

"I think that in order to be successful, women have to figure out what they’re passionate about first. No matter what you aspire to, you’ve got to love what you do in order to be successful at it. I also encourage young women to set high goals for themselves and be confident in their ability to achieve them. There were people who told me Princeton was out of reach and that going to Harvard Law would be too hard. I’m so glad I never listened to them – and it helped me learn to trust in myself above all else.

The truth is, women can do anything they want. There is absolutely no limit on what we can achieve, and I hope that every young woman approaches life that way. We can become even more successful if we support each other, empower each other, and mentor the next generation so they can stand on our shoulders."

While I certainly agree with all that the First Lady says herein, the question I would like to put on the table for us as Black women, is does “having it all” mean something different for us than it does for our White sisters, or other sisters of color? I think it does and let me explain why.

As I write about in my book, Black Woman Redefined, Black women face a unique set of double burdens with race and gender in and out of the workplace that no other group faces. When you look at statistical trends, college-educated, professional Black women face a different set of challenges relationally, socially, and professionally. For example, where women like Ms. Slaughter lament (and rightfully so) the pressure of trying to balance family and work, according to a 2009 Yale University Study and the ABW study in my book in 2011, nearly 70 percent of professional Black women of Gen X & Y are single in America; some 45 percent or higher of that number will never marry. My point is that many of us never get up to bat to have the work/life balance challenge that many of our White female counterparts wrestle with.

It is the same in the workplace -- the glass ceiling for them is often a brick wall for Black women and women of color. Just look at the many published studies by Executive Leadership Council, Catalyst and other professional organizations that track diversity retention and advancement of women and minorities. The numbers are dismal even now in the Age of Michelle Obama.

I think the solution for us as Black women, however, is to certainly take the advice dispensed by our First Lady, who certainly epitomizes the “well-balanced” successful woman of the 21st century, but to also begin to shift the way in which we define having it all. The feminist manifesto of the 1960s through the 1980s no longer applies to women in general as Slaughter notes, and certainly not to us as Black women.
God knows I don’t have the answers as I am struggling with the work-life balance issue myself. But my hope is that if we can Redefine what success looks like, and how we get there throughout the seasons our lives, that all of us will become better, more rested, hopeful, balanced, happy, fulfilled human beings.

Isn’t that truly the goal versus having “it all” anyway?

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributor to Essence.com and to Essence Magazine. The newly updated version of “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama” will be released in October 2012 in Trade Paperback.
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