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Does Political Mommy Talk Make You Cheer Or Gag?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice and, if you followed the political conventions, then you know that there was a lot of talk about leadership and the economy, but there was also a lot of talk about family.

ANN ROMNEY: It's the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make everything right. It's the moms of this nation - single, married, widowed - who really hold this country together.

MICHELLE OBAMA: At the end of the day, my most important title is still mom-in-chief.

MARTIN: That, of course, was Ann Romney and first lady Michelle Obama. But they were not the only ones to talk about family. It was actually one of the most mentioned words overall during the two national political conventions.

So we wanted to check in on how all this talk about family went over with our regular roundtable, a group of moms and often dads, who get together to talk family matters all the time. With us today, Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's a mom of three and an author. She's also the editor of "Mommy Wars." That's a collection of essays about the alleged tensions between stay-at-home moms and those who work outside the home.

Jolene Ivey is back with us. She's the mom of five boys and a Maryland state lawmaker. She's also one of the founders of a nationwide parenting support group. Dani Tucker is a mom of two and an office administrator and a fitness instructor. And Gayle Trotter is the mom of six. She's also an attorney, a writer and a blogger.

Welcome, ladies, moms. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that was interesting to me is that both of the speeches of Mitt Romney and - I'm sorry - Mrs. Romney, Ann Romney, and Mrs. Obama emphasized their roles as mothers, but it's interesting that both of their speeches got rave reviews from the larger pundit universe, but when we looked on Facebook and some of the more targeted discussion sites, the reviews were a lot more mixed.

Here's a reaction from Leah Gorver(ph) of Chicago. She's a mom of - sorry - Grover of Chicago. She's a mom of three.

LEAH GROVER: I'm sick of being pandered to as a mom. Yes, motherhood is important and wonderful, but it isn't everything. Yes, Ann and Michelle are both moms and I am a mom, but that's not why I do or don't relate to them.

MARTIN: So, Leslie, what about you?

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Well, I think that both of their speeches were wonderful and I love that they're great moms and being a mom is the most important thing to me, as well. But I think that these women have a lot more to offer than just their perspective as mothers, and I wish they had the courage and the ability to be much more opinionated. I'd really like to know what it's been like for Ann Romney to be, essentially, home alone, raising five kids while her husband was a successful businessman and now a politician.

And Michelle Obama is one of the most wonderfully, well-educated, interesting women to ever live in the White House and I am so tired of hearing about her as a mom. Also, I'm sick of hearing about her biceps and her organic farming and all that stuff. I want to know what she really thinks about being a working mother.

MARTIN: Well, she didn't talk about her biceps, to be fair.

STEINER: Well, everybody else does.


STEINER: It's like, if she goes on another cover in a sleeveless shirt, it's like - I want to know what it's really like for her and what it's been like to be so successful, how she got there and then what it was like to kind of give it all up for her husband's dreams.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? Now, that's interesting because you were the spouse of a politician, the wife of a politician, before you went into politics in your own right and also mom of five boys. So what about you? Did the mommy talk do it for you or not?

IVEY: I love Michelle Obama, so I have a hard time being critical of her, quite honestly, but I thought it was fine and I think she's done a great job. Of course, we all want to know more about her, but that doesn't mean that she shouldn't be taking on these issues. And I think the issues she's taken on are traditional. I mean, you know, the first lady - we like her to take on something traditional. Laura Bush had literacy. Hillary Clinton kind of upset some people because she did the health care, she tried to do the health care bill, and that was difficult for her and her husband.

But to have...

MARTIN: As an unelected person...

IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: unappointed person, a person who couldn't be fired.

IVEY: Unpaid and everything like that. But I believe that Michelle really has been in a position where she's had to tread lightly and be very careful, and I'm sure it's like walking on eggshells. When they sat around and figured out what her things were going to be that she was going to take on, I mean, it's not really cutting edge to say military families. I mean, of course, who can be against them? You know, trying to keep people's weight under control. Now, that's a little more edgy because people don't like to be thought of as fat and they don't want to think that they need to lose weight, but she's really good about that and talking about organic gardening and all those things that she does.

So she's put some meat on the bones. I think she's been a little edgier, if you look at it that way, but I love her and I think that what she's done is important.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you?

TUCKER: I think - I love her, too, of course. But I think that I like that she's real. And I'm glad that she doesn't expose all of herself to people because, frankly, it's none of your business. What you see is what you get. She is mom-in-chief and I cheered like crazy when she said that because that woman teaches other women how to multi-task and what's important. It is important that you be mother. You know, she's educated. We all know that. She's the first lady, present, you know, wife of the most important man on the planet. We know that. She's, you know, a lawyer. Is she a lawyer? Right? Am I right? She's a lawyer. OK.

MARTIN: Yes. She's a lawyer. Not practicing at the moment.

TUCKER: Right. But she has her law degree. But what's most important to her is she's mom in chief, and for most of us that's what's important to us. You know, I do a lot of things, fitness instructor, admin, et cetera, et cetera, but being a mother is number one. And I like the way she does that. And her arms, please show me more because it motivates every class that I teach. When I do an arm routine, I do it in Michelle Obama's name and them ladies work their arms.



TUCKER: So you see what I'm saying? She's a role model to women. I love it.

MARTIN: You're going to have to deal with Leslie on that. She doesn't want to hear anymore about the sleeveless. Gayle, what about you? And I'd also love to hear about Ann Romney's speech too and how that struck people too. A lot of people got that - a lot of people enjoyed that speech as well and got rave reviews too, but the similar kind of mix so, you know. So Gayle, what about you? What was your reaction?

GAYLE TROTTER: Well, I loved what Michelle and Ann shared about their families. But Mitt's story about his young family deeply touched me. He movingly talked about what it was like for Ann to have to raise five active boys all by herself. And he said that she had the hardest and most important job. And it's one thing if a mom toots her own horn about how difficult it is doing the homework, taking the kids to school, but to hear him acknowledge that, I mean what mom doesn't love hearing that?

MARTIN: Well, Leslie says she doesn't, so.

STEINER: I think it's wonderful that he's paying lip service to it but I say where was he then? Why wasn't he? Why was it so important to him to earn so much money at Bain Capital and then to run for president? Why couldn't he be there for her more? I mean I think there's a real underside to this. And I wish I had a candidate's wife to contribute to "Mommy Wars" and say what it's really like to be alone or to be Paul Ryan's wife who gave up her career and moved to a tiny town in Wisconsin to support her husband. I mean I think it's really this patriarchal idea of women giving everything to their men and nothing, never putting themselves first and I think it's very hard.

TROTTER: I don't see it that way at all.

MARTIN: Gayle?

TROTTER: I think it's a joint enterprise. And I think if you say that women are giving it all up to support their men in this patriarchal career, then you're not acknowledging that they have a joint enterprise that they're working on. And moms are entrepreneurs. They're trying to create this beautiful family and this creation of, you know, this new generation. And to say that what they're doing at home or the ways that they're supporting their husband, they're all making sacrifice. And we as Americans cherish that kind of sacrifice.


TUCKER: I liked her speech because it was a good speech. But I'm going to be honest with you, it was a hard sell because you cannot convince many of us that she took care of five boys by herself with all that money they got, without a nanny, a nurse and all that other stuff that we don't get. OK. So that's where she lost us.

MARTIN: Dani is a single mom. Well, you weren't always a single mom.

TUCKER: But even the working moms who don't have nannies and who don't have all that money, I'm sorry, it was a hard sell. To look at that women say what she said and I'm going to believe - and many of us felt the same way because we went on it at Facebook. You want to tell us that you did - you raised five boys while he was out here making all this money and you didn't have no help? We didn't buy it.

MARTIN: Well, you know, in fact, it's interesting that there was a piece, and op-ed piece in the Washington Post subsequent to both conventions, where the headline was: Politicians love to talk about family but maybe not yours. And the authors say the two parent middle-class family is viewed like apple pie and celebrated with stick figures stickers on the backs of minivans. But this constricted view of families provides a skewed vision of what they need: quality affordable day care, the opportunity to buy homes in safe neighborhoods with good schools, the ability to provide food, health care, and a college education for their children; and perhaps more important, time to spend with their kids.

Now I think people have a, you know, can argue with a lot of what is in here. Many people would argue with, you know, sort of different pieces of this. You know, but what about the argument that the picture that either party presented was really not about what most families are really dealing with. Leslie?

STEINER: Yeah. I think you can take that literally. You look at the pictures, the pictures of the Romney and Ryan campaign with their kids. I mean first of all, anybody is blonde, everybody is smiling. I'm blonde myself so I can maybe take a stab at that. And the Obamas are just as bad. It's like every shot of them is this beautiful family shot. And what I want to see, I want to see the other picture - of the nannies and babysitters, and housekeepers, and grandmas who have made all this perfection possible. And I think when they portray themselves as such perfect nuclear families, both candidates do everybody a disservice. And I think the wives are just as bad too. And, you know, you can't - there's no way that you can run a political campaign and be there for your family at the same time, and you need a lot of help to do so. And I wish that we had another, sort of, the shadow picture of the small army of caregivers - very important caregivers, that make all of this possible.

MARTIN: Well, Jolene, you've lived that life. You've been a local wife...

IVEY: Yeah. There was no...

MARTIN: And so help us to...

IVEY: There was no army of caregivers for me, I can tell you that. But that's because we actually lived that middle-class life, especially at that time. There was no Bain Capital money in the Ivey household.

STEINER: But didn't you have like - I mean Michelle Obama's grandmother lives in her house.

IVEY: I had no one. Not at - at that time.

STEINER: I mean they - OK. Well, then maybe you are unusual and that could be just as unrealistic too, but most people, you can't work. You can't campaign - even if it's for your husband's campaign - you can't do it and raise small children at the same time. And our country has this crazy myth that you're supposed to do everything - women in particular - and you can't work full time or campaign full time and take care of young children without help.

MARTIN: I feel like there is a point here that you're not getting to. Is the point that you're getting to here that actually families need more support than just the principles and that that's something that needs to be discussed? What are you saying?

STEINER: I think we need - my main point is that it's a myth and it does every body a lot of damage to make it look so perfect and easy without showing the back story - that you do need a lot of help to get there, or you need to be superwoman.

MARTIN: Jolene, very briefly...

IVEY: I think...

MARTIN: And Gayle, I know you want to get in this.

IVEY: In my particular case, I mean I was home with my kids and I was the small army. I could not have done all of what I did and had a job outside the home, there's no doubt. But what I notice is most of the politicians who spoke during the conventions, they all grew up in log cabins, they had to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways in the snow. You know what I mean? No matter where they came from they all had these hard back stories. And that's because in America we love that pull yourself up from the bootstraps story. That's our thing. And so everybody wants to you to relate to that for themselves.

MARTIN: OK. But let's try to get to the point of what it is that these people should be saying to us, because at this point, you know, I don't really care. I mean I, you know so...

IVEY: You know, what national politicians say, they're trying to say something that's going to relate to the whole country, they think. In my particular case, I represent a much smaller group of people. The people I represent are more poor, and I have about a quarter of the households are single parent households. So I definitely think of them when I make decisions, sometimes they might not look like to other people, but I say look, I got to look out for the poor people.


IVEY: I got to look out for people trying to get jobs.

MARTIN: All right. Gayle?

TROTTER: I didn't hear the same things. I was raised by a single dad and I understand that families come in all shapes and sizes, and that nontraditional families share the same concerns that traditional families do. And those ideas are to have education that so your kids can move out of your basement and have jobs and flourish as productive members of society. So when I listened to the conventions, I didn't hear that they were touting a perfect family. In fact, I heard just the opposite. And I could so relate to Ann Romney when she was talking about how hard it was for her when her husband was gone, and I had that same sacrifice in my life, so I can identify with that. And I've written about it in relation to Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," and I've had to respond to that too, and I think women have to define their own success.


TUCKER: I think it's also important to talk about relationships. She can relate to that because that was her life. Same reason I can relate to - now I can't relate to that, because I can't relate to a rich white man and his rich white wife and their kids and it being all gravy, OK? I just can't. I have never been there. But I can relate to Obama because the - my boyfriend, my dad, the other men in my neighborhood, they need to see that. And I like that he does that because I've watched my boyfriend, I've watched my son, I've watched black men especially see that they can do things a lot better, especially when it comes to family because they're watching him. They watch the way he loves his wife. They watch the way he loves his daughter, as well as still being a working man, as well as being, you know, who he is. And we need that. So it's all to me, where you come from and what you need to see.

MARTIN: Well, see, this is interesting because I was going to loop this around and ask what it is that you would like to have heard these candidates and their wives say about policy that you perhaps did not hear. But what I'm hearing a lot of you say is the way they live their lives is just as important. And is that what I'm hearing?

TUCKER: I'm saying it's more important because we hear policy all the time, and a lot of time out was he doesn't trickle down to where we live at, OK?


TUCKER: So what is most important what we need right now and what's happening right now, he's the first and he has lifted up many minority men to step it up.


TUCKER: That's what we need more than policy.

MARTIN: But then I'm hearing a different thing from Leslie and Jolene. You're saying...

IVEY: Well, I'd say...

MARTIN: Jolene?

IVEY: This is Jolene. Yeah. I'd say...

MARTIN: Who is about to tackle me, by the way, that's why I'm going with her...


IVEY: is very important - I'd have to disagree with Dani on that.


IVEY: Policy is more important, and if you look at just - when you just talked about education, how important it is. Well, the Republicans might have gotten up there and talked about how important education was, but what were they doing when it came to college loans? And what is Obama doing when it comes to college loans or school choice?

MARTIN: You may have noticed that Jolene is a Democrat. I just thought I'd share that with people who do not know this. Gayle?


IVEY: So, you know, put your money where your mouth is.

MARTIN: Gayle, quickly.

TROTTER: No. That's exactly the point. We have different ways of solving the problem. So there are ways, we all care about kid's education and Republicans are not going to say that Democrats don't. We just have different ways of getting to the results.

MARTIN: And Gayle is a Republican, for those who did not know.


MARTIN: Leslie, you're an independent so why don't you...

STEINER: I think the symbolism is very important of how they live their lives in addition to their policy. And for an example, I so much wish that Michelle Obama instead of putting in her organic garden, had put in a day care center in the White House for her female employees or her male employees, so that we can draw more attention to how important affordable day care is to any parent.


TUCKER: No. I'm glad she put the organic garden in, because I need to know how to grow a garden. I got day care. You understand? I need her to do what she's doing because it's beautiful. And sisters all over the country, especially where I live in Ward 8 where it's mostly sisters, have stepped it up because of that lady, really they have. I mean they have looked at her and they have something to aspire to, other than Nicki Minaj and the rest of these rappers that's running around here that's not doing anything.


TUCKER: So I want Michelle to do what she's doing and keep doing what she's doing, because she's doing all right by me.

MARTIN: All right. Well, my sisters you meant African-American.

TUCKER: That's what I meant.

MARTIN: Leslie objects to that because she says I'm your sister too. She's embracing you.

TUCKER: She is my sister. I love her to death.


MARTIN: She was embracing you. OK. Well, we have to leave there for now. Obviously there's a lot to talk about here.

Dani Tucker is a mom of two, office administrator and a fitness instructor. Gayle Trotter is a mom of six, an attorney and a writer. Leslie Morgan Steiner is a mom of three and an author of the book and editor of the book "Mommy Wars," a collection of essays. Jolene Ivey is the mom of five and a Maryland state lawmaker. And they were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. And something tells me I'm going to have a hard time getting them out of here to go home.


MARTIN: Thank you all.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

TROTTER: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.