On  Saturday, December 1st I had the pleasure of attending Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” Tour. As a black woman who can remember watching her and her family on television the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated, Michelle Obama and her family have always been influential to me. Before attending the tour, I expected it to be like a “normal” book tour. She would discuss her book, Becoming, and maybe answer a few questions as well. However, her book tour was so much more than that, diving into important discussions about gender, race, education, and “leaning in.”

I was struck by the former First Lady’s  personability and sincerity despite her living under constant analysis. Even when discussing sensitive issues, she was not afraid to say what she really felt, and even in a stadium full of people, many of whom were white, she never seemed to code-switch or hold back in speaking her truth as a black woman in America.

While her account of her experiences as a young black woman attending a prestigious, predominantly-white school, resonated with me as a black woman at NYU, her offhand comment about “leaning in” is what struck me most. When asked about her experience supporting her husband, Barack Obama, in his process of becoming president while also maintaining her own career and personal  life, rather than explaining how she balanced these different things, she stated that balancing a career, marriage, kids, mental health, and hobbies just isn’t a realistic for women yet and that it simply was not possible for her.“Marriage still ain't equal, y'all. It ain't equal. I tell women that whole 'you can have it all' — mmm, nope, not at the same time, that's a lie. It's not always enough to lean in because that s*** doesn't work."

For many women, particularly women age 35 and younger who are just starting  or thinking of starting families and a career, this statement can be a bit disheartening. For me, as a young woman who is engaged and pursuing a career in medicine, I have heard this all too many times. I can remember even at age 13 when I first told my father, a doctor, that I wanted to be an OB/GYN, that he responded in part with pride, but also with sincere concern, saying that being a good doctor, a good wife, and a good mother is a nearly impossible task.

To hear a woman like Michelle Obama, who seems to have achieved the status of “having it all” say that it is not possible makes one wonder if maybe she is right, but I think that her statement may have deeper meaning. Later in the talk Mrs. Obama discusses how in order to maintain her sanity, she needed to call on her husband for more and prioritize the things that were most important to her, that after learning to do that through therapy she was much happier in her relationship and her life.This does not seem coincidental to me, and seems to undercut her statement that we can never “have it all.” Maybe that is not realistic for women today, but I have faith that one day we can. Every day I see men achieving this dream. Across America there are countless men who are fulfilled by their careers while also being husbands and fathers with hobbies and free time. Who is to say women cannot have the same?

The solution is likely not to merely “lean in” to every opportunity until we are spread too thin, but it very much could be to, as Maxine Waters would say, “reclaim our time,” a skill that men, as benefactors in our sexist society, know all too well. Men are taught that their time is valuable and that their energy, feelings, and thoughts are valuable. They are encouraged to put themselves first, while women are taught from a young age to support those around them and to always be “useful” and “accommodating” to others, particularly their male peers and family members, even if it means sharing or sacrificing our time, energy, and emotions.

Even with my fiance, this has been a necessary lesson for me in my struggle to “have it all.” My fiance is never afraid to ask me to cook dinner or do the dishes or laundry, even if I just came home from work. Is this because he consciously thinks my time is worth less than his? No, of course not, but it is definitely a result of him knowing how to ask for help and to prioritize his “me time” when he is not working. Through therapy and support from him, I have had to learn how to say “no” when asked to do things that may stretch me too thin and how to feel okay asking for help with things that, yes, I could do, but I shouldn’t always have to do, in an effort to preserve my time, energy, and mental health.

Because of this, I think it is time for us as women to teach ourselves and the young women and girls in our lives the value that we possess and the importance of putting ourselves first. We are dynamic, intelligent, powerful, and, most importantly, human, and that warrants us the same right as men to put ourselves first, to be selfish at times. We must encourage our sons to respect both their own time and the time of others. Do not dote upon and cater to your son through adolescence if you are not doing the same for your daughter, challenge him to act in service of others and to be cognizant of others’ time and energy. If we can do this, then maybe our generation, which has already been conditioned to put the feelings of men first, may not get to “have it all at the same time,” but hopefully our children, our daughters, can.

Lydia MasonComment