First Lady Jill Biden on the Pandemic’s Toll on Family Life: 'Working Moms Are Dealing With So Much'
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, the first woman in her position to keep her day job (as a community college English professor), knows that for working mothers, it's always a struggle. But she and President Joseph Biden have taken office during a uniquely challenging time, one that has stretched working moms to their limit. Here, she opens up about her own experience of parenting young children while teaching and attending graduate school—and the changes the country needs to make in order to support working families.
What was it like for you when your sons were young? You were teaching high school and pursuing your first two graduate degrees.
Like a lot of moms, I multitasked. When my school day was over, I'd grade papers on the bleachers while the kids played whatever sport was in season. Then I'd pile their equipment into our station wagon and rush home for dinner. Every meal I cooked had to take 30 minutes or less—otherwise, the boys would eat an entire bag of chips.
Since Joe was a single dad before we married, being home for dinner was important to him. No matter what he was working on as a senator, he would come home at 7:40 sharp and eat dinner while the kids had dessert. He'd put them to bed while I studied for graduate school.
It was a challenge, but those were some of the best days of my life. We were lucky; we had friends and family to support us. I could ask for help if I needed it.
What about raising kids gave you joy? What was the hardest part?
I loved seeing them become their own people—watching them grow and change and find their place in the world. Before you become a parent, you assume you shape your kids into who you want them to be. Once you have them, you see that much of who they are comes from them. I love seeing the world through their eyes.
When we got married, I was unprepared for raising boys. I'm the oldest of five girls. And Beau and Hunter truly were rough-and-tumble, sweaty, messy boys. One afternoon, I was upstairs when I heard them bang through the front door, yelling, "Come look!" I rushed downstairs, and Beau was holding a net, beaming. Coiled in it was a snake. I screamed and ran.
When our daughter, Ashley, came along, our tastes were more aligned. But she was also just as stubborn and passionate as I was. When she was a teenager, I kept sneakers by the door so that I could run out my frustrations when we argued. It's not a coincidence that I became a marathoner.
What’s your advice for women battling burnout?
At my school—Northern Virginia Community College—I teach a lot of moms. They are all dealing with so much: working jobs, sometimes more than one, caring for kids and family members, and trying to handle their schoolwork. What I tell them is that you have to find moments for yourself. You have to. We moms spend so much time questioning ourselves—at least I did. We need time to just quiet those voices in our head.
How did President Biden support you as a working and studying mom?
Everything in life has a season, and we all take turns needing support and giving it. When we got married, Joe knew that I'd always wanted two things—a marriage that was strong, loving, and full of laughter, and a career. He didn't love me in spite of my ambitions; he loved me because of them.
When I needed to write a paper, he would take the kids somewhere to give me a quiet house. He didn't expect me to set aside my career when he became vice president, or now. In 2009, my advisors said it was crazy to do both, but Joe said, "Of course you should."
Tell us why you'll be keeping your day job while serving as First Lady.
The beautiful thing about being First Lady is that you get to do it your own way. My students have always grounded me. In the Obama-Biden Administration, they reminded me why our work mattered. I was moving between two worlds. In one, I had an office with marble columns and a view of the Washington Monument. In the other, I had a cubicle with photos pushpinned to felt walls. At the White House, we'd discuss how to get people back on their feet after the recession, how we could help families struggling to pay health-care bills, or how to make college more affordable. Then I would go across town and sit with my students, who were dealing with those issues every day. Both roles taught me so much, but being a teacher isn't a job for me. It's a calling.
In your 50s, you earned your doctorate in education. Why then?
I love my profession and the philosophy behind it, and getting my doctorate was the next big career challenge. I thought, "What's stopping me?" It took five years—I was teaching and raising kids—but when I finished, I felt I had really achieved something meaningful.
Why has the pandemic dealt such an unfair blow to working moms?
Many moms were having a hard time juggling it all before the pandemic. Now they can't send their kids to school while they work. There are no playdates to help burn off energy. They've lost the network of family and friends who can help out. And they're expected to supervise remote learning while working or job hunting.
During the campaign, I met a mom with a son with a disability. His remote learning required more supervision than she could provide while working. She made less than her husband, so of course, she was the one to quit. I think stories like that are playing out in a lot of homes.
How do you see things changing for working moms in five years? Is a sea change needed?
Equal pay. Affordable, quality child care. Debt-free community college. Paid family leave. And yes, I think we need a sea change. Both moms and dads are facing the chaotic reality of working from home while toddlers climb all over them. Essential workers have to go to work every day without anywhere to send their kids. We're seeing how badly we need better balance for us all.
As challenging as this time has been, there have been highlights. We've figured out how to hold on to the things that matter most. We've been reminded of how precious our loved ones are. We're finding that we can be more flexible than we thought. So I hope we can learn from both the positive and the negative aspects of life in this new reality.
I had help from Joe and our family when our kids were young. I was lucky. But you shouldn't have to be lucky to raise a family and pursue a career. My hope is that all parents will feel able to work and take care of their families.
What would you say to the thousands of women who are struggling?
Maybe you've made mac 'n' cheese for dinner one too many times. Maybe your temper is shorter than usual. Maybe you're too tired to be the "fun mom." It's okay. You're not failing. You're strong. You're resilient. And you're doing your best to carry your family through one of the most difficult times in memory. We're going to do everything we can to get through this, together.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's March 2021 issue as "'Working moms are dealing with so much'" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here.