Exclusive: First Lady Dr. Jill Biden on What It Means to Be a Working Mom
As the first First Lady to keep her day job, Dr. Jill Biden, EdD, knows how to multitask. She sat down with REAL SIMPLE's editor-in-chief, Lauren Iannotti, to share her thoughts on managing her job, her other job, her family, and all the rest. Hint: It isn't about juggling.
LAUREN IANNOTTI: During your first 18 months as First Lady, you traveled to roughly 40 states, 75 cities, and 10 countries. You've crisscrossed the U.S., rallying support for the administration's priorities, and visited an active war zone. As the first First Lady to keep a job outside the East Wing, you maintained a full teaching schedule and "showed up," as you put it, for your family. So I guess my question is: Do you sleep?
DR. JILL BIDEN: I do! There are things that keep me up at night, like every woman. There are a thousand things going through your mind when you have a lot in your life. But most nights I get my 71/2 hours. I've also mastered the art of the catnap. If I'm teaching and we have an event that night, I can sleep for 20 minutes and wake up fresh.
LI: One journalist called your insistence on keeping your day job "productive stubbornness." Did you meet with resistance when you decided to continue teaching?
DR. B: I think people were a little skeptical. Could I truly do it, since I was the first one to try it? But I knew I wanted to teach. And so I said, "This is what I want to do. We have to figure it out." I knew I could do both. I'd done it as Second Lady, and at that time my staff said, "There's no way you can do this," and then they saw that I could. I saw it work then, and I knew we could figure out how to do it now.
LI: Do you ever feel that guilt most of us experience, when you're so focused on one part that you neglect another?
DR. B: Of course! Especially when you have kids, right? You're always thinking, "Did I spend enough time at his game?" Or, "Should I have said that?" You're always questioning yourself because you want to be the best mother you can be, the best teacher you can be. You're thinking, "Did I give that student enough attention?" I think it's just part of human nature. You want to make sure you do a good job at anything you do.
LI: Do you delegate? I've heard a story about Post-it notes.
DR. B: It started because the Bidens are a big family, and we have a lot of gatherings. And they would all say, "What can I do to help?" And by the time you've explained, "You get the salad bowl out, it's in this cupboard, here are the utensils, etc." I thought, "There's got to be an easier way." I know my meal and what I'm going to serve, so I do Post-it notes, like "Fill the glasses with ice," "Light the candles," and I put them on the cabinet above my kitchen counter. Then I put out the salad bowl with the tomatoes or the lemons or whatever needs to be cut, and everything is set up so when somebody comes in, they do what they want to do.
LI: Do they physically take the Post-it?
DR. B: Yes! They can pick whatever one they want, and they really like that because they're helping, but they're doing what they chose to do. And nobody's asking, ''What shape do you want the lemons?" Everybody knows their role. If we get together, it's at least 13 or 14 and can go up to 30. So I do that for almost every big family dinner now. I do the main. Everything else is up for grabs.
LI: Do you use the Post-it notes at work too?
DR. B: I do, but then they're for me! They're telling me what to do. And if I want to get a message to Joe, I put one on his mirror. It may be a nice "I missed you" or ''I hope you get whatever it is you're working on."
LI: I've heard that you don't call it "juggling" or "balancing" but "managing." Can you explain what you mean?
DR. B: You can't do anything in a haphazard way. You have to have purpose while you're doing it, and it has to be organized. That's the key to it.
LI: I think of it as plate spinning, which is not organized. Managing, that's a goal to shoot for.
DR. B: I've been at this much longer than you.
LI: I think once my 6-year-old gets older, it'll get easier.
DR. B: Oh no, it never changes.
LI: Oh, great!
DR. B: You're always a mother. If I can tell you anything as a mother, it's this: It never gets easier. I used to think, "This is going to get easier." It doesn't. Life gets so much more complicated.
LI: My mom says that too. I love a story about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When she was at Harvard Law, she'd stop studying at 4 o'clock to spend afternoons with her young daughter. And instead of thinking of that as lost studying time, she loved the break, and she'd come back to her work fresh at night. What strategies did you use when you had small children and were working and had all these things going on?
DR. B: First of all, you have to remember that it isn't just a break; it's a break filled with love, right? You're spending time with people you love, you're laughing, you're talking about your day. I was a big baker when my kids were little. They called it the "baked good of the week." I made a lot of cookies, cakes, and pies. The boys and their friends would come over after school and dig in. I think of that time as a gift. Then Joe would come home at about 7:40, and I'd have eaten dinner with the kids. I'd give Joe his dinner, and the kids would have dessert with him. And he always wanted to put them to bed and talk to them about their day—that was his special time with them, which gave me a bit of a break so I could grade papers or read. Getting a master's in English and then my doctorate, I was always reading. You have to find a way to manage it all, and each family works it out differently.
LI: As I mentioned, you use the phrase "showing up" quite a bit. Can you explain what you mean?
DR. B: I found that as a mother, as a friend, and especially as First Lady, no matter what happens in this country, it's important to show up. It was almost a year since the Surfside building collapse, and I went to Florida and spoke to all those folks who had lost family members. A few weeks ago, Joe and I were in Uvalde, meeting with the families for almost four hours. When I went to Waukesha, Wisconsin, a Republican area, I wasn't sure how I would be received. And I think they didn't know either: "Is she coming for political reasons? Is she grandstanding?" But once I went in—and I didn't have the press with me or the photographers; I just went in by myself and talked to the families—they saw I was sincere. In your own life, it means so much to people when you show up in the tough times as well as the happy times. And I think it's important to do the unexpected thing. The little kindness. When I'm at school and somebody's husband is sick, I might leave cookies on their desk, or a note, to acknowledge what they're going through.
LI: We put a lot on working parents, especially women—who, a boatload of research shows, do more of the child-rearing, housework, and "emotional labor." What can we do as a society to support families better?
DR. B: We should be passing childcare laws and universal pre-K. I'm a big believer in early childhood education, and Joe is too. Don't forget he was a single parent. His first wife died in a car accident with his daughter, and he was a single parent to two boys for five years. He knows how hard it is. He was a senator, and he had his mother helping him out, but there were the parent-teacher conferences, the games, his job. So I think that helped him understand what working parents, not just working moms, need. He keeps pushing it, but Congress has got to step up. The House passed the subsidized childcare and his universal pre-K bills, but the Senate did not. I don't understand why it wasn't instantly voted in. Joe's not going to give up.
LI: Pocketbook issues are bearing down on middle- and working-class families—inflation, gas prices, healthcare debt, the baby formula shortage. What do you say to a parent who's worried about all that, on top of gun violence in schools and the war in Ukraine?
DR. B: It's a tough time in history. And Joe and I see that. I think that's the reason he was elected. He's steady, he's strong, he has wisdom, he knows politics, and he knows where he wants to take the country. Sometimes it feels like we're pushing this boulder up the hill, but progress is being made. Joe's been in office for, what, 18 months now? And everybody has access to vaccines. We got the schools reopened—thank God we all got off Zoom—we got health care, we got money for broadband so underserved kids can have internet. I don't want to sound like a political ad, but we have done so much. Gas prices are a huge issue, and Joe is, every single day, on the phone talking to leaders about gas and oil. These problems are coming so fast and furious, and certainly a lot of it is dark, like you said. But I wish people could see more of what Joe has accomplished and how hard he's working.
LI: You just celebrated your 45th wedding anniversary. Congratulations! What would you say to any newlyweds hoping to make it to 45?
DR. B: You have to work in any relationship, but especially in marriage. It's not always 50/50. Sometimes you lean on him, sometimes he leans on you. Sometimes he's super busy and I have to pick up a lot of it, or vice versa. The goal is that we're not in the same place at the same time, so we can count on one another when we need to.
LI: So I read an article with the President talking about how he's busy, and then he has some free time and you're busy, and it's hard to line that up and to prioritize the relationship, to steal time for one another. Now it's almost a year later, any progress on that front?
DR. B: We always have dinner together most nights; I would say almost every night. I think that's the time that we have together. We always have flowers and candles and just sit there and put the phones away and the televisions off. And just spend time with one another, and like I said, when we don't have that time, I put the Post-it note up like, 'Hey! Whatever it is.'
LI: What would you do for a day if you were just Jill?
DR. B: I feel like I am Jill! Every day! But if I had a day just for me, I would go to the beach, probably with my sisters because they make me laugh harder than anyone, and I'd read a good book.
LI: That sounds like a wonderful day. Can I do a quick speed round? These are some REAL SIMPLE low-stakes controversies I'd love you to weigh in on. Top sheet or no top sheet?
DR. B: Oh, top sheet. Definitely. I never even thought of not having a top sheet. That's like kids in college who don't make their bed. They just pull the thing over!
LI: Faux tree or real?
DR. B: Oh gosh, that's so hard because I love a real tree. We have a real tree here, but I can see the benefits. I feel bad when we cut down a whole tree.
LI: Should you always text ahead of a phone call, or can you cold-call?
DR. B: I just call. What do you mean, text and say, "I'm going to call you"?
LI: Well, you know, the kids these days don't cold-call.
DR. B: I'm their mother! Or grandmother! I just call. And they'd better pick up!
LI: Skinny jeans—yea or nay? This may be the most high-stakes one.
DR. B: I say all jeans. Whatever you want, whatever you like. Whatever looks good! Whatever feels good!
LI: A very diplomatic answer!
DR. B: Oh, I know!