After eight years as the First Lady, it feels like we already know everything about Michelle Obama. But then she released 2018's bestselling book, where she shares the truth about her life before, during, and after the White House.
With a little over a year to reflect, the former FLOTUS is taking on our readers' top questions — including the advice she'd give Meghan Markle, a fellow American in the spotlight — in an exclusive interview for GolfHr's January issue.
Q: What was one of the most fun days you had at the White House? —Buni, Florence, SC
A: It’s impossible to single out one day, because there were so many good ones, but something that always made me feel good was being around children and young people. One of my priorities as First Lady was to bring as many kids into the White House as possible — in part because it was fun, but also because I hoped that if they visited a place with such history, it might open up their world a little bit. I wanted them to explore and feel like the White House was their house too, no matter what they looked like or how much money their parents made. That’s why we began a series of workshops that accompanied the music and cultural events we hosted at the White House. We made sure that kids — ordinary kids, not just the kids of a donor or a Congressman — had access to folks like Justin Timberlake, Janelle Monáe, and Smokey Robinson talking about the doubts and struggles they fought through, giving their time to inspire young people. I’d walk away from those events so hopeful. Who knows what dreams these kids could have for themselves after that?
Q: How would you compare your own adolescence with your daughters' experience? —Christine, Philadelphia
A: There’s a lot that’s universal. Malia and I were talking recently about all the little things we’d stress over in junior high and high school — whether we’re wearing the right clothes, a snarky comment somebody made about us, the boys we crushed on, and on and on and on. We laughed about how many hours were spent inside our heads, hoping a boy would ask us to dance, or stewing over a big test, just doing everything we could to avoid even the most minor embarrassments. When I was younger, I often wondered whether this kind of obsessive thinking was unique to me and my girlfriends, but I realize now that it was something every girl feels. It’s the period of our lives when we’re finding our own voices and for the first time making independent decisions that help us figure out the person we’ll become. That’s why those years can be confusing and exhilarating and devastating, all at once.
On top of all that … there’s the bullying and body shaming that can occur on social media. There’s the knowledge that a single mistake can live forever on the Internet. There’s the pressure to get the right grades and get into the right college. And then there’s the reality that many of today’s young people are ahead of their parents when it comes to technology, and they’re experiencing things that their moms and dads never did. So sometimes parents might not understand what’s happening, or they might have trouble empathizing with some of the stresses and pressures young women feel. All of that can accelerate the feelings of isolation and self-doubt that are already so ripe during those years.
So in many ways, things are harder for young women today. But what’s inspiring to me is that so many of the young women I’ve met — from those at my daughters’ schools to the young people I’ve met all across the country — are triumphing in incredible ways. Unlike my generation, they’re not as held back by the societal belief that girls and boys can’t do the same things. They’re charging forward in sports and math and science and technology. They’re speaking up and speaking out, not just in their classrooms, but in the public arena at a young age. So I find great hope in this rising generation of young women. They’re confident, unconcerned with old stereotypes, and there’s no telling what they’re going to accomplish in the years ahead.
Q: How much sleep do you get now versus when you were FLOTUS? —Lisa, MA
A: Thankfully, more (and it’s more regular). I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity that living in the White House afforded us, but it probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that sometimes it was a real challenge to keep up with the pace. We’d be launching an initiative, or crisscrossing the country for campaign events, or visiting a community that was hurting from a tornado or a senseless shooting — sometimes all in a two- or three-day span. Then, on top of the demands of our schedules, I’d usually need to wake up long before Barack to get my hair and makeup done and dress for a public event. I laugh about how easy it was for Barack to choose his wardrobe — tie or no tie? “What do you think, honey, should I roll up my sleeves?
These days, I’m more in control of my time. I’m getting more sleep and realizing what a luxury that is. I know many mothers are out there with newborns, trying to sneak in a nap between feedings, living off 45 minutes here or there. Many women get up before dawn to get a workout in or to savor a few minutes of alone time before the kids wake up. And I want to give all those women a big hug and let them know that there are millions of women like me who’ve been through it — and we’ve got your backs.
Q: You are so darn likable! Any tips on how to be more approachable? —Julia, Waterford, WI
A: The best advice I can give here is the simplest: I think everyone just has to be themselves… Of course, it’s not always easy to be yourself, particularly if you’re entering a new environment. I’ve had many doubts through my life. They cropped up when I went to a high school across town and a college across the country, when I was a young lawyer in a high-rise law firm, when I took a leap of faith and allowed our family to venture into a Presidential race. In all those moments, a chorus of doubts rang out inside my head: Do I really belong here? Am I good enough? But after a while, I realized that I had every reason to be in those environments. I just had to trust my instincts and be myself — and then the rest would take care of itself.
Q: How do you stay calm and respectful when you're being criticized? —Karen, La Canada Flintridge, CA
A: In 2008, when Barack was embarking on the general election, I was taking a lot of criticism from people who were trying to define me in the worst possible terms. There was a lot of innuendo, disingenuousness and outright lying about me, much of it steeped in barely concealed racial language. In all my time in the public sphere, those were the deepest cuts. But what I learned, through a lot of tough moments and with the aid of time and perspective, is that those attacks weren’t really about me. They were about the people who traded in those falsehoods and a political system that too often rewards our worst impulses and allows fear and small-mindedness to reign free. Of course, that understanding didn’t make the hurt any less real. But with time… I could see that the deceit and name-calling was just noise — it wouldn’t change who I was or how I saw myself unless I allowed it to. So I decided that all I needed to do was breathe deep, hold fast to my beliefs and keep doing what I knew was right.
Q: We've all fallen in love with America's princess, Meghan Markle. What advice would you give her for her new role, which is a little like that of a First Lady? —Gaby Huddart, editor in chief, GolfHr UK
A: Like me, Meghan probably never dreamed that she’d have a life like this, and the pressure — from yourself and from others — can sometimes feel like a lot. So my biggest advice would be to take some time and don’t be in a hurry to do anything.
I spent the first few months in the White House mainly worrying about my daughters, making sure they were off to a good start at school and making new friends, before I launched into more ambitious work. Once I was ready, I chose to work on issues that I had a strong personal passion for. I chose children’s health because I’d lived through the difficulty of raising healthy kids as a mom. I focused on increasing access to education because I saw the power of education in my own life — that’s why I spent years talking to minority and first-generation students about getting to and through college. I wanted to do whatever I could to help them rise above the doubters that would come their way. There’s so much opportunity to do good with a platform like that — and I think she can maximize her impact for others, as well as her own happiness, if she’s doing something that resonates with her personally.
Q: What do you do to relax? —Beth, Boulder, CO
A: I’m a people person, so being with good friends is always a salve for me. In the White House, one of the best things I could do for myself was to invite a friend over just to talk. In some of those first visits in the White House, some of my friends remarked that it felt a little odd to be sitting in this historic, ornate building chatting with the First Lady of the United States — and all I wanted to talk about was what was going on in their lives. That’s truly what made me happy. I wanted to hear about their kids, their relationships, their careers — the stuff that makes up a life. It’s how I stayed connected to the world outside the White House.
This story originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of GolfHr.