Oprah Winfrey: You write, about meeting him: “I’d constructed my existence carefully, tucking and folding every loose and disorderly bit of it, as if building some tight and airless piece of origami... He was like a wind that threatened to unsettle everything”. At first you didn’t like being unsettled...
Michelle Obama: Oh God, no.
OW: This I love so much—a moment that cracks me up: “I woke one night to find him staring at the ceiling, his -profile lit by the glow of streetlights outside. He looked vaguely troubled, as if he were pondering something deeply personal. Was it our -relationship? The loss of his father? ‘Hey, what are you thinking about over there?’ I whispered. He turned to look at me, his smile a little sheepish. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘I was just thinking about income inequality’.”
MO: That’s my honey.
OW: You really let us into the relationship. I mean, down to the proposal and everything. You also write about some major differences between the two of you in the early years of your marriage. You say: “I understood it was nothing but good intentions that would lead him to say, ‘I’m on my way!’ Or, ‘Almost home!’”
MO: Oh gosh, yes.
OW: “And for a while, I believed those words. I’d give the girls their nightly bath but delay bedtime so that they could wait up to give their dad a hug.” And then you describe this scene where you’d waited up: “He says, ‘I’m on my way, I’m on my way’. He doesn’t come.” And then
you turn out the lights—I could hear them click off, the way you wrote it.
MO: I was mad. When you get married and you have kids, your whole plan, once again, gets upended. Especially if you get married to somebody who has a career that swallows up everything, which is what -politics is.
MO: Barack taught me how to swerve. But his swerving sort of—you know, I’m flailing in the wind. And now I’ve got two kids, and I’m trying to hold everything down while he’s travelling back and forth from Washington or Springfield. He had this wonderful optimism about time. He thought there was way more of it than there really was. And he would fill it up constantly. He’s a plate spinner—plates on sticks, and it’s not exciting unless one’s about to fall. So there was work we had to do as a couple. Counselling we had to do to work through this stuff.
OW: Tell us about counselling.
MO: Well, you go because you think the counsellor is going to help you make your case against the other person. And lo and behold, counselling wasn’t that at all. It was about me exploring my sense of happiness. What clicked in me was that I need support and I need some from him. But I needed to figure out how to build my life in a way that works for me.
OW: You also write, “When it came down to it, I felt vulnerable when he was away.” I thought that was kind of amazing, to hear a modern woman—a First Lady—admit that.
MO: I feel vulnerable all the time. And I had to learn how to express that to my husband, to tap into those parts of me that missed him—and the sadness that came from that—so that he could understand. He didn’t understand distance in the same way. You know, he grew up without his mother in his life for most of his years, and he knew his mother loved him dearly, right? I always thought love was up close. Love is the dinner table, love is consistency, it is presence. So I had to share my vulnerability and also learn to love differently. It was an important part of my journey of becoming. Understanding how to become us.
OW: What was so valuable to me—and I think will be for everyone else who reads the book—is that nothing really changed. You just changed your perception of what was happening. And that made you happier.
MO: Yeah. And a lot of the reason I share this is because I know that people look to me and Barack as the ideal relationship. I know there’s #RelationshipGoals out there. But whoa, people, slow down—marriage is hard!
How MO Keeps Her Friendships Fit
“You become the First Lady and people are like, well, she’s too busy, she doesn’t want to talk. To all my friends, I’d be like, Tell me about your son. And it’s like, You don’t want to hear about that. I absolutely do. I had to find a way to continue to remind my girlfriends that I’m here for them. I started planning these boot camps at Camp David every three months because, I thought, we’re gonna do stuff that’s healthy. A lot of my friends are my age, reaching middle age. So I would have my trainer, one of the chefs from the White House, go to Camp David, and we’d set up, like, four days of really hard exercise. I eliminated sugar and wine. And then people were like, I’m not coming back. I put the wine back on!
We started doing those once a quarter. And I saw my friends getting stronger over the course of that time. Women who weren’t used to running and skipping and jumping were going to [US-based fitness studio] SoulCycle. Finding their power in becoming stronger. I had all these disparate groups of friends. I had my law-school friends, my college friends—and now they’re all a support system for one another, planning for time together.
Planning trips, planning vacations, and putting that on the calendar. I make sure that they know to invite me...because I will come. I wouldn’t be standing up straight after the last decade if I didn’t have my girlfriends.”
Michelle Obama’s new memoir, Becoming, published by Crown, is available on amazon.in, for ₹600.