In an exclusive extract from her new book, the former first lady shares what she learned about raising a family while living in the White House
A fter Barack was elected president, word got out that Marian Robinson, my 71-year-old mother, was planning to move to the White House with us. The idea was that she’d help look after Sasha and Malia, who were seven and 10 at the time, at least until they were settled. She’d make sure that everyone adjusted OK and then move back to Chicago. The media seemed instantly charmed by this notion, requesting interviews with my mother and producing a slew of stories, dubbing her “First Granny” and “Grandmother-in Chief”. It was as if a new and potentially exciting character had been added to the cast of a network drama. Suddenly, my mother was in the news. She was news. Small Folding Table
If you’ve ever met my mother, however, you’ll know that the last thing she wants is to be well known. She agreed to do a handful of interviews, figuring it was just part of the larger transition process, though she said, again and again, that she was surprised that anyone would care.
By her own measure, my mom is nothing special. She also likes to say that while she loves us dearly, my brother and I are not special, either. We’re just two kids who had enough love and a good amount of luck and happened to do well as a result. She tries to remind people that neighbourhoods like the South Side of Chicago are packed full of “little Michelles and little Craigs”. They’re in every school, on every block. It’s just that too many of them get overlooked and underestimated. This would probably count as the foundational point of my mom’s larger philosophy: “All children are great children.”
My mother is now 85. She operates with a quiet and mirthful grace. Glamour and gravitas mean nothing to her. She sees right through it, believing that all people should be treated the same. I’ve seen her talk to the pope and to the postman, approaching them both with the same mild-mannered, unflappable demeanour. If someone asks her a question, she responds in plain and direct terms, never catering her answers to suit a particular audience. This is another thing about my mother: she doesn’t believe in fudging the truth.
What this meant as we transitioned into the White House was that any time a reporter posed a question to my mom, she would answer it candidly rather than soft-pedalling her thoughts or hewing to any set of talking points generated by nervous communications staffers.
Which is how she surfaced in the national news, describing how she’d been dragged kicking and screaming from her quiet little bungalow on Euclid Avenue and more or less forced to live at the nation’s most famous address. She was not being ungracious; she was just being real. How my mom expressed herself to the reporters on this matter was no different than how she’d expressed herself to me. She had not wanted to come to Washington, but I had flat-out begged her. My mother was the rock of our family. Since the time our daughters were babies, she’d helped us out around the edges of our regular childcare arrangements, filling the gaps as Barack and I often improvised and occasionally flailed our way through different career transitions, heavy workload cycles, and the ever-burgeoning after-school lives of our two young girls.
So, yes, I did kind of force her to come.
The problem was that she was content at home. She had recently retired. She liked her own life in her own space and was uninterested in change more generally. The house on Euclid had all her trinkets. It had the bed she’d slept in for more than 30 years. Her feeling was that the White House felt too much like a museum and too little like a home. (And yes, of course, she voiced this observation directly to a reporter.) But even as she made it known that her move to Washington was largely involuntary and intended to be temporary, she affirmed that her love for Sasha and Malia in the end eclipsed everything else. “If somebody’s going to be with these kids other than their parents,” she told a reporter, giving a shrug, “it better be me.”
After that, she decided she was pretty much done giving interviews.
Once she’d moved in, my mother became very popular in the White House, even if she wasn’t looking to be. Everyone referred to her simply as “Mrs R”. People on staff enjoyed her precisely because she was so low-key. The butlers, who were mostly Black, liked having a Black grandma in the house. They showed her photos of their own grandkids and occasionally tapped her for life advice. Secret Service agents kept tabs on her on days when she wandered out the gates and headed to the CVS [pharmacy] on 14th Street or when she dropped by Betty Currie’s house – Betty being Bill Clinton’s former secretary – to play cards. The staff housekeepers were often trying to get my mother to let them do more for her, though Mom made it clear that nobody should wait on or clean up after her when she knew perfectly well how to do all that herself.
“Just show me how to work the washing machine and I’m good,” she said.
Aware of the favour she was doing us, we tried to keep her duties light. She rode with Sasha and Malia to and from school, helping them adjust to the new routine. On days I was busy with Flotus duties, she made sure the girls had snacks and whatever else they needed for after-school activities. Just as she had when I was an elementary-school student, she listened with interest to their tales about what had unfolded over the course of the day. When she and I had time alone, she’d fill me in on anything I’d missed in the kids’ day and then she’d do the same sort of listening for me, acting as my sponge and sounding board.
When she wasn’t looking after the girls, my mom made herself deliberately scarce. Her feeling was that we should have our own family life, independent of her. And she felt that she, too, should have a life independent of us. She liked her freedom. She liked her space. She had come to DC with only one intention, and that was to be a reliable support to Barack and me and a caring grandmother to our two kids. Everything else, as far as she saw it, was just fuss and noise.
Sometimes we would host VIP guests for a dinner party in the White House residence. They’d look around and ask where my mother was, wondering whether she’d be joining us for the meal.
I’d usually just laugh and point up towards the third floor, where she had a bedroom and liked to hang out in a nearby sitting room, which had big windows that looked out at the Washington Monument. “Nope,” I’d say, “Grandma’s upstairs in her happy place.”
This essentially was code for: “Sorry, Bono, Mom’s got a glass of wine, some pork ribs on her TV tray, and Jeopardy! is on. Don’t for one second think you could ever compete … ”
My mom ended up staying with us in the White House for the whole eight years.
Our girls morphed from wide-eyed elementary-schoolers into teenagers in full bloom, intent on achieving independence and the privileges of adult life. As teenagers do, they tested a few limits and did some dumb things. Someone got grounded for missing curfew. Someone posted an eyebrow-raising bikini selfie on Instagram and was promptly instructed by the East Wing communications team to remove it. Someone once had to be dragged by Secret Service agents from an out-of-hand, unsupervised high-school party just as local law enforcement was arriving. Someone talked back to the president of the United States when he had the audacity to ask how she could possibly study Spanish while listening to rap.
An episode of even mild disobedience or misbehaviour from our adolescent daughters would set off a ripple of unsettling worry in me. It preyed upon my greatest fear, which was that life in the White House was messing our kids up.
One tiny thing would go wrong, and my mother-guilt would kick in. I’d start second-guessing every choice Barack and I had ever made. Self-scrutiny is something women are programmed to excel at, having been thrust into systems of inequality and fed fully unrealistic images of female “perfection” from the time we were kids ourselves. None of us – truly none – ever live up.
For mothers, the feelings of not-enoughness can be especially acute. The images of maternal perfection we encounter in advertisements and across social media are often no less fake than what we see on the enhanced and Photoshopped female bodies that are so often upheld as the societal gold standard for beauty. But still, we are conditioned to buy into it, questing after not just the perfect body, but also perfect children, perfect work-life balances, perfect family experiences, and perfect levels of patience. It’s hard not to look around as a mother and think, Is everyone doing this perfectly but me?
I am as prone to this type of self-laceration as the next person. At any sign of conflict or challenge with our kids, I would instantly and ferociously start scanning for my own mistakes. Had I been too tough on them or too indulging? Had I been too present or too absent? Was there some parenting book I’d forgotten to study 15 years earlier? Was this a bona fide crisis, a sign of bigger problems? Which critical life lessons had I failed to impart? And was it too late now?
As a parent, you are always fighting your own desperation not to fail at the job you’ve been given. There are whole industries built to feed and capitalise on this very desperation, from baby brain gyms and ergonomic strollers to Sat coaches. It’s like a hole that can’t ever be filled.
I’m sorry to say that this doesn’t end with any one milestone, either. The desperation doesn’t go away when your kid learns to sleep or walk, or graduates from high school, or even moves into their first apartment and buys a set of steak knives. You will still worry! You will still be afraid for them! Even now, my husband, the former commander-in-chief, can’t help but to text cautionary news stories to our daughters – about the dangers of highway driving or walking alone at night. When they moved to California, he emailed them a lengthy article about earthquake preparedness and offered to have Secret Service give them a natural-disaster-response briefing. (This was met with a polite “No thanks”.)
Caring for your kids and watching them grow is one of the most rewarding endeavours on Earth, and at the same time it can drive you nuts.
Over the years, I’ve had one secret weapon to help stem the tide of parental anxiety, though – and that’s my own mother.
If you’re around her enough, you will start to notice that she is prone to dropping little pearls of wisdom into everyday conversation. Usually, they’re connected to her belief that it’s possible to raise decent children without drama or fuss. These are never blustery proclamations delivered with fury or passion. They tend to be wry thoughts that just slip out quietly, almost like stray pennies falling from her pocket.
For years now, I’ve been collecting these pennies, stuffing my own pockets full of them, using them for guidance and as a tool to offset my own doubts and worries as a parent. For a while, I was thinking that maybe my mother should write her own book, that she could tell her life story and share some of the insights that I personally have found to be so valuable. But when I suggested it, she just waved me off, saying: “Now, why on earth would I do that?”
She has given me permission, however, to share a few of her more tried-and-true maxims here, some of the points she’s made that have helped me to become a slightly calmer, slightly less guilt-ridden, slightly more decent parent to my own kids. But only if I attach the following disclaimer, which comes direct from my mom herself: “Just make sure they know I’m not in the business of telling anybody how to live.”
When I was five and starting kindergarten, my parents gifted me with a small electric alarm clock. It had a square face, with little green glow-in-the-dark hands that pointed toward the hour and the minute. My mom showed me how to set my wake-up time and how to turn the alarm off when it buzzed. She then helped me work backwards through all the things I’d need to do in the morning – eat my breakfast, brush my hair and teeth, pick out my clothes, and so on – in order to calculate how many minutes it would take to get myself up and out the door to school. She was there to provide instruction, she’d furnished me with the tool, but the challenge of using it effectively became mine to figure out.
And I freaking loved that alarm clock. I loved what it gave me – which was power and agency over my own little life. My mom, I realise now, had passed on this particular tool at a deliberately chosen window early enough in my development, before I was old enough to be cynical about having to get up for school in the morning, before she’d ever have to start shaking me awake herself. It spared her the hassle in some ways, but the real gift was to me: I could wake myself up.
If I ever did sleep through my alarm, or otherwise get lazy and drag my feet about going to school, my mother was not interested in doing any nagging or cajoling. She remained hands-off, making clear that my life was largely my own. “Listen, I got my education,” she’d say. “I’ve already been to school. This isn’t about me.”
The alarm-clock approach was representative of an even more deliberate undertaking on my parents’ part, and that was to help us kids learn to get on our feet and stay on our feet, not just physically but emotionally. From the day she birthed each of her children, my mother was striving toward a singular goal, and that was to render herself more or less obsolete in our lives.
My mom made no bones about the fact that especially when it came to day-to-day practical tasks, her plan was to become as unnecessary in our lives as possible, as quickly as possible. The sooner that time arrived, the more successful she’d deem herself to be as a parent. “I’m not raising babies,” she used to say. “I am raising adults.”
It may sound scandalous to say, especially in an era when helicopter-parenting has become de rigueur, but I’m pretty sure that most of my mom’s decision-making was guided by one basic question: What’s the minimum I can do for them right now?
This was not a cavalier or self-serving question, but rather a deeply thoughtful one. In our home, self-sufficiency mattered above all else.
My mom believed that her hands only got in the way of our hands. If there was something new we needed to learn, she’d show us a way to do it and then quickly step aside. This meant that with the aid of a step stool, Craig and I learned how to wash and dry the dishes long before we were tall enough to reach the sink. We were required to make our beds and do our own laundry as a matter of habit.
We did a fair amount of this stuff imperfectly, but the point was we were doing it. My mother wasn’t stepping in. She didn’t correct our errors or squelch our way of doing things, even if our way was slightly different from hers. This, I believe, was my first taste of power. I liked being trusted to get something done. “It’s easier for kids to make mistakes when they’re little,” my mom told me recently when I asked her about this. “Let them make them. And then you can’t make too big a deal out of it, either. Because if you do, they’ll stop trying.”
She sat by and allowed us to struggle and make mistakes – with our chores, our homework, and our relationships with various teachers, coaches and friends. None of it was tied to her own self-worth or ego, or done for bragging rights. It was not about her at all, she would say. She was busy trying to wash her hands of us, after all. This meant that her mood didn’t rise or fall on our victories. Her happiness wasn’t dictated by whether we came home with As on our report cards, whether Craig scored a lot of points at his basketball game, or I got elected to student council. When good things happened, she was happy for us. When bad things happened, she’d help us process it before returning to her own chores and challenges. The important thing was that she loved us regardless of whether we succeeded or failed. She lit up with gladness any time we walked through the door.
On days when I came home stewing about something a teacher had done (and, I’ll admit, this happened with some regularity), my mom would stand in the kitchen and listen to whatever tirade I had to unleash about the unfairness of some teacher’s remark, or the stupidity of an assignment, or how Mrs So-and-So clearly didn’t know what she was doing. And when I was finished, when the steam of my anger had dissipated to the point that I could think clearly, she’d ask a simple question – one that was fully sincere and also, at the same time, just a tiny bit leading. “Do you need me to go in there for you?”
There were a couple of instances over the years when I did genuinely need my mom’s help, and I got it. But 99% of the time, I did not need her to go in on my behalf. Just by asking that question, and by giving me a chance to respond, she was subtly pushing me to continue reasoning out the situation in my head. How bad was it actually? What were the solutions? What could I do?
This is how, in the end, I usually knew I could trust my own answer, which was: “I think I can handle it.”
My mother helped me to learn how to puzzle out my own feelings and strategies for dealing with them, in large part by just giving them room and taking care not to smother them with her own feelings or opinions. If I got overly sulky about something, she’d tell me to go do one of my chores, not as punishment, exactly, but rather as a means of right-sizing the problem. “Get up and clean that bathroom,” she’d say. “It’ll put your mind on things other than yourself.”
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Inside of our small home, she created a kind of emotional sandbox where Craig and I could safely rehearse our feelings and sort through our responses to whatever was going on in our young lives. Once, when I was in high school and unhappy about having to deal with a math teacher who struck me as arrogant, my mom heard my complaint, nodded understandingly, and then shrugged. “You don’t have to like your teacher, and she doesn’t have to like you,” she said. “But she’s got math in her head that you need in yours, so maybe you should just go to school and get the math.”
She looked at me then and smiled, as if this should be the simplest thing in the world to grasp. “You can come home to be liked,” she said. “We will always like you here.”
My mom remembers that the house she grew up in on the South Side had a big coffee table at the centre of the living room, made of smooth, delicate glass. It was breakable, and so everyone in the family was forced to navigate around it, almost on tiptoe.
She was a studious observer of her own family, my mother. She sat squarely in the middle of seven children, which gave her a lot to watch. She had three older siblings and three younger ones, plus two parents who appeared to be polar opposites and didn’t much get along.
She saw how her father – my grandfather Southside – tended to baby his kids. He drove them around in his car so that they wouldn’t need to take the bus, afraid of what lay beyond his control. He woke them up in the mornings so they wouldn’t need to set an alarm. He seemed to enjoy their dependence on him.
My grandmother Rebecca – my mom’s mom – meanwhile, was stiff and proper, patently unhappy and possibly (my mother believes now) clinically depressed. When she was young, she dreamed of being a nurse, but apparently her mother, a washerwoman who’d raised seven kids, had told her that going to nursing school cost a lot of money and Black nurses rarely got good jobs. So Rebecca married my grandfather and had seven children instead, never seeming terribly content with what her life had yielded.
The governing edict in Grandmother Rebecca’s house was that children should be seen and not heard. At the dinner table, my mom and her siblings were instructed to stay silent, to listen mutely and respectfully to the adult conversation around them. When her mother’s friends came to visit their home, my mom and her siblings were required to join the adults in the living room. All of them – from toddlers to teens – were expected to sit politely at the edges, permitted to say nothing more than hello. My mother describes long evenings spent in that room with her mouth clamped shut in agony, hearing plenty of adult-speak she wanted to engage with, plenty of ideas she’d want to quibble with or at least better understand. It must have been during these hours that my mother arrived at the idea, even unconsciously, that her own kids some day would be not just allowed but encouraged to speak. No earnest question would ever be disallowed. Laughter and tears were permitted. Nobody would need to tiptoe. One night, when someone new stopped in for a visit, my mom remembers the woman surveying all the young faces and restless bodies packed into the living room and finally posing a logical question: “How possibly could you have a glass table like this and all of these kids?” She doesn’t recall how my grandmother responded, but my mom knew what the real answer was: her own mother had missed a fundamental lesson about what was precious and what was not. What was the point of seeing children without hearing them?
One evening, finally, when my mom was about 12, some grown-up friends came over to their house to visit and, for some foolish reason, one of them happened to sit down on the table. To my grandmother’s horror, and as her children watched silently, it shattered into pieces on the floor. For Mom, it was a bit of cosmic justice. Even today, this story still cracks her up.
The apartment my parents raised us in had nothing resembling a glass table. We had very little in our lives that was delicate or breakable at all. It’s true that we couldn’t afford anything too fancy, but it’s also true that in the wake of her own upbringing, my mother had no interest in owning showpieces of any sort.
At home, Craig and I were permitted to be ourselves. We were respectful of our elders and abided by some general rules, but we also spoke our minds at the dinner table, threw balls indoors, cranked music on the stereo and horsed around on the couch. When something did break – a water glass or a coffee mug or, every once in a while, a window – it was not a big deal.
I tried to carry this same approach into my parenting of Sasha and Malia. I wanted them to feel both seen and heard – to always voice their thoughts and to never feel like they had to tiptoe in their own home. Barack and I established basic rules and governing principles for our household: like my mom, I had our kids making their beds as soon as they were old enough to sleep in beds. Like his mom, Barack was all about getting the girls interested early in the pleasure provided by books.
What we learned quickly, however, was that raising little kids followed the same basic trajectory we’d experienced with both pregnancy and childbirth: you can spend a lot of time dreaming, preparing and planning for family life to go perfectly, but, in the end, you’re pretty much just left to deal with whatever happens. You can establish systems and routines, anoint your various sleep, feeding and disciplinary gurus from the staggering variety that exist. You can write your family bylaws and declare your religion and your philosophy out loud, but, at some point, sooner rather than later, you will almost surely be brought to your knees, realising that despite your best and most earnest efforts, you are only marginally – and sometimes very marginally – in control.
Here’s a story I’m not necessarily proud of. It happened one evening when we still lived in Chicago, when Malia was about seven and Sasha was just four. I was home after a long day of work. As was often the case in those days, Barack was across the country in Washington DC, in the middle of a Senate session that I was probably feeling resentful of. I had served the kids dinner, asked how their days had gone, supervised bath time, and was now cleaning up the last of the dishes, sagging a little on my feet, desperate to be off duty and find even just a half hour to sit quietly by myself.
The girls were supposed to be brushing their teeth for bed, but I could hear them running up and down the stairs to our third-floor playroom, giggling wildly as they went.
“Hey, Malia, Sasha, it’s time to wind down!” I called from the foot of the stairs.
There was a brief pause – three whole seconds, maybe – and then more thundering footsteps, another shriek of laughter.
“It’s time to settle down!” I yelled again.
Yet it was clear I was shouting into the void, fully disregarded by my own kids. I could feel the heat starting to rise in my cheeks, my patience disintegrating, my steam building up, my stack preparing to blow. All I wanted, in the whole wide world, was for those children to go to bed.
Since the time I was a kid myself, my mom had always advised me to try to count to 10 in moments like these, to pause just long enough that you might grab on to some reason – to respond rather than react. I think I got as far as counting to eight before I couldn’t stand it another second. I was angry. I ran up the stairs and shouted for the girls to come down from the playroom and join me on the landing. I then took a breath and counted the last two seconds, trying to quell my rage.
When the girls appeared, the two of them in their pyjamas, flushed and a little sweaty from the fun they’d been having, I told them I quit. I was resigning from the job of being their mother.
I summoned what little calm I could find in myself and said: “Look, you don’t listen to me. You seem to think you don’t need a mother. You seem perfectly happy to be in charge of yourselves, so go right ahead … You can feed and dress yourselves from now on. And you can get yourselves to bed. I am handing you your own little lives and you can manage them yourselves. I don’t care.” I threw my hands in the air, showing them how helpless and hurt I felt. “I am done,” I said. It was in this moment that I got one of my life’s clearest looks at who I was dealing with.
Malia’s eyes grew wide, her lower lip starting to tremble. “Oh, Mommy,” she said, “I don’t want that to happen.” And she promptly hustled off to the bathroom to brush her teeth.
Something in me relaxed. Wow, I thought, that sure worked fast.
Four-year-old Sasha, meanwhile, stood clutching the little blue blankie she liked to carry around, taking a second to process the news of my resignation before landing on her own emotional response, which was pure and unfettered relief.
No sooner had her sister shuffled obediently off, Sasha turned without a word and scampered back upstairs to the playroom, as if to say, Finally! This lady is out of my business! Within seconds, I heard her flip on the TV.
In a moment of deep fatigue and frustration, I’d handed that child the keys to her own life, and it turned out she was plenty happy to take them, long before she was actually ready to. Much as I liked my mom’s idea about eventually becoming obsolete in my kids’ lives, it was far too early to quit. (I promptly called Sasha back down from the playroom, marched her through the tooth-brushing, and put her to bed.)
This one episode provided me with an important lesson about how to proceed with my children. I had one who wanted more guardrails from her parents and one who wanted fewer, one who would respond first to my emotions and another who would take my words at face value.
Each kid had her own temperament, her own sensitivities, her own needs, strengths and ways of interpreting the world around her. Barack and I would see these same dynamics manifest over and over again in our children as they grew. On the ski slopes, Malia would make measured, precise turns while Sasha preferred to bomb straight downhill. If you asked how Sasha’s day at school had been, she’d answer with five words before bouncing off to her bedroom, whereas Malia would offer a detailed breakdown of every hour she’d spent away. Malia often sought our advice – like her dad, she likes to make decisions with input – whereas Sasha thrived, just as I once had as a kid, when we trusted her to do her own thing. Neither was right or wrong, good or bad. They were – and are – simply different.
In the end, the child you have will grow into the person they’re meant to be. They will learn life their own way. You will control some but definitely not all of how it goes for them. You can’t remove unhappiness from their lives. You won’t remove struggle. What you can give your kids is the opportunity to be heard and seen, the practice they need to make rational decisions based on meaningful values, and the consistency of your gladness that they are there.
My mother said this to me and Craig not just once, but often. It’s the one message that stood out above all else. You came home to be liked. Home was where you would always find gladness.
I recognise that, for many folks, “home” can be a more complicated, less comfortable idea. It may represent a place, or set of people, or type of emotional experience that you are trying to move past. Home could well be a painful spot to which you never want to return. And that is OK. There’s power in knowing where you don’t want to go.
You may need to courageously remake your idea of home, fostering the parts of your flame that may have gone unrecognised when you yourself were a child. You may need to cultivate a chosen family rather than a biological one, protecting the boundaries that keep you safe.
My mom moved (yes, kicking and screaming) to Washington with us, in part to help with our kids, but also in part because I needed her gladness. I am nothing but a grown-up child myself, someone who at the end of a long day comes through the door feeling worn out and a little needy, looking for solace and acceptance and maybe a snack.
In her wise and plain-spoken way, my mother built us all up. She lit up for us every day, so that we could in turn light up for others. She helped make the White House feel less like a museum and more like a home. During those eight years, Barack and I tried to throw open the doors of that home to more people, of more races and backgrounds, and particularly to more children, inviting them in to touch the furniture and explore what was there. We wanted it to feel like a palace of gladness, telegraphing one simple, powerful message: We will always like you here.
Mom will take no credit for any of it, of course. She’ll be the first to tell you – still – that she’s nothing special, and it’s never been about her, anyway.
Late in 2016, about a month before a new president was sworn in, my mother happily packed her bags. There was little fanfare and, at her insistence, no farewell party. She just moved out of the White House and went back to Chicago, returning to her place on Euclid Avenue, to her old bed and old belongings, pleased that she’d gotten the job done.
Folding Work Table This is an extract from The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama, published by Viking on 15 November at £25. For a limited time, save 15% on your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.