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One spring morning, Barack and the girls and I were summoned downstairs from the residence to the South Lawn. A man I’d never seen before stood waiting for us in the driveway. He had a friendly face and a salt-and-pepper mustache that gave him an air of dignity. He introduced himself as Lloyd.
“Mr. President, Mrs. Obama,” he said. “We thought you and the girls might like a little change of pace, and so we’ve arranged a petting zoo for you.” He smiled broadly at us. “Never before has a First Family participated in something like this.”
The man gestured to his left and we looked. About thirty yards away, lounging in the shade of the cedar trees, were four big, beautiful cats. There was a lion, a tiger, a sleek black panther, and a slender, spotted cheetah. From where I stood, I could see no fences or chains. There seemed to be nothing penning them in. It all felt odd to me. Most certainly a change of pace.
“Thank you. This is so thoughtful,” I said, hoping I sounded gracious. “Am I right—Lloyd, is it?—that there’s no fence or anything? Isn’t that a little dangerous for kids?”
“Well, yes, of course, we thought about that,” Lloyd said. “We figured your family would enjoy the animals more if they were roaming free, like they would in the wild. So we’ve sedated them for your safety. They’re no harm to you.” He gave a reassuring wave. “Go ahead, get closer. Enjoy!”
Barack and I took Malia’s and Sasha’s hands and made our way across the still-dewy grass of the South Lawn. The animals were larger than I expected, languid and sinewy, their tails flicking as they monitored our approach. I’d never seen anything like it, four cats in a companionable line. The lion stirred slightly as we drew closer. I saw the panther’s eyes tracking us, the tiger’s ears flattening just a little. Then, without warning, the cheetah shot out from the shade with blinding speed, rocketing right at us.
I panicked, grabbing Sasha by the arm, sprinting with her back up the lawn toward the house, trusting that Barack and Malia were doing the same. Judging from the noise, I could tell that all the animals had leaped to their feet and were now coming after us.
Lloyd stood in the doorway, looking unfazed.
“I thought you said they were sedated!” I yelled.
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” he called back. “We’ve got a contingency plan for exactly this scenario!” He stepped to one side as Secret Service agents swarmed past him through the door, carrying what looked to be guns loaded with tranquilizer darts. Just then, I felt Sasha slip out of my grasp.
I turned back toward the lawn, horrified to see my family being chased by wild animals and the wild animals being chased by agents, who were firing their guns.
“This is your plan?” I screamed. “Are you kidding me?”
Just then, the cheetah let out a snarl and launched itself at Sasha, its claws extended, its body seeming to fly. An agent took a shot, missing the animal though scaring it enough that it veered off course and retreated back down the hill. I was relieved for a split second, but then I saw it—a white-and-orange tranquilizer dart lodged in Sasha’s right arm.
I lurched upward in bed, heart hammering, my body soaked in sweat, only to find my husband curled in comfortable sleep beside me. I’d had a very bad dream.
I continued to feel as if we were falling backward, our whole family in a giant trust fall. I had confidence in the apparatus that had been set up to support us in the White House, but still I could feel vulnerable, knowing that everything from the safety of our daughters to the orchestration of my movements lay almost entirely in the hands of other people—many of them at least twenty years younger than I was. Growing up on Euclid Avenue, I’d been taught that self-sufficiency was everything. I’d been raised to handle my own business, but now that seemed almost impossible. Things got handled for me. Before I traveled, staffers drove the routes I’d take to venues, timing my transit down to the minute, scheduling my bathroom breaks in advance. Agents took my girls to playdates. Housekeepers collected our dirty laundry. I no longer drove a car or carried things like cash or house keys. Aides took phone calls, attended meetings, and drafted statements on my behalf.
All of this was marvelous and helpful, freeing me up to focus on the things I felt were most important. But occasionally it left me—a detail person—feeling as if I’d lost control of the details. Which is when the lions and cheetahs started to lurk.
There was also much that couldn’t be planned for, a larger unruliness that paced the borders of our every day. When you’re married to the president, you come to understand quickly that the world brims with chaos, that disasters unfurl without notice. Forces seen and unseen stand ready to tear into whatever calm you might feel. The news could never be ignored: An earthquake devastates Haiti. A gasket blows five thousand feet underwater beneath an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, sending millions of barrels of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Revolution stirs in Egypt. A gunman opens fire in the parking lot of an Arizona supermarket, killing six people and maiming a U.S. congresswoman.
Everything was big and everything was relevant. I read a set of news clips sent by my staff each morning and knew that Barack would be obliged to absorb and respond to every new development. He’d be blamed for things he couldn’t control, pushed to solve frightening problems in faraway nations, expected to plug a hole at the bottom of the ocean. His job, it seemed, was to take the chaos and metabolize it somehow into calm leadership—every day of the week, every week of the year.
I tried as best I could not to let the roiling uncertainties of the world impact my day-to-day work as First Lady, but sometimes there was no getting around it. How Barack and I comported ourselves in the face of instability mattered. We understood that we represented the nation and were obligated to step forward and be present when there was tragedy, or hardship, or confusion. Part of our role, as we understood it, was to model reason, compassion, and consistency. After the BP oil spill—the worst in U.S. history—had finally been contained, many Americans were still rattled, unwilling to believe it was safe to return to the Gulf of Mexico for vacation, causing local economies to suffer. So we made a family trip to Florida, during which Barack took Sasha for a swim, releasing a photo to the media that showed the two of them splashing happily in the surf. It was a small gesture, but the message was bigger: If he trusts the water, then so can you.
When one or both of us traveled somewhere in the wake of a tragedy, it was often to remind Americans not to look too quickly past the pain of others. When I could, I tried to highlight the efforts of relief workers, educators, or community volunteers—anyone who gave more when things got rough. Traveling to Haiti with Jill Biden three months after the 2010 earthquake there, I felt my heart catch, seeing pyramids of rubble where homes had once been, sites where tens of thousands of people—mothers, grandfathers, babies—had been buried alive. We visited a set of converted buses where local artists were doing art therapy with displaced children who, despite their losses and thanks to the adults around them, still bubbled with hope.
Grief and resilience live together. I learned this not just once as First Lady but many times over.
As often as I could, I visited military hospitals where American troops were recovering from the wounds of war. The first time I went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, located less than ten miles from the White House, I was scheduled to be there for something like ninety minutes, but instead I ended up staying about four hours.
Walter Reed tended to be the second or third stop for injured service members who were evacuated out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many were triaged in the war zone and then treated at a military medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany, before being flown to the United States. Some troops stayed only a few days at Walter Reed. Others were there for months. The hospital employed top-notch military surgeons and offered excellent rehabilitation services, geared to handle the most devastating of battlefield injuries. Thanks to modern developments in armor, American service members were now surviving bomb blasts that would once have killed them. That was the good news. The bad news was that nearly a decade into two conflicts characterized by surprise attacks and hidden explosive devices, those injuries were plentiful and grave.
As much as I tried to prepare for everything in life, there was no preparing for the interactions I had at military hospitals and Fisher Houses—lodgings where, thanks to a charitable organization of the same name, military families could stay for free while tending to an injured loved one. As I’ve said before, I grew up knowing little about the military. My father had spent two years in the Army, but well before I was born. Until Barack started campaigning, I’d had no exposure to the orderly bustle of an Army base or the modest tract homes that housed service members with families. War, for me, had always been terrifying but also abstract, involving landscapes I couldn’t imagine and people I didn’t know. To view it this way, I see now, had been a luxury.
When I arrived at a hospital, I was usually met by a charge nurse, handed a set of medical scrubs to wear, and instructed to sanitize my hands each time I entered a room. Before opening a new door, I’d get a quick briefing on the service member and his or her situation. Each patient, too, was asked in advance whether he or she would like a visit from me. A few would decline, possibly because they weren’t feeling well enough or maybe for political reasons. Either way, I understood. The last thing I wanted to be was a burden.
My visits to each room were as short or long as the service member wanted them to be. Every conversation was private, with no media or staff observing. The mood was sometimes somber, sometimes light. Prompted by a team banner or photographs on the wall, we’d talk about sports, or our home states, or our children. Or Afghanistan and what had happened to them there. We sometimes discussed what they needed and also what they didn’t need, which—as they’d often tell me—was anyone’s pity.
At one point, I encountered a piece of red poster board taped to a doorway, with a message written in black marker that seemed to say it all:
ATTENTION TO ALL THOSE WHO ENTER HERE:
If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received, I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery.
This was resilience. It was reflective of a larger spirit of self-sufficiency and pride I’d seen in all parts of the military. I sat one day with a man who’d gone off young and healthy to an overseas deployment, leaving behind a pregnant wife, and had come back quadriplegic, unable to move his arms or legs. As we talked, their baby—a tiny newborn with a pink face—lay swaddled in a blanket on his chest. I met another service member who’d had a leg amputated and asked me a lot of questions about the Secret Service. He explained cheerily that he’d once hoped to become an agent after leaving the military, but that given the injury he was now figuring out a new plan.
Then there were the families. I introduced myself to the wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, cousins and friends I found by the bedside, people who had often put the rest of their lives on hold in order to stay close. Sometimes they were the only ones I could talk to, as their loved one lay immobilized nearby, heavily sedated or asleep. These family members carried their own weight. Some came from generations of military service, while others were teenage girlfriends who’d become brides just ahead of a deployment—their futures now having taken a sudden, complicated turn. I can no longer count the number of mothers with whom I’ve cried, their distress so acute that all we could do was lace our hands together and pray silently through tears.
What I saw of military life left me humbled. As long as I’d been alive, I’d never encountered the kind of fortitude and loyalty that I found in those rooms.
One day in San Antonio, Texas, I noticed a minor commotion in the hallway of the military hospital I was visiting. Nurses shuffled urgently in and out of the room I was about to enter. “He won’t stay in bed,” I heard someone whisper. Inside, I found a broad-shouldered young man from rural Texas who had multiple injuries and whose body had been severely burned. He was in clear agony, tearing off the bedsheets and trying to slide his feet to the floor.
It took us all a minute to understand what he was doing. Despite his pain, he was trying to stand up and salute the wife of his commander in chief.
Sometime early in 2011, Barack mentioned Osama bin Laden. We’d just finished dinner and Sasha and Malia had run off to do their homework, leaving the two of us alone in the residence dining room.
“We think we know where he is,” Barack said. “We may go in and try to take him out, but nothing’s sure.”
Bin Laden was the world’s most wanted man and had eluded detection for years. Capturing or killing him had been one of Barack’s top priorities when he took office. I knew it would mean something to the nation, to the many thousands of military service members who’d spent years trying to protect us from al-Qaeda and especially to all those who’d lost loved ones on September 11.
I could tell from Barack’s grim tone that there was much still to be resolved. The variables were clearly weighing heavily on him, though I knew better than to ask too many follow-up questions or insist that he walk me through the particulars. He and I were sounding boards for each other professionally and always had been. But I also knew that he now spent his days surrounded by expert advisers. He had access to all manner of top secret information, and as far as I was concerned, most especially on matters of national security, he needed no input from me. In general, I hoped that time with me and the girls would always be a respite, even though work was forever close by. After all, we literally lived above the shop.
Barack, who’s always been good at compartmentalizing, managed to be admirably present and undistracted when he was with us. It was something we’d learned together over time as our work lives had grown increasingly busy and intense. Fences needed to go up; boundaries required protecting. Bin Laden was not invited to dinner, nor was the humanitarian crisis in Libya, nor were the Tea Party Republicans. We had kids, and kids need room to speak and grow. Our family time was when big worries and urgent concerns got abruptly and mercilessly shrunk to nothing so that the small could rightly take over. Barack and I would sit at dinner, hearing tales from the Sidwell playground or listening to the details of Malia’s research project on endangered animals, feeling as if these were the most important things in the world. Because they were. They deserved to be.
Still, even as we ate, the work piled up. I could see over Barack’s shoulder to the hallway outside the dining room, where aides dropped off our nightly briefing books on a small table, usually as we were in the middle of our meal. This was part of the White House ritual: Two binders got delivered every evening, one for me and a much thicker, leather-bound one for Barack. Each contained papers from our respective offices, which we were meant to read overnight.
After we tucked the kids into bed, Barack would normally disappear into the Treaty Room with his binder, while I took mine to the sitting area in my dressing room, where I’d spend an hour or two each night or early in the morning going through what was inside—usually memos from staff, drafts of upcoming speeches, and decisions to be made regarding my initiatives.
A year after launching Let’s Move!, we were seeing results. We’d aligned ourselves with different foundations and food suppliers to install six thousand salad bars in school cafeterias and were recruiting local chefs to help schools serve meals that were not just healthy but tasty. Walmart, which was then the nation’s largest grocery retailer, had joined our effort by pledging to cut the amount of sugar, salt, and fat in its food products and to reduce prices on produce. And we’d enlisted mayors from five hundred cities and towns across the country to commit to tackling childhood obesity on the local level.
Most important, over the course of 2010, I’d worked hard to help push a new child nutrition bill through Congress, expanding children’s access to healthy, high-quality food in public schools and increasing the reimbursement rate for federally subsidized meals for the first time in thirty years. As much as I was generally happy to stay out of politics and policy making, this had been my big fight—the issue for which I was willing to hurl myself into the ring. I’d spent hours making calls to senators and representatives, trying to convince them that our children deserved better than what they were getting. I’d talked about it endlessly with Barack, his advisers, anyone who would listen. The new law added more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy to roughly forty-three million meals served daily. It regulated the junk food that got sold to children via vending machines on school property while also giving funding to schools to establish gardens and use locally grown produce. For me, it was a straightforward good thing—a potent, ground-level way to address childhood obesity.
Barack and his advisers pushed hard for the bill, too. After Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, he made the effort a priority in his dealings with lawmakers, knowing that his ability to make sweeping legislative change was about to diminish. In early December, before the new Congress was seated, the bill managed to clear its final hurdles, and I stood proudly next to Barack eleven days later as he signed it into law, surrounded by children at a local elementary school.
“Had I not been able to get this bill passed,” he joked to reporters, “I would be sleeping on the couch.”
As with the garden, I was trying to grow something—a network of advocates, a chorus of voices speaking up for children and their health. I saw my work as complementing Barack’s success in establishing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which greatly increased access to health insurance for all Americans. And I was now also focused on getting a new effort called Joining Forces off the ground—this one in collaboration with Jill Biden, whose son Beau had recently returned safely from his deployment in Iraq. This work, too, would serve to support Barack’s duties as commander in chief.
Knowing that we owed more to our service members and their families than token thank-yous, Jill and I had been collaborating with a group of staffers to identify concrete ways to support the military community and raise its visibility. Barack had kicked things off earlier in the year with a government-wide audit, asking each agency to find new ways to support military families. I, meanwhile, reached out to the country’s most powerful CEOs, generating commitments to hire a significant number of veterans and military spouses. Jill would garner pledges from colleges and universities to train teachers and professors to better understand the needs of military children. We also wanted to fight the stigma surrounding the mental health issues that followed some of our troops home, and planned to lobby writers and producers in Hollywood to include military stories in their movies and TV shows.
The issues I was working on weren’t simple, but still they were manageable in ways that much of what kept my husband at his desk at night was not. As had been the case since I first met him, nighttime was when Barack’s mind traveled without distraction. It was during these quiet hours that he could find perspective or inhale new information, adding data points to the vast mental map he carried around. Ushers often came to the Treaty Room a few times over the course of an evening to deliver more folders, containing more papers, freshly generated by staffers who were working late in the offices downstairs. If Barack got hungry, a valet would bring him a small dish of figs or nuts. He was no longer smoking, thankfully, though he’d often chew a piece of nicotine gum. Most nights of the week, he stayed at his desk until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, reading memos, rewriting speeches, and responding to email while ESPN played low on the TV. He always took a break to come kiss me and the girls good night.
I was used to it by now—his devotion to the never-finished task of governing. For years, the girls and I had shared Barack with his constituents, and now there were more than 300 million of them. Leaving him alone in the Treaty Room at night, I wondered sometimes if they had any sense of how lucky they were.
The last bit of work he did, usually at some hour past midnight, was to read letters from American citizens. Since the start of his presidency, Barack had asked his correspondence staff to include ten letters or messages from constituents inside his briefing book, selected from the roughly fifteen thousand letters and emails that poured in daily. He read each one carefully, jotting responses in the margins so that a staffer could prepare a reply or forward a concern on to a cabinet secretary. He read letters from soldiers. From prison inmates. From cancer patients struggling to pay health-care premiums and from people who’d lost their homes to foreclosure. From gay people who hoped to be able to legally marry and from Republicans who felt he was ruining the country. From moms, grandfathers, and young children. He read letters from people who appreciated what he did and from others who wanted to let him know he was an idiot.
He read all of it, seeing it as part of the responsibility that came with the oath. He had a hard and lonely job—the hardest and loneliest in the world, it often seemed to me—but he knew that he had an obligation to stay open, to shut nothing out. While the rest of us slept, he took down the fences and let everything inside.
On Monday and Wednesday evenings, Sasha, who was now ten, had swim-team practice at the American University fitness center, a few miles from the White House. I went sometimes to watch her do her workouts, trying to slip unnoticed into the small room next to the pool where parents could sit and observe practice through a window.
Navigating a busy athletic facility during peak workout hours posed a challenge for the agents on my security detail, but they managed it well. For my part, I’d become an expert at walking quickly and lowering my gaze when passing through public spaces, which helped keep things efficient. I zipped past university students busy with their weight workouts and Zumba classes in full swing. Sometimes nobody seemed to notice. Other times, I’d feel the disturbance without even needing to look up, aware of the ripple I caused as people murmured or occasionally just shouted, “Hey, that’s Michelle Obama!” But it was never more than a ripple and it happened quickly. I was like an apparition, there and gone before the sight had really registered.
On practice nights, the seats by the pool were generally empty, aside from a handful of other parents idly chatting or scrolling through their iPhones as they waited for their kids to be done. I’d find a quiet spot, sit down, and focus on the swimming.
I loved any time I could glimpse my daughters in the context of their own worlds—free from the White House, free from their parents, in the spaces and relationships they’d forged for themselves. Sasha was a strong swimmer, enthusiastic about breaststroke and intent on mastering the butterfly. She wore a navy-blue swim cap and a one-piece bathing suit and diligently motored through her laps, stopping once in a while to take advice from the coaches, chatting merrily with her teammates during the prescribed breaks.
For me, there was nothing more gratifying than being a bystander in these moments, to sit barely noticed by the people around me and witness the miracle of a girl—our girl—growing independent and whole. We had thrust our daughters into all the strangeness and intensity of White House life, not knowing how it would impact them or what they’d take from the experience. I tried to make our daughters’ exposure to the wider world as positive as possible, realizing that Barack and I had a unique opportunity to show them history up close. When Barack had foreign trips that coincided with school vacations, we traveled as a family, knowing it would be educational. In the summer of 2009, we’d brought them on a trip that included visits to the Kremlin in Moscow and the Vatican in Rome. In the span of seven days, they’d met the Russian president, toured the Pantheon and the Roman Colosseum, and passed through the “Door of No Return” in Ghana, the departure point for untold numbers of Africans who’d been sold into slavery.
Surely it was a lot for them to process, but I was learning that each child took in what she could and from her own perspective. Sasha had returned home from our summer travels to start third grade. Walking around her classroom at Sidwell’s parents’ night that fall, I’d come across a short “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay she’d authored, hanging alongside those of her classmates on one of the walls. “I went to Rome and I met the Pope,” Sasha had written. “He was missing part of his thumb.” I could not tell you what Pope Benedict XVI’s thumb looks like, whether some part of it isn’t there. But we’d taken an observant, matter-of-fact eight-year-old to Rome, Moscow, and Accra, and this is what she’d brought back. Her view of history was, at that point, waist-high.
As much as we tried to create a buffer between them and the more fraught aspects of Barack’s job, I knew that Sasha and Malia still had a lot to take in. They coexisted with world events in a way that few children did, living with the fact that news occasionally unfolded right under our roof, that their father got called away sometimes for national emergencies, and that always and no matter what there’d be some part of the population that openly reviled him. For me, this was another version of the lions and cheetahs feeling sometimes very close by.
Over the course of the winter of 2011, we’d been hearing news that the reality-show host and New York real-estate developer Donald Trump was beginning to make noise about possibly running for the Republican presidential nomination when Barack came up for reelection in 2012. Mostly, though, it seemed he was just making noise in general, surfacing on cable shows to offer yammering, inexpert critiques of Barack’s foreign policy decisions and openly questioning whether he was an American citizen. The so-called birthers had tried during the previous campaign to feed a conspiracy theory claiming that Barack’s Hawaiian birth certificate was somehow a hoax and that he’d in fact been born in Kenya. Trump was now actively working to revive the argument, making increasingly outlandish claims on television, insisting that the 1961 Honolulu newspaper announcements of Barack’s birth were fraudulent and that none of his kindergarten classmates remembered him. All the while, in their quest for clicks and ratings, news outlets—particularly the more conservative ones—were gleefully pumping oxygen into his groundless claims.
The whole thing was crazy and mean-spirited, of course, its underlying bigotry and xenophobia hardly concealed. But it was also dangerous, deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks. I feared the reaction. I was briefed from time to time by the Secret Service on the more serious threats that came in and understood that there were people capable of being stirred. I tried not to worry, but sometimes I couldn’t help it. What if someone with an unstable mind loaded a gun and drove to Washington? What if that person went looking for our girls? Donald Trump, with his loud and reckless innuendos, was putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.
We had little choice, though, but to push the fears away, continuing to trust the structure set up to protect us and to simply live. The people who tried to define us as “other” had been doing so for years already. We did everything we could to rise above their lies and distortions, trusting that the way Barack and I lived our lives would show people the truth about who we really were. I’d lived with earnest and well-intentioned concerns for our safety since almost the day Barack first decided to run for president. “We’re praying nobody hurts you,” people used to say, clasping my hand at campaign events. I’d heard it from people of all races, all backgrounds, all ages—a reminder of the goodness and generosity that existed in our country. “We pray for you and your family every day.” I kept their words with me. I felt the protection of those millions of decent people who prayed for our safety. Barack and I both relied on our personal faith as well. We went to church only rarely now, mostly because it had become such a spectacle, involving reporters shouting questions as we walked in to worship. Ever since the scrutiny of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright had become an issue in Barack’s first presidential campaign, ever since opponents had tried to use faith as a weapon—suggesting that Barack was a “secret Muslim”—we’d made the choice to exercise our faith privately and at home, including praying each night before dinner and organizing a few sessions of Sunday school at the White House for our daughters. We didn’t join a church in Washington, because we didn’t want to subject another congregation to the kind of bad-faith attacks that had rained down on Trinity, our church in Chicago. It was a sacrifice, though. I missed the warmth of a spiritual community. Every night, I’d look over and see Barack lying with his eyes closed on the other side of the bed, quietly saying his prayers.
Months after the birther rumors picked up steam, on a Friday night in November, a man parked his car on a closed part of Constitution Avenue and started firing a semiautomatic rifle out the window, aimed at the top floors of the White House. A bullet hit one of the windows in the Yellow Oval Room, where I sometimes liked to sit and have tea. Another lodged itself in a window frame, and more ricocheted off the roof. Barack and I were out that night, as was Malia, but Sasha and my mom were both at home, though unaware and unharmed. It took weeks to replace the ballistic glass of the window in the Yellow Oval, and I often found myself staring at the thick round crater that had been left by the bullet, reminded of how vulnerable we were.
In general, I understood that it was better for all of us not to acknowledge the hate or dwell on the risk, even when others felt compelled to bring it up. Malia would eventually join the high school tennis team at Sidwell, which practiced on the school courts on Wisconsin Avenue. She was there one day when a woman, the mother of another student, approached her, gesturing at the busy road running past the courts. “Aren’t you afraid out here?” she asked.
My daughter, as she grew, was learning to use her voice, discovering her own ways to reinforce the boundaries she needed. “If you’re asking me whether I ponder my death every day,” she said to the woman, as politely as she could, “the answer is no.”
A couple of years later, that same mother would come up to me at a parent event at school and pass me a heartfelt note of apology, saying that she’d understood right away the error in what she’d done—having put worries on a child who could do nothing about them. It meant a lot to me that she’d thought so much about it. She’d heard, in Malia’s answer, both the resilience and the vulnerability, an echo of all that we lived with and all we tried to keep at bay. She’d also understood that the only thing our girl could do, that day and every day after it, was get back on the court and hit another ball.
Every challenge, of course, is relative. I knew my kids were growing up with more advantages and more abundance than most families could ever begin to imagine having. Our girls had a beautiful home, food on the table, devoted adults around them, and nothing but encouragement and resources when it came to getting an education. I put everything I had into Malia and Sasha and their development, but as First Lady I was mindful, too, of a larger obligation. I felt that I owed more to children in general, and in particular to girls. Some of this was spawned by the response people tended to have to my life story—the surprise that an urban black girl had vaulted through Ivy League schools and executive jobs and landed in the White House. I understood that my trajectory was unusual, but there was no good reason why it had to be. There had been so many times in my life when I’d found myself the only woman of color—or even the only woman, period—sitting at a conference table or attending a board meeting or mingling at one VIP gathering or another. If I was the first at some of these things, I wanted to make sure that in the end I wasn’t the only—that others were coming up behind me. As my mother, the plainspoken enemy of all hyperbole, still says anytime someone starts gushing about me and Craig and our various accomplishments, “They’re not special at all. The South Side is filled with kids like that.” We just needed to help get them into those rooms.
The important parts of my story, I was realizing, lay less in the surface value of my accomplishments and more in what undergirded them—the many small ways I’d been buttressed over the years, and the people who’d helped build my confidence over time. I remembered them all, every person who’d ever waved me forward, doing his or her best to inoculate me against the slights and indignities I was certain to encounter in the places I was headed—all those environments built primarily for and by people who were neither black nor female.
I thought of my great-aunt Robbie and her exacting piano standards, how she’d taught me to lift my chin and play my heart out on a baby grand even if all I’d ever known was an upright with broken keys. I thought of my father, who showed me how to box and throw a football, same as Craig. There were Mr. Martinez and Mr. Bennett, my teachers at Bryn Mawr, who never dismissed my opinions. There was my mom, my staunchest support, whose vigilance had saved me from languishing in a dreary second-grade classroom. At Princeton, I’d had Czerny Brasuell, who encouraged me and fed my intellect in new ways. And as a young professional, I’d had, among others, Susan Sher and Valerie Jarrett—still good friends and colleagues many years later—who showed me what it looked like to be a working mother and consistently opened doors for me, certain I had something to offer.
These were people who mostly didn’t know one another and would never have occasion to meet, many of whom I’d fallen out of touch with myself. But for me, they formed a meaningful constellation. These were my boosters, my believers, my own personal gospel choir, singing, Yes, kid, you got this! all the way through.
I’d never forgotten it. I’d tried, even as a junior lawyer, to pay it forward, encouraging curiosity when I saw it, drawing younger people into important conversations. If a paralegal asked me a question about her future, I’d open my office door and share my journey or offer some advice. If someone wanted guidance or help making a connection, I did what I could to give it. Later, during my time at Public Allies, I saw the benefits of more formal mentoring firsthand. I knew from my own life experience that when someone shows genuine interest in your learning and development, even if only for ten minutes in a busy day, it matters. It matters especially for women, for minorities, for anyone society is quick to overlook.
With this in mind, I’d started a leadership and mentoring program at the White House, inviting twenty sophomore and junior girls from high schools around Greater D.C. to join us for monthly get-togethers that included informal chats, field trips, and sessions on things like financial literacy and choosing a career. We kept the program largely behind closed doors, rather than thrusting these girls into the media fray.
We paired each teen with a female mentor who would foster a personal relationship with her, sharing her resources and her life story. Valerie was a mentor. Cris Comerford, the White House’s first female executive chef, was a mentor. Jill Biden was, too, as were a number of senior women from both the East and the West Wing staffs. The students were nominated by their principals or guidance counselors and would stay with us until they graduated. We had girls from military families, girls from immigrant families, a teen mom, a girl who’d lived in a homeless shelter. They were smart, curious young women, all of them. No different from me. No different from my daughters. I watched over time as the girls formed friendships, finding a rapport with one another and with the adults around them. I spent hours talking with them in a big circle, munching popcorn and trading our thoughts about college applications, body image, and boys. No topic was off-limits. We ended up laughing a lot. More than anything, I hoped this was what they’d carry forward into the future—the ease, the sense of community, the encouragement to speak and be heard.
My wish for them was the same one I had for Sasha and Malia—that in learning to feel comfortable at the White House, they’d go on to feel comfortable and confident in any room, sitting at any table, raising their voices inside any group.
We’d lived inside the bubble of the presidency for more than two years now. I looked for ways to widen its perimeter as I could. Barack and I continued to open the White House up to more people, most especially children, hoping to make its grandeur feel inclusive, mixing some liveliness into the formality and tradition. Anytime foreign dignitaries came for state visits, we invited local schoolkids to come over to take in the pomp of an official welcome ceremony and taste the food that would be served at the state dinner. When musicians were coming for an evening performance, we asked them to show up early to help with a youth workshop. We wanted to highlight the importance of exposing children to the arts, showing that it’s not a luxury but a necessity to their overall educational experience. I relished the sight of high schoolers mingling with contemporary artists like John Legend, Justin Timberlake, and Alison Krauss as well as legends like Smokey Robinson and Patti LaBelle. For me, it was a throwback to the way I’d been raised—the jazz at Southside’s house, the piano recitals and Operetta Workshops put on by my great-aunt Robbie, my family’s trips to downtown museums. I knew how arts and culture contributed to the development of a child. And it made me feel at home. Barack and I swayed to the beat together in the front row of every performance. Even my mother, who generally steered clear of public appearances, always made her way down to the state floor anytime music was playing.
We also added celebrations of dance and other arts to the mix, bringing in emerging artists to showcase new work. In 2009, we’d put on the first-ever White House poetry and spoken-word event, listening as a young composer named Lin-Manuel Miranda stood up and astonished everyone with a piece from a project he was just beginning to put together, describing it as a “concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop…Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.” I remember shaking his hand and saying, “Hey, good luck with the Hamilton thing.”
In any given day, we were exposed to so much. Glamour, excellence, devastation, hope. Everything lived side by side, and all the while we had two kids trying to lead their own lives apart from what was going on at home. I did what I could to keep myself and the girls integrated into the everyday world. My goal was what it had always been—to find normalcy where I could, to fit myself back into pockets of regular life. During soccer and lacrosse seasons, I went to many of Sasha’s and Malia’s home games, taking my place on the sidelines alongside other parents, politely turning down anyone who asked to take a photo, though I was always happy to make small talk. After Malia started tennis, I mostly watched her matches through the window of a Secret Service vehicle parked discreetly near the courts, not wanting to create a distraction. Only when it was over would I emerge to give her a hug.
With Barack, we’d all but given up on normalcy or there being any sense of lightness in his movements. He attended school functions and the girls’ sporting events as he could, but his opportunities to mingle were limited, and the presence of his security detail was never subtle. The point, in fact, was to be unsubtle—to send a clear message to the world that nobody could harm the president of the United States. For obvious reasons, I was glad for this. But juxtaposed against the norms of family life, it could be a little much.
This same thought would occur to Malia one day as Barack and I were heading with her to one of Sasha’s events at Sidwell’s lower school. The three of us were crossing an open outdoor courtyard, passing a group of kindergartners in the middle of their recess, swinging from a set of monkey bars and running around the wood-chipped play area. I’m not sure if the little kids had spotted the squad of Secret Service snipers dressed all in black and spread out across the rooftops of the school buildings with their assault rifles visible, but Malia had.
She looked from the snipers to the kindergartners, then back to her father, giving him a teasing look. “Really, Dad?” she said. “Seriously?”
All Barack could do was smile and shrug. There was no ducking the seriousness of his job.
To be sure, none of us ever stepped outside the bubble. The bubble moved with each one of us individually. Following our early negotiations with the Secret Service, Sasha and Malia were doing things like going to friends’ bat mitzvahs, washing cars for the school fund-raiser, and even hanging out at the mall, always with agents and often with my mom tagging along, but they were now at least as mobile as their peers. Sasha’s agents, including Beth Celestini and Lawrence Tucker—whom everyone called L.T.—had become beloved fixtures at Sidwell. Kids begged L.T. to push them on the swing set during recess. Families often sent in extra cupcakes for the agents when there were classroom birthday celebrations.
All of us grew close to our agents over time. Preston Fairlamb led my detail then, and Allen Taylor, who’d been with me back in the campaign, would later take over. When we were out in public, they were silent and hyperalert, but anytime we were backstage or on plane rides, they’d loosen up, sharing stories and joking around. “Stone-faced softies,” I used to call them, teasingly. Over all the hours we spent together and many miles traveled, we became real friends. I grieved their losses with them and celebrated when their kids hit significant milestones. I was always aware of the seriousness of their duties, what they were willing to sacrifice in order to keep me safe, and I never took it for granted.
Like my daughters, I was cultivating a private life to go along with my official one. I’d found there were ways to keep a low profile when I needed to, helped by the Secret Service’s willingness to be flexible. Rather than riding in a motorcade, I was sometimes allowed to travel in an unmarked van and with a lighter security escort. I managed to make lightning-strike shopping trips from time to time, coming and going from a place before anyone really registered I was there. After Bo expertly disemboweled or shredded every last dog toy bought for him by the staff who did our regular shopping, I personally escorted him over to PetSmart in Alexandria one morning. And for a short while, I enjoyed glorious anonymity while browsing for better chew toys as Bo—who was as delighted by the novelty of the outing as I was—loafed next to me on a leash.
Anytime I went somewhere without a fuss, it felt like a small victory, an exercise of free will. I was a detail person, after all. I hadn’t forgotten how gratifying it could be to tick through the minutiae of a shopping list. Maybe six months after the PetSmart trip, I made a giddy incognito run to the local Target, dressed in a baseball cap and sunglasses. My security detail wore shorts and sneakers and ditched their earpieces, doing their best not to stand out as they trailed me and my assistant Kristin Jones through the store. We wandered every single aisle. I selected some Oil of Olay face cream and new toothbrushes. We got dryer sheets and laundry detergent for Kristin, and I found a couple of games for Sasha and Malia. And for the first time in several years, I was able to pick out a card to give to Barack on our anniversary.
I went home elated. Sometimes, the smallest things felt huge.
As time went by, I added new adventures to my routine. I started to meet friends occasionally out for dinner in restaurants or at their homes. Sometimes I’d go to a park and take long walks along the Potomac River. I’d have agents walking ahead of and behind me on these excursions, but inconspicuously and at a distance. In later years, I’d begin leaving the White House to hit workout classes, dropping in on SoulCycle and Solidcore studios around the city, slipping into the room at the last minute and leaving as soon as class was done to avoid causing a disturbance. The most liberating activity of all turned out to be downhill skiing, a sport with which I had little experience but that quickly became a passion. Capitalizing on the unusually heavy winters we’d had during our first two years in Washington, I made a few day trips with the girls and some friends to a tiny, aptly named ski area called Liberty Mountain, near Gettysburg, where we found we could don helmets, scarves, and goggles and blend into any crowd. Gliding down a ski slope, I was outdoors, in motion, and unrecognized—all at once. For me, it was like flying.
The blending mattered. The blending, in fact, was everything—a way to feel like myself, to remain Michelle Robinson from the South Side inside this larger sweep of history. I knit my old life into my new one, my private concerns into my public work. In D.C., I’d made a handful of new friends—a couple of the mothers of Sasha’s and Malia’s classmates and a few people I’d met in the course of White House duties. These were women who cared less about my last name or home address and more about who I was as a person. It’s funny how quickly you can tell who’s there for you and who’s just trying to plant some sort of flag. Barack and I sometimes talked about it with Sasha and Malia over dinner, the fact that there were people, children and adults, who hovered at the edges of our friend groups seeming a little too eager—“thirsty,” as we called it.
I’d learned many years earlier to hold my true friends close. I was still deeply connected to the group of women who had started gathering for Saturday playdates years earlier, back in our diaper-bag days in Chicago, when our children blithely pitched food from their high chairs and all of us were so tired we wanted to weep. These were the friends who’d held me together, dropping off groceries when I was too busy to shop, picking up the girls for ballet when I was behind on work or just needing a break. A number of them had hopped planes to join me for unglamorous stops on the campaign trail, giving me emotional ballast when I needed it most. Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses like these, swapped back and forth and over again.
In 2011, I started making a deliberate effort to invest and reinvest in my friendships, bringing together old friends and new. Every few months, I invited twelve or so of my closest friends to join me for a weekend at Camp David, the woodsy, summer-camp-like presidential retreat that sits about sixty miles outside Washington in the mountains of northern Maryland. I started referring to these gatherings as “Boot Camp,” in part because I did admittedly force everyone to work out with me several times a day (I also at one point tried to ban wine and snacks, though this got swiftly shot down) but more importantly because I like the idea of being rigorous about friendship.
My friends tend to be accomplished, overcommitted people, many of them with busy family lives and heavy-duty jobs. I understood it wasn’t always easy for them to get away. But this was part of the point. We were all so used to sacrificing for our kids, our spouses, and our work. I had learned through my years of trying to find balance in my life that it was okay to flip those priorities and care only for ourselves once in a while. I was more than happy to wave this banner on behalf of my friends, to create the reason—and the power of a tradition—for a whole bunch of women to turn to kids, spouses, and colleagues and say, Sorry, folks, I’m doing this for me.
Boot Camp weekends became a way for us to take shelter, connect, and recharge. We stayed in cozy, wood-paneled cabins surrounded by forest, buzzed around in golf carts, and rode bikes. We played dodgeball and did burpees and downward dogs. I sometimes invited a few young staffers along, and it was trippy over the years to see Susan Sher, in her late sixties, spider crawling across the floor next to MacKenzie Smith, my twentysomething scheduler who’d been a collegiate soccer player. We ate healthy meals cooked by the White House chefs. We ran through drills overseen by my trainer, Cornell, and several baby-faced naval staffers who called us all “ma’am.” We got a lot of exercise and talked and talked and talked. We pooled our thoughts and experiences, offering advice or funny stories or sometimes just the assurance that whoever was spilling her guts in a given moment wasn’t the only one ever to have a teenager who was acting out or a boss she couldn’t stand. Often, we steadied one another just by listening. And saying good-bye at the end of each weekend, we vowed we’d do it all again soon.
My friends made me whole, as they always have and always will. They gave me a lift anytime I felt down or frustrated or had less access to Barack. They grounded me when I felt the pressures of being judged, having everything from my choice of nail-polish color to the size of my hips dissected and discussed publicly. And they helped me ride out the big, unsettling waves that sometimes hit without notice.
On the first Sunday in May 2011, I went to dinner with two friends at a restaurant downtown, leaving Barack and my mother in charge of the girls at home. The weekend had seemed especially busy. Barack had been pulled into a flurry of briefings that afternoon, and we’d spent Saturday evening at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where in his speech Barack made a few pointed jokes about Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice career and his birther theories. I couldn’t see him from my seat, but Trump had been in attendance. During Barack’s monologue, news cameras zeroed in on him, stone-faced and stewing.
For us, Sunday nights tended to be quiet and free. The girls were usually tired after a weekend of sports and socializing. And Barack, if he was lucky, could sometimes squeeze in a daytime round of golf on the course at Andrews Air Force Base, which left him more relaxed.
That night, after catching up with my friends, I arrived home around 10:00, greeted at the door by an usher, as I always was. Already, I could tell something was going on, sensing a different-from-normal level of activity on the ground floor of the White House. I asked the usher if he knew where the president was.
“I believe he’s upstairs, ma’am,” he said, “getting ready to address the nation.”
This is how I realized that it had finally happened. I knew it was coming, but I hadn’t known exactly how it would play out. I’d spent the last two days trying to act completely normal, pretending I didn’t know that something dangerous and important was about to take place. After months of high-level intelligence gathering and weeks of meticulous preparation, after security briefings and risk assessments and a final tense decision, seven thousand miles from the White House and under cover of darkness, an elite team of U.S. Navy SEALs had stormed a mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, looking for Osama bin Laden.
Barack was coming out of our bedroom as I walked down the hall in the residence. He was dressed in a suit and red tie and seemed thoroughly jacked up on adrenaline. He’d been carrying the pressure of this decision for months.
“We got him,” he said. “And no one got hurt.”
We hugged. Osama bin Laden had been killed. No American lives had been lost. Barack had taken an enormous risk—one that could have cost him his presidency—and it had all gone okay.
The news was already traveling across the world. People were clogging the streets around the White House, spilling out of restaurants, hotels, and apartment buildings, filling the night air with celebratory shouts. The sound of it grew so loud and jubilant it roused Malia from sleep in her bedroom, audible even through the ballistic glass windows meant to shut everything out.
That night, there was no inside or outside, anyway. In cities across the country, people had taken to the streets, clearly drawn by an impulse to be close to others, linked not just by patriotism but by the communal grief that had been born on 9/11 and the years of worries that we’d be attacked again. I thought about every military base I’d ever visited, all those soldiers working to recover from their wounds, the many people who’d sent family members to a faraway place in the name of protecting our country, the thousands of children who’d lost a parent on that horrible, sad day. There was no restoring any one of those losses, I knew. Nobody’s death would ever replace a life. I’m not sure anyone’s death is reason to celebrate, ever. But what America got that night was a moment of release, a chance to feel its own resilience.
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