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Barack and I walked out of the White House for the last time on January 20, 2017, accompanying Donald and Melania Trump to the inauguration ceremony. That day, I was feeling everything all at once—tired, proud, distraught, eager. Mostly, though, I was trying just to hold myself together, knowing we had television cameras following our every move. Barack and I were determined to make the transition with grace and dignity, to finish our eight years with both our ideals and our composure intact. We were down now to the final hour.

That morning, Barack had made a last visit to the Oval Office, leaving a handwritten note for his successor. We’d also gathered on the State Floor to say good-bye to the White House’s permanent staff—the butlers, ushers, chefs, housekeepers, florists, and others who’d looked after us with friendship and professionalism and would now extend those same courtesies to the family due to move in later that day. These farewells were particularly rough for Sasha and Malia, since many of these were people they’d seen nearly every day for half their lives. I’d hugged everyone and tried not to cry when they presented us with a parting gift of two United States flags—the one that had flown on the first day of Barack’s presidency and the one that had flown on his last day in office, symbolic bookends to our family’s experience.

Sitting on the inaugural stage in front of the U.S. Capitol for the third time, I worked to contain my emotions. The vibrant diversity of the two previous inaugurations was gone, replaced by what felt like a dispiriting uniformity, the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableau I’d encountered so many times in my life—especially in the more privileged spaces, the various corridors of power I’d somehow found my way into since leaving my childhood home. What I knew from working in professional environments—from recruiting new lawyers for Sidley & Austin to hiring staff at the White House—is that sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.

Looking around at the three hundred or so people sitting on the stage that morning, the esteemed guests of the incoming president, it felt apparent to me that in the new White House, this effort wasn’t likely to be made. Someone from Barack’s administration might have said that the optics there were bad—that what the public saw didn’t reflect the president’s reality or ideals. But in this case, maybe it did. Realizing it, I made my own optic adjustment: I stopped even trying to smile.

A transition is exactly that—a passage to something new. A hand goes on a Bible; an oath gets repeated. One president’s furniture gets carried out while another’s comes in. Closets are emptied and refilled. Just like that, there are new heads on new pillows—new temperaments, new dreams. And when your term is up, when you leave the White House on that very last day, you’re left in many ways to find yourself all over again.

I am now at a new beginning, in a new phase of life. For the first time in many years, I’m unhooked from any obligation as a political spouse, unencumbered by other people’s expectations. I have two nearly grown daughters who need me less than they once did. I have a husband who no longer carries the weight of the nation on his shoulders. The responsibilities I’ve felt—to Sasha and Malia, to Barack, to my career and my country—have shifted in ways that allow me to think differently about what comes next. I’ve had more time to reflect, to simply be myself. At fifty-four, I am still in progress, and I hope that I always will be.

For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end. I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children. I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person. I have become, by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.

It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.

Because people often ask, I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that. I continue to be put off by the nastiness—the tribal segregation of red and blue, this idea that we’re supposed to choose one side and stick to it, unable to listen and compromise, or sometimes even to be civil. I do believe that at its best, politics can be a means for positive change, but this arena is just not for me.

That isn’t to say I don’t care deeply about the future of our country. Since Barack left office, I’ve read news stories that turn my stomach. I’ve lain awake at night, fuming over what’s come to pass. It’s been distressing to see how the behavior and the political agenda of the current president have caused many Americans to doubt themselves and to doubt and fear one another. It’s been hard to watch as carefully built, compassionate policies have been rolled back, as we’ve alienated some of our closest allies and left vulnerable members of our society exposed and dehumanized. I sometimes wonder where the bottom might be.

What I won’t allow myself to do, though, is to become cynical. In my most worried moments, I take a breath and remind myself of the dignity and decency I’ve seen in people throughout my life, the many obstacles that have already been overcome. I hope others will do the same. We all play a role in this democracy. We need to remember the power of every vote. I continue, too, to keep myself connected to a force that’s larger and more potent than any one election, or leader, or news story—and that’s optimism. For me, this is a form of faith, an antidote to fear. Optimism reigned in my family’s little apartment on Euclid Avenue. I saw it in my father, in the way he moved around as if nothing were wrong with his body, as if the disease that would someday take his life just didn’t exist. I saw it in my mother’s stubborn belief in our neighborhood, her decision to stay rooted even as fear led many of her neighbors to pack up and move. It’s the thing that first drew me to Barack when he turned up in my office at Sidley, wearing a hopeful grin. Later, it helped me overcome my doubts and vulnerabilities enough to trust that if I allowed my family to live an extremely public life, we’d manage to stay safe and also happy.

And it helps me now. As First Lady, I saw optimism in surprising places. It was there in the wounded warrior at Walter Reed who pushed back against pity by posting a note on his door, reminding everyone that he was both tough and hopeful. It lived in Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, who channeled some part of her grief over losing her daughter into fighting for better gun laws. It was there in the social worker at Harper High School who made a point of shouting out her love and appreciation for students each time she passed them in the hall. And it’s there, always, embedded in the hearts of children. Kids wake up each day believing in the goodness of things, in the magic of what might be. They’re uncynical, believers at their core. We owe it to them to stay strong and keep working to create a more fair and humane world. For them, we need to remain both tough and hopeful, to acknowledge that there’s more growing to be done.

There are portraits of me and Barack now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, a fact that humbles us both. I doubt that anyone looking at our two childhoods, our circumstances, would ever have predicted we’d land in those halls. The paintings are lovely, but what matters most is that they’re there for young people to see—that our faces help dismantle the perception that in order to be enshrined in history, you have to look a certain way. If we belong, then so, too, can many others.

I’m an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey. In sharing my story, I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. I’ve been lucky enough to get to walk into stone castles, urban classrooms, and Iowa kitchens, just trying to be myself, just trying to connect. For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.

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