Michelle Obama’s return to the spotlight with the release of her candid memoir and its accompanying 10-city megawatt book tour reminds us of what we are missing in this White House: a living, breathing, and very human and relatable occupant of the East Wing. Too often we don’t realize what we have until it’s gone.
In “Becoming,” Michelle Obama reveals a number of personal details, among them that she “stopped even trying to smile” during President Trump’s inauguration and that she’ll never forgive Trump for the birther movement he led questioning her husband’s citizenship. But what is just as interesting to me is how she lays bare the Obamas’ struggle with infertility and the overwhelming sense of loneliness and exhaustion that accompanied being married to a man with presidential ambitions.
Obama describes looking at political families like the Clintons and the Kennedys — families who devoted their lives to politics — and wondering if their smiles were genuine. “At home, our frustrations began to rear up often and intensely,” she writes. “Barack and I loved each other deeply, but it was as if at the center of our relationship there were suddenly a knot we couldn’t loosen.” She was 38 and describes feeling “protective” of her own marriage, especially when her brother moved into the apartment they grew up in when he separated from his wife. She says she saw some of her friends’ marriages come undone because of “small problems left unattended or lapses in communication that led eventually to irreparable rifts.”
What could be more honest and vulnerable than talking about the struggles inside your marriage? Obama relates to working parents everywhere in this book and this should make us all breathe a collective sigh of relief. We are not alone in feeling exhaustion and, at times, resentment of a partner who may be leaving the bulk of the child-rearing to us because of their own busy jobs.
What America needs now, more than ever, is someone like her, who can speak to us as equals, who can reveal her own struggles and triumphs, and who, in turn, can make us feel like she can empathize with ours.
As many in her position — a working professional with children whose partner traveled often for work — would, she struggled raising her two daughters while her husband was serving in the Illinois Senate and suggested that they see a marriage counselor. Initially he did not want to do it, she writes. He thought they could work their way through it and that sitting with someone they didn’t know and pouring out their feelings seemed “a tad dramatic.”
They saw a Chicago psychologist together a few times and “slowly,” she writes, “over hours of talking, the knot” at the center of their relationship “began to loosen.” And ultimately she came to a revelation: “It was possible that I was more in charge of my happiness than I was allowing myself to be.” She let go of the resentment and stopped tallying the dinners her husband had missed and stopped judging him for somehow managing to fit in workouts when she had not been able to find time herself.
Instead she began asking for help from family and friends so she could make time for herself. Her mother started coming over at 4:45 a.m. a few times a week so she could also fit in a workout, something she had neglected since working and having kids. She would return home by 6:30 a.m. to get their daughters ready for school. “This new regimen changed everything: Calmness and strength, two things I feared I was losing, were now back.” She got a bedtime routine in place for their daughters; it was up to her husband whether he would be home in time to kiss them goodnight. “We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”
“This was my pivot point, my moment of self-arrest,” she writes. “Like a climber about to slip off an icy peak, I drove my ax into the ground.”
It is obviously much easier for a former first lady to be so open and honest about her marriage than the one who currently occupies the East Wing. But even before she was first lady, Obama shared the struggles she faced as a working mother. In a November 2007 interview with Oprah for O, the Oprah Magazine, she urged women to prioritize their own happiness and admitted that there were times when she felt lonely long before she became first lady: “I am sitting there with a new baby, angry, tired and out of shape. … And my husband is lying there, sleeping. That’s when it struck [me] that if I wasn’t there, he would eventually have to wake up [and take care of the girls]. It worked. I would get home from the gym, and the girls would be up and fed. That was something I had to do for me.”
To be clear, this is not a partisan issue: In fact, in Laura Bush’s compelling post-White House memoir “Spoken from the Heart,” she lays herself bare describing the guilt and shame she felt over accidentally running a stop sign and killing one of her best friends when she was just 17. In the book, she also reveals that she didn’t tell her daughters about it; they found out only when their father was governor of Texas and someone on their protective detail mentioned it, assuming they already knew.
The most brutally honest and brave modern first lady, I think, has been Betty Ford. In her memoir, “The Times of My Life,” Ford revealed her own struggle with alcoholism and her addiction to painkillers. Her book — and her honesty — saved an untold number of lives and even outsold her husband’s own presidential memoir. But the famously affable President Ford had a sense of humor about it; before her book was published Betty even gave him a T-shirt for his birthday that read “Bet My Book Outsells Yours.” Ford conceded, “She’s a lot more interesting than I am!” Maybe the same will be true with Michelle Obama’s book, depending on how open her husband decides to be.
It is acknowledging and reflecting on our times of weakness and frailty that make us most human. Melania Trump has not given us a glimpse of her own problems, except, perhaps, for the ridiculous statement that she is among the “most bullied” people in the world. When given the opportunity to walk this absurd statement back in her rare interview with ABC News, she said she is “one of them, if you really see what people saying about me.” It was pure self-indulgence. Being first lady is an honor and privilege and the first ladies who came before her rarely spent time feeling sorry for themselves, and trust me, they were also the subject of intense criticism and hostility.
Michelle Obama’s book makes the contrast between Melania Trump and the women who came before her starker than ever. Beyond the surface details of that difference lies the deeper truth that leadership isn’t just about power — it’s about knowing when to be honest about your vulnerability. It’s recognizing that being a role model means engaging and talking about one’s imperfections, not pretending they don’t exist.
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