By Jueseppi B.
From Parade Magazine:
Nearly five years after moving into the White House, Michelle Obamacould not look more at home. Posing in the formal Green Room, she appears both relaxed and invigorated, embracing the undefined (and undefinable) roles of Spouse in Chief, Role Model in Chief, and Mom in Chief. But it’s the last one that makes the first lady shine brightest of all. Put her in a room with kids—whether her own or the nation’s—and she glows. In fact, at the second annual Kids State Dinner on July 9, Mrs. Obama beamed at the success of 54 students who won a nationwide competition, sponsored by Epicurious.com, to develop creative, delicious, and healthful recipes.
An outgrowth of her Let’s Move! program to curb childhood obesity within a generation, the State Dinner (which happened at lunch) featured dishes like Lucky Lettuce Cups and Bodacious Banana Muffins, as well as an appearance by her husband, whom she playfully tweaked for admitting he’d hated vegetables as a kid. As she sat with Parade the following day, Mrs. Obama was regal in a magenta sheath yet so down-to-earth that she quickly fluffed the cushion of an antique couch between photo takes. No longer sporting the bangs that caused such a sensation (“You know, it’s hard to make speeches with hair in your face!”), the first lady spoke to us about her second-term goals for her childhood obesity fight, her maturing family, and her dreams for America’s children.
The energy at the Kids’ State Dinner was amazing. What do you feel when you’re in a room with kids like that?
The young people at my table asked me what was the best part of being first lady, and I said it’s being able to spend time with them. There’s just an unshakable energy and hope. When I see these kids, I think of my children and how it’s our job not to mess them up. They come with such optimism and such authenticity and sincerity. I want them to understand their power.
You’ve played such a leadership role on the issue of childhood obesity in America. Recently the American Medical Association classified obesity as a disease.
When we started, there were people who were thinking, “Oh, that’s not an issue. Why is she picking that?” But in a short amount of time, we have turned a challenging problem into one where there are glimmers of hope and change.
What’s the statistic you would like to see?
Our goal is to see the numbers reduced in a generation. I keep looking at where these kids will be in their 20s. We may not see [results] right away, but we’re going to see it in their habits. I look at how my kids view exercise. They have a complete understanding that nutrition and exercise go hand in hand. I didn’t think like that when I was a kid. But they have a real consciousness about it that I’d like to think comes from the years of attention we’ve put into this. But let me just say there have been people working on these issues for decades.
Some towns are pushing back on the new school lunch rules. Why is lunch so controversial?
Change is hard—it’s as simple as that. You start making tweaks to something that has been a mainstay and you’re going to get some backlash, particularly from kids. We as adults can’t be shortsighted. That’s part of how we got to this problem in the first place. We sort of give our kids what they want, as opposed to what they need. I understand this as a mom. I mean, to sit at the dinner table and have your kids pout over what you’ve served for dinner is an ego buster. Right? My kids are normal. If they could eat burgers and fries and ice cream every day, they would. And so would I. But that doesn’t sustain us.
You’ve said that this, like your military families initiative, is a forever proposition for you. What else is on your plate?
I really want to try to get into kids’ heads the idea that, in America, education is the key to success. [Education is] why I’m here. It’s why Barack Obama is president of the United States. It’s not fate; it’s not luck; it’s not pedigree. It’s hard work. Just like what you put in your mouth and how you move your body—I want kids to feel empowered that they have the choice and the responsibility to make good decisions about their education.
Malia will be thinking about college fairly soon. Tens of millions of American parents are panicking right now about where their kid will go to college. Are you?
You know, I am really trying to tone that way down. Because kids are under unreasonable pressure, and it can destroy a high school experience. I want them to be free to love learning and not use school as a way to check the next box. I try to remind them how many kids are going through this with a fraction of the resources they have. And I just want them to continue to feel blessed about the opportunities they have and never take them for granted.
Your relationship with your daughters seems extraordinary. When we see you coming down the steps of a plane, you are always holding hands with one of them, and the president is always holding hands with the other.
They still want to hold our hands. That’s why we do it. It’s like, they’re not yanking away yet, right?
What are you thinking when you’re walking down the steps?
To be honest, I’m thinking, “Okay, make sure no dresses are flying up!” It’s practical stuff. The wind is blowing, you’re looking up, you’re in heels. “When we get downstairs, make sure you say hello to the person who’s down there.” “Mom, of course, I know. I’m going to say hello.” It’s little stuff like that, or we’re joking or teasing with them.
How do you decide which girl goes with which parent?
They usually decide. You know, “I want to hold Dad’s hand. I want to hold Mom’s hand.”
You’ve talked and written about the rules you set for your kids. How will you adjust the rules as they grow into teens?
I give them as long a leash as they can handle. What I tell my kids is, I’m preparing you for college and for life. So, having independence, knowing how to set your own boundaries, figuring out how to make that balance. We still have screen-time rules.
Do the girls have smartphones?
Yes, they do. As Malia is getting older, that’s how [her friends] socialize. So I monitor it. But I really make sure she understands that she has to make these choices, because I’m not going to always be there. As I tell both of my girls, we will find out how the choices you’re making are turning out because we’ll see it in your grades. We’ll see it in your sleep patterns.
Any rules they totally resist?
No, they’re pretty good. I think they understand that our rules are fair. If they don’t follow them, the rules get tighter. If they do follow them, the rules loosen up. If they don’t respect the screen time, they get less of it. The hours go down. It’s one of these things like, “I know what’s going to happen to me if I’m texting and my mom finds out.” We take the phone. It’s pretty easy. We just take it away.
This spring you described yourself as “a single mother.” Were you referring to the pressure that comes with always making the decisions about your kids? The “planning fatigue”?
That’s absolutely right. When you have a husband or a partner who’s either traveling for work or has huge responsibility … and I give my husband credit—he knows who their friends are; he knows what their schedule is. But he’s not making the calls to the dance studio to figure out what classes they’re taking next year. He’s not thinking about “now basketball season is coming up” and “now it’s bar mitzvah season.” I think it’s important for both parents to shoulder that [responsibility]. I tell my kids, “I am thinking about you every other minute of my day.”
Yet, at the same time, you are the first lady. You seem—and we’ve interviewed you several times—as if you own this role now. You seem happy. What do you know now that you didn’t five years ago?
The truth is that the pressure of not having another presidential election is huge. I try never to complain in this role. We are so blessed, and I have so much support. But there’s something [about] not knowing what the rest of your life is going to look like and not really having control of it. Thinking about, okay, where are your kids going to go to school? How is this going to impact them? For four years, it was always there, just wondering, “What if? What if? What if?” You have to think, after November, how will we adjust? That layer is gone now. It gives me a little more room to breathe. But also, we know the pace of this job. Our staffs are mature in their roles. We’ve hit every bump. So even when we hit one now, it’s just not a big deal. With experience comes another level of confidence that you didn’t have when you were first here.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, there have been a lot racial issues in the news, from Paula Deen to the Trayvon Martin case. What gives you hope about America today?
I have immense hope. We just finished our visit to Africa and spent time on Robben Island [where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years] with one of President Mandela’s cell-block mates. Mandela took a lot of the lessons from Dr. King’s time to heart as he sat in a prison cell and thought about how to pull that country to where it is today. To come back to the United States, with an African-American president who has been influenced by both King and Mandela, that is a reason to be hopeful about all that Dr. King sacrificed.
Do you think having an African-American family in the White House has moved the needle?
Absolutely. Children born in the last eight years will only know an African-American man being president of the United States. That changes the bar for all of our children, regardless of their race, their sexual orientation, their gender. It expands the scope of opportunity in their minds. And that’s where change happens. You know, laws and policies are important. But in the end, it’s how we’re living our lives.
Will there be a female president in your lifetime?
Yes, I think the country is ready for it. It’s just a question of who’s the best person out there. That’s why I hope more young women start looking at opportunities to put themselves in that position, so they have the power. But it takes planning and sacrifice. It’s always harder for women, because we have kids and we’re in that constant—what did you call it?
We have the planning fatigue. But I think we’re starting to figure out how to make it all work.
And Secretary Clinton? Do you see her getting the job?
She hasn’t announced anything, so I’m certainly not going to get ahead of her. [laughs]
Would Michelle Obama ever run?
One last thing: You’re turning 50 in January.
Any thoughts about that?
What you learn is that each decade brings a new set of challenges but also a new set of possibilities. I have never felt more confident in myself, more clear on who I am as a woman. But I am constantly thinking about my own health and making sure that I’m eating right and getting exercise and watching the aches and pains. I want to be this really fly 80-, 90-year-old.
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