Spend an hour with First Lady Michelle Obama like I had the pleasure of doing Monday, along with a small group of other online reporters, and you see how raising Malia, now 13, and Sasha, 10, in as normal a way as possible inside the White House bubble remains her top priority.
“They’re terrific girls, they’re poised and they’re kind and they’re curious,” said the First Lady from the Old Family Dining Room in the East Wing. “And like any mother, I am just hoping that I don’t mess them up,” she added, leading to laughter, because of course, every mom in the room, this one included, worries about the very same thing. She’ll call friends after the kids visit and ask, “How do the girls seem?” And the answer is always this. “No, they’re the same kids, they’re the same girls,” Mrs. Obama said, repeating what she hears from friends. Never settling, she’ll say, “Okay, good, just tell me if you see anything — just let me know.”
Fight for Normalcy
The First Lady said when it comes to the girls, she and President Obama really “fight for their normalcy” and that includes traveling with them, when possible, “outside of this bubble.” She also tries to make the girls’ home as normal as possible, even though it is the White House. “The first thing is establishing rules among the staff that they’re not little princesses,” she told us. “They have to make their beds, they have to clean up their rooms, they have to — Sasha has started doing the laundry, Malia was supposed to be doing it but (Sasha) is really into laundry. My mom still does her own laundry,” she said.
Making the rooms really kid-friendly also helps, she said, but ultimately “it’s really the interaction that we have as a family that makes it feel like a home.” Yes, it will feel like a normal American family when you hear this. “It’s sitting down at the dinner table and having Barack’s day be really the last thing anyone really cares about,” she said to laughter. “So he’s sort of the throw-on piece. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, Daddy, and what did you do today?”
TV Time and the Kardashians
Like most moms, Mrs. Obama regulates television and screen time. The first daughters are not allowed to watch television or be on the computer during the week unless it is related to schoolwork and they can watch limited television on weekends. Are any shows off limits? “Barack really thinks some of the Kardashians — when they watch that stuff — he doesn’t like that as much,” said the First Lady, “but I sort of feel like if we’re talking about it, and I’m more concerned with how they take it in — what did you learn when you watched that. And if they’re learning the right lessons, like, that was crazy, then I’m like, okay.”
As for the First Couple’s habits, she says “Barack is the worst” when it comes to his BlackBerry but says the girls will call him out on it and say, “We’re having dinner, put that down.” She is not on the computer much, she says, but tends to send emails early, very early, around 5 a.m. ET, which made Kristina Schake, her communications director, smile. At that point, the First Lady said, “I’m trying to let people know, you don’t have to answer me,” at that hour. “I’m just getting it all out.”
Living a normal life is no easy task when you are the First Family, and the First Lady revealed that what she misses most about her pre-presidency life is “the ability to walk out through a door and go for a walk on any given day.” She added, “It’s also being among people in a normal set of interactions. You forget how important that is just in establishing who you are in the world.” Asked about her recent trip to Target, Mrs. Obama said she thought her cover was blown when a woman walked over and said, “Can I ask you?” But instead of asking if she was the First Lady, she asked, “Can you help me reach something on the top shelf?” And Obama was thrilled to help out and get her some detergent. “So me being able to sneak out and do that — standing, ordering an ice cream cone and having the kid behind the counter ignore me just like he’s ignoring everyone else he’s serving — it’s refreshing.”
Halloween Candy and Holiday Treats
The First Lady may be the official spokesperson for healthy eating in the country but that doesn’t mean Malia and Sasha — and the rest of the First Family — don’t get to enjoy sweets around the holidays. “I tell this to my girls all the time — that when it’s time for the holidays and the fun stuff and the birthday party, that you don’t have to worry about it because you’re doing what you’re supposed to do every single day.” She said she lets them hang on to their Halloween bag for a day or two but then “I confiscate it, because it’s like, you just don’t need to have this in your room; it’s not good. The temptation is too great.”
She joked that the real issue of overindulging on sweets during the holidays isn’t really the kids since they are running around, having fun, focused on presents and other things, but the adults who sit at the table and eat one dessert after the next. “So I think we’re the problem around the holidays,” she said to laughter. “The question is how am I going to deal with the holidays?”
Motivation to Stay Fit
Looking as fit as ever and perhaps even a few pounds lighter, the First Lady said her main motivation for exercise is vanity. “It’s like a picture in the newspaper that looks crazy is my motivation. It’s like, Oh my God, is that me?” To moms who don’t have the motivation of being photographed 24/7, she repeats what she tells her girlfriends who are struggling with their weight. “It takes a few weeks of exercise before it becomes fun, it doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “I tell them invest five weeks — just tell yourself for five weeks I’m going to do the same thing and I won’t like it. I will hate working out,” she said, “but there will come a time… where actually it does feel better.”
The First Lady said when she’s not exercising or eating right, she feels bad, so exercise for her is no longer vanity but a “necessity.” Still, it’s a “daily struggle,” she concedes. “And I don’t think it ever changes and I’m really mad about that,” she said to laughter. Her “eclectic” iPod selection for workouts includes Beyonce, Jay Z, Janelle Monae, Sting, The Beatles, Mary J. Blige and Michael Jackson. “My iPod are songs that I love so that every song that comes on, I don’t have to skip over it.”
Late Night Foraging
She also reveals that she would be a “forager” if sweets were around so she instructs the White House kitchen staff not to put “junk” in the residence because she would eat “everything” if they did. “I do find myself searching through those cabinets looking for some chocolate I just need and it’s not there,” she added. As for her snack of choice, she said she’s a salty snack person, so “if a bag of chips were there, I’d eat the whole thing so I just can’t have it around.”
Making Herself a Priority
The First Lady said she learned, even before getting to the White House, that she “had to put herself higher” on her “priority list to stay sane.” For her, that means being healthy, exercising, eating right and serving as a role model for her kids. “I want my girls to see the model of a mother taking care of herself, because, quite frankly, my mother didn’t do that. My mother was the traditional stay-at-home mom who never went to the hairdresser… and the thought of spending a dime on herself was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, why would I want to do that?'”
She values the flexibility she has at the White House where she traditionally spends three work days on official White House events, leaving two other days of the week for tennis lessons (Malia is getting very interested in tennis), parent/teacher conferences, and other activities involving the girls. “I know how blessed I am and how rare it is to live in an institution that can provide you with that kind of support,” she said. “I believe every mother needs a personal assistant,” she said, “And a chef.” Amen to that!
No Fashion Anxiety
Wearing a smashing sleeveless brown and maroon dress with a brown bow on one side from Target, the First Lady she’s not anxious about fashion. She said she focuses on what feels good, wears what she loves, is thoughtful about what she wears and “spreads the love” by highlighting young designers. As for her day-to-day attire, she said it’s very practical. “What’s the temperature? Am I going to be sitting on the grass? Will I be playing with the kids?” No, clothes don’t make her anxious so what does? “It’s always am I making the best use out of this moment that I have, and do I make the people that I’m with feel like they’re important. It’s like, ultimately, did they walk away feeling good and inspired, and maybe ready to think a little bit differently,” she said.
Of her main causes, Let’s Move, the battle against childhood obesity, and Joining Forces, raising awareness of military families, the First Lady said she focused on what she was passionate about. “There are thousands, millions of issues that I could be speaking to… but I can’t do it all so I have to narrow it down to things that really resonate with me, that I feel like I can speak to authentically.” She added, “The greatest power that I have is the power of the light that is shining on me and standing in front of things that hopefully people need to see and having that light shine on those issues as well.”