On the day that Michelle Obama sent her daughters off to a new elementary school in a big black SUV with gun-toting Secret Service agents, she said she thought to herself: “What on Earth am I doing to these babies?”
Her husband was among the youngest men to serve as president, and their attractive, youthful family drew the world’s attention. Protecting their daughters from public scrutiny was a priority from the day he was elected.
The first lady committed herself to working no more than three days each week, calling herself “mom in chief,” and let her staff know that Malia and Sasha’s school events should be the first items added to her calendar.
President Obama, who had written in depth about his insecurities as a husband and father before his election, has said his wife encouraged him to be more involved in his daughters’ lives. Over eight years, they painted a quotidian public portrait of their family life: dinner together whenever he was home; attendance at parent-teacher conferences; coaching the girls in basketball; mom and dad date night; and the girls’ grandmother living with them to keep an eye out.
No family’s inner workings are perfect. The president’s aides often cited the time-consuming work of raising children as one reason Obama did not spend more time on the schmoozing and other niceties that political Washington expected of a president. Yet, in a 2013 interview with CBS News, Michelle Obama referred to herself as a “busy single mother.” It was a slip of the tongue that may have been Freudian, and she quickly tried to explain:
“When you’ve got a husband who is president, it can feel a little single,” she joked. “But he’s there.”
Moments of candor around the travails of parenting — and the joy of it — have been a trademark of the Obamas’ time in public life. Here is how they approached parenting — in their own words.
“For three magical months the two of us fussed and fretted over our new baby, checking the crib to make sure she was breathing, coaxing smiles from her, singing her songs, and taking so many pictures that we started to wonder if we were damaging her eyes. Suddenly our different biorhythms came in handy: While Michelle got some well-earned sleep, I would stay up until one or two in the morning, changing diapers, heating breast milk, feeling my daughter’s soft breath against my chest as I rocked her to sleep, guessing at her infant dreams.”
— “The Audacity of Hope,” 2006
“I took my last job [before my husband entered the White House] because of my boss’s reaction to my family situation. I didn’t have a babysitter, so I took Sasha right in there with me in her crib and her rocker. I was still nursing, so I was wearing my nursing shirt. I told my boss, “This is what I have: two small kids. My husband is running for the U.S. Senate. I will not work part time. I need flexibility. I need a good salary. I need to be able to afford babysitting. And if you can do all that, and you’re willing to be flexible with me because I will get the job done, I can work hard on a flexible schedule.” I was very clear. And he said yes to everything.”
— White House Working Families Summit, June 2014
“Malia and Sasha were little itty-bitties when we came into office. I mean, it still moves me to tears to think about the first day I put them in the car with their Secret Service agents to go to their first day of school. And I saw them leaving and I thought, what on Earth am I doing to these babies? So I knew right then and there my first job was to make sure they were going to be whole and normal and cared for in the midst of all this craziness.”
— White House United State of Women Summit, June 2016
The Obamas promised Sasha and Malia a dog if their dad became president. They took their new pup, a Portuguese water dog named Bo, on a walk before the press corps in April 2009.
“The first thing I said to some of the staff when I did my visit because, of course, they’re like, “Oh, the girls, they’re so great.” I said, you know, we’re going to have to set up some boundaries because they’re going to need to be able to make their beds and clean up.”
— ABC News, November 2008
“It’s hard to argue with Michelle when she insists that the burdens of the modern family fall more heavily on the woman.”
— Audacity of Hope, 2006
Michelle Obama’s press secretary in 2009 after Ty Inc., produced Beanie Babies dolls called Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia:
“We feel it is inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes.”
— Katie McCormick Lelyveld
The company quickly retired the dolls.
“The Gulf is going to be affected in a bad way. And so my job right now is just to make sure that everybody in the Gulf understands this is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about.
And it’s not just me, by the way. When I woke this morning and I’m shaving and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?” Because I think everybody understands that when we are fouling the Earth like this, it has concrete implications not just for this generation, but for future generations.”
— White House press conference, May 2010
“The one thing he cares about is just look like you’re listening to me.”
— Jimmy Kimmel Live, October 2012
“I think every kid needs to get a taste of what it’s like to do . . . real hard work.”
— Michelle Obama
“We are looking for opportunities for them to feel as if going to work and getting a paycheck is not always fun, not always stimulating, not always fair. But that’s what most folks go through every single day.”
— Barack Obama, Parade magazine, June 2014
“When I was first elected to this office, Malia was 10 and Sasha was just 7. And they grow up too fast. This fall, Malia heads off to college. And I’m starting to choke up.”
— Canadian State Dinner, March 2016
“If I think to myself, what’s the thing that I’m going to remember on my last breath, it’s not going to be anything to do with my office. I’m not going to be thinking about Grant Park and me getting elected. I’m not going to be thinking about even passing health care, as important as that has been. What I’m going to remember is me holding my daughter’s hand, and walking her to the park, and seeing the sun go down, and pushing her on a swing.”
— Barack Obama’s question and answer session with White House interns, December 2015
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves — and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
— Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, July 2016