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Michelle Obama: ‘We’d all be better off if we allowed each other a little more grace’

Michelle Obama: ‘We’d all be better off if we allowed each other a little more grace’
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It’s been two years since she left the White House, a politically turbulent time where she’s been redefining what it means to be Michelle Obama without the need to be First Lady and with less demand to be First Mom to her daughters, Sasha and Malia. She also wrote a memoir, titled Becoming, published by Crown. It was released in November, became an instant sensation, and is still riding the top of the bestsellers lists. She’s now touring outside of the U.S. for her book tour coming to four Canadian cities.

The Star’s books editor Deborah Dundas was granted exclusive Canadian access to ask a few questions by email before these appearances. Here’s how Michelle Obama responded.

Your childhood – and the first part of this book – took place in the midst of a massive and uncertain cultural shift with the civil rights and women’s rights movements, as well as broader shifts like white flight. We are going through another shift now, too, with Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and the rise of the right. How is the political affecting the personal now in comparison to in the ’60s?

You know, one of the things I recognized while reflecting back on my childhood is that I was, of course, just a little girl. I wasn’t aware back then of the ways that the world around me was impacting me. But as I grew older, and as I began to understand the way that cultural and structural forces can affect lives and communities, I saw that I was born into the crosswinds of change — in my neighbourhood and beyond. And even though now I’m much older and, hopefully, a little wiser, I’m still not certain we can fully grasp the way these large forces affect us until we’ve had a chance to sort some things out for ourselves first. So I guess my hope is that even though we’re going through all sorts of transitions — culturally, technologically, racially — people can approach the future with hope and a belief in progress — and a recognition that everyone else is sorting through these things, too. I think we’d all be better off if we allowed each other a little more grace.

You write that you wanted to be a combination of Mary Richards (of The Mary Tyler Moore show fame) and Marian Robinson (your mom, who stayed at home during your childhood): The woman who balanced it all. Do you feel you reached that? Is that a goal you’d want for your own daughters?

That makes me chuckle a little bit — the idea that finding balance is something that can be achieved; that it’s something we check off our list and don’t think about again. There have been times in my life where I’ve thought I was doing just fine managing my career and my family and everything else. There have been other times where it felt like everything I’d been balancing was collapsing around me. And there were a lot of times where I felt both of those things within minutes of each other.

To me, seeking balance is sort of like becoming — which isn’t just the title of my book, but the understanding I gained while crafting it. Balance is a constant process. Just when think you’ve figured out one issue, life hands you a new problem to solve, a new challenge to deal with. Our priorities and perspectives and obligations evolve as we grow — and it’s up to us to find ways to fit it all together in a way that works for us, even while we know that from time to time, it’ll feel like everything’s going to fall apart.

As far as what I want for my daughters, I just hope they set realistic goals for themselves. I don’t want them to be just like me, or just like their grandmother, or just like anybody else. I just want them to be themselves — to figure out what matters to them and to feel the freedom to go after it. Along the way, I hope they’re patient with themselves because things won’t always go according to plan.

Your life changed fundamentally once your husband became president. Which transformation was most demanding/fulfilling/terrifying — the one into the White House? Or when you left the White House?

The transition into the White House was certainly more difficult. It was one of the more nerve-wracking experiences of my life. Of course we were thrilled and humbled to have such an incredible opportunity to serve the American people. But I’m a planner, and you don’t get much time to plan for a move like that. My head was constantly spinning, full of unanswered questions. What would our life look like? Would we be able to exist like a normal family? How would living in the White House, and in the spotlight, affect the girls?

Over those first few months, those questions slowly answered themselves. We began to settle into routines — and that’s good for kids. We had dinner together more often than we were able to while Barack was campaigning. We recognized that our daughters were resilient — and so long as Barack and I acted like everything was normal, they’d follow our lead. But more importantly, we learned quickly that it didn’t matter whether we were living in our house in Chicago or in the world’s most famous address — we could find home anywhere, so long as we were together.

Once we made it through a transition like that, the next one — leaving the White House — was a lot more manageable.

You talk a lot in the book, in many different contexts, about the power of storytelling. Why is it so important to you?

To me, what’s most important isn’t just how you tell a story — it’s about how you tell your story. I hope that everyone sees the power in their story — all of it — the good and bad, the moments of struggle and shame and success. So often what we see as weaknesses — feeling like we’re different, growing up in tough circumstances — are often actually our greatest strengths. But it’s hard to see that when you’re letting other people tell your story for you. It’s hard to see that if you don’t allow yourself to see your full story. So my hope is that people are able to reckon with their story, to reflect back on all the different twists and turns, and understand that they wouldn’t be who they are today without everything that came before.

You’ve been clear that you’ll never run for office – despite many people hoping you will. But with your background it’s hard to believe you won’t continue serving in some way. How’s that going to look?

You’re exactly right — I’ve never believed that politics is the only way to serve people. Since I left the White House, I’ve taken some time to see how I can best make an impact with the passions and opportunities I have. I’ll always be involved in the issues I championed as First Lady — from healthy families to helping students get to and through college. Last year, through the Obama Foundation, we launched the Global Girls Alliance to help girls around the world get the education they deserve.

But even on top of all that, I know that in the years ahead, there will be even more ideas to make real, more voids that need filling, more issues that I might be able to do some good on. I’m just not certain what that will look like just yet.

Michelle Obama is set to appear in Canada during Spring 2019: March 21 in Vancouver, B.C. at Pepsi Live at Rogers Arena; March 22 in Edmonton at Rogers Place; in Montreal May 3 at the Bell Centre; and in Toronto May 4 at the Scotiabank Arena. More information and tickets at: https://becomingmichelleobama.com/
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