Interviewing Michelle Obama: The full transcript

It was such an honour sitting down with Michelle Obama to chat about her new book Becoming, where she has bared her soul and shared her life in incredible detail. I've had such lovely feedback from friends and followers on social media, with many asking for the full transcript so they can have a read of the whole interview. Here you go! 

Hello and welcome to my next instalment of Meet the Author. Today I am sitting down with the incredible and the inspirational Michelle Obama and we’re going to be talking about her book: ‘Becoming’. Hello Mrs Obama. Is it ok if I call you Michelle?

Of course Holly, how are you? It’s great to see you again.

You too, I’m really good thank you very much. I just want to say how much I absolutely love this book. You’re the most phenomenal storyteller and and I know that’s what you’re like from your personality. You’re very open and honest and that really shines through in every little bit of the book. From the very first moment, first chapter, I was sucked in, especially as I was listening to you on audiobook and I was listening to you tell me the stories of your life and I really felt like I was very much there, so well done; it’s something you should be really proud of.

Thank you so much.

It’s absolutely brilliant. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s great. You have sold two million copies in the US alone.

Yeah.

Best selling author of 2018 in two weeks. Did not anticipate any of that so it’s exciting. It’s good to know that the book is resonating with so many different people. I think that was my hope all along, that the story would connect with people of all backgrounds, all over the world, so I’m excited.

It is brilliant and for anyone out there that hasn’t read the book please get out and buy it because it’s absolutely amazing. As I was listening I was writing down lots of questions so can we get to it and answer some of them? Your words are so beautiful so I'm going to just quote some of them back to you. "I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money, in a starting-to-fail neighbourhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing, or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it." And tell it you did. You absolutely bare your soul in this book and at times that must have been quite painful and difficult. How did you go about approaching writing something so deeply personal?

Well part of the thinking was that if I was going to tell my story... because a lot of people are curious, how did a girl...working class kid from the south side of Chicago wind up as the First Lady with all the accomplishments that we had and then thinking about that I thought well the eight years in the White House is the least of my story It doesn’t really explain anything so I felt like I had to give people the context of my life. I had to introduce them to that little girl ’Michelle Robinson’ and give them a sense of what the sights and sounds of that little girl’s life was like.

How she played, how she was loved, who she interacted with, some of her hardships, some of her failings, because I really do think that that’s how we get to know people. Too often we focus on, what I call, our ‘stats’, what school did you go to, what’s your occupation, but the truth is to really get to know people we have to go deep into those stories and I felt that if I wanted people to get to know me I had to share everything. So that was part of the thinking and that’s really the way I’ve lived my life. I learned that on the campaign trail in Iowa when I had to explain myself to predominantly white communities who hadn’t been exposed to black folks, let alone tall, black people named Obama. So I had to find out how to open myself up in a way that people could connect with me and then be able to hear me. So this book is really just an extension of that believe that we have to share those stories with each other if we’re really going to break down the barriers.

And you shared them so well and I feel like your mother, Marian Robinson, had a really big part to play in that. She says "as parents you're not raising babies - you're raising adults."  How do you feel in reality... what did that actually mean for you and your brother Craig when you were growing up?

That meant that our voices had real value in our house. There’s some people who raise kids and they use the philosophy - ’kids are to be seen and not heard’ - and it was just the opposite for us. I mean we sat around the dinner table at night and we told stories about our day and when you grow up with parents who not only respect your voice but enjoy your voice that’s how I felt in our home that my parents thought we were brilliant and funny and they wanted us to… you know I say in the book, my parents knew that there was a flame in me that they wanted to keep lit and that’s, what I call, ‘Zen Neutrality’ in parenting, I describe my mother in that way. It’s that gift of understanding that to empower children in the long term you have to give them that space and that room to be themselves when they’re young so our’s was a household full of lots of conversation, lots of debate, one-upping each other in story telling and that wasn’t just true in our immediate family but we grew up in a vast extended family that I describe in detail. Grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and second-cousins and when you grow up in a big family you find that you have to use your voice to get a word in edgeways and I grew up in a family of storytellers so...

So that’s why you’re so good at this storytelling.

It’s probably part of the reason why I’m good at it. I also describe myself as that little girl, when I was young, I was very much in my head. I talk about how I played with my dolls and and I loved to create this imaginary world and I could spend hours on end just playing alone and in thinking about this question I think that because I spent so much time in my head before I was ready to get out there and interact I lived with stories in my head. I could play all day so storytelling for me is a way that I can sort out the world and have it make sense and it was always that way for me even as a child. But the parenting really matters and I try to share that with the audiences that I talk to. We have to give children the space to be and to be who they are and you know as a mother kids come here with their own personality…

I know, bringing up twins at the same time they get the exact same everything but they’re completely different people.

Right, and I think my parents understood that so they didn’t expect the same thing from me as they did from my brother but they did treat us as equals which I think played a big role in me being a powerful woman with a powerful voice. I was used to being respected in my home so I went out into the world and I expected that same treatment from others.

Image of Holly and Michelle Obama

Wonderful. You've had many different careers in your life you attended Princeton and then became a high-flying lawyer, you were a powerhouse in City Hall, Director of a variety of community not-for-profits and then a 'reluctant' political campaigner - you call this 'swerving'! And I absolutely love that term because I had a dramatic swerve myself where I trained to be a doctor, worked as a doctor and then became a business woman and so I completely understand how dreams and aspirations can change. You talk about the worries you had about other people judging your career choices - especially leaving law. How did you overcome that and what would you say to others facing the same dilemma?

Well the first thing that I had to overcome was my own guilt because when you spend so much time and money, in my case, taking out student loans, I came out of law school with a lot of debt, the notion that I wouldn’t want to invest financially to recoup that initial investment was a struggle for me. Especially growing up as a working class kid. You know I talk about the conversation I had with my mother where I was trying to break down how I wasn’t passionate about my career and I feel guilty talking to a woman who had sacrificed so much for me and probably never had the luxury of thinking about something as trivial as passion. You know, so explaining that to a working class family, how you’re going to walk away from a solid career and a solid income to pursue what’s deep in your heart, my parents didn’t...

And were they your biggest worry when you decided to leave?

Initially they were but also part of the challenge was what else was I going to do? That’s part... I describe myself as a box checker because that’s how we teach kids. It’s like, there’s a path, you pick a career when you’re seven, you study that career in elementary school, you go to college you get a major and life choices are not that orderly but that’s how we train kids and I was right on that path and I knew how to achieve, I knew how to get A’s and how to get to the next level but no one taught me how to dig deep inside my soul and figure out what I cared about and we don’t talk to kids about what they care about, we talk about what they should major in, what they should study and those two things are very different. So part of the struggle was I had to relearn how to educate myself about who I was. Schools didn’t teach me that, all those degrees, all those fancy schools didn’t help me connect into who I needed to be as a person. So I had to rewind all that learning.

And it’s such a shame because the education systems really should start that from the very beginning.

Yeah, we struggle and I think the challenge is that education systems are developed for masses of teaching but every kid is so different and if you don’t have the resources to individualise the educational curriculum then you’re really pushing kids through a funnel that may not fit them and that’s something that I worry about and see now in my girls.

Especially with the standardised testing and having to pass the exams and get on to the next level.

Right, this notion that every kid is going to learn in the same way at the same time is disastrous and it creates box checkers who then go on to careers that may not fulfil them and then they’re not good at it. So the tough part for me was relearning and figuring all that out on my own and so I had to find people who could help me. I did, what I called, informational interviews. I had to go out and just meet people who were doing all sorts of things that seemed interesting to figure out what I cared about Was it kids? Was it working with kids? Was it mentoring, was it education? I didn’t know, I hadn’t explored it because I was on the path to be a lawyer. So that was the hardest thing for me to understand how to do, is to walk away from the formal training that I had gotten and swerve into something more creative.

And so would your advice be to others it is important to find your passion in life?

It is absolutely important and I encourage young people to try on different hats. I think it’s a shame that kids are forced to figure out so early in their life and get on a path so I encourage kids to do internships, to work, to talk to people who are doing things that they think are interesting because most kids are intimidated about approaching you for example and saying “Holly, you’ve done some swerving. Tell me about what you’re doing.“ And having those conversations in high school and in college before you commit to something but I think kids feel the pressure to have to know…

It’s such a young age…

Exactly.

You’re sixteen, seventeen. eighteen when you’re making these big life decisions.

In one of the first lines of the first chapters a question that I hate the most that we ask children is ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ As if growing up is finite. As if you get to a place and at some point that’s the end and that sort of one of our big dilemmas that we ask kids so early to figure out who you’re going to be at five, and seven and ten and even twenty years old. So I do encourage young people to be open to ‘the swerve’ and don’t beat themselves up if they feel that they’ve maybe not made the right first choice because life, Holly, is long and as you know, we can have many lives within a life. We are always evolving, that is why I called the book ‘Becoming’. This notion that we ever stop evolving is just wrong.

Yeah, you didn’t call it ‘Become’.

That’s right, ‘Became’, already done that.

Image of Holly and Michelle Obama

So while building your incredible career, you were put in charge of an intern. A man who you describe as:  a unicorn, a strange mix-of-everything man, an exotic geek and fair to say it was by no means 'love at first sight'!  Your words. But it did become 'love for the rest of your life' - is it possible to put the love you feel into words?  And has the 'texture' of that love changed over the last two decades?

Well I tried to put it in words but it is difficult because the love you feel for a partner, it evolves and it has so many different layers, right? It’s the first love that you feel when you’re giddy and you’re falling and it’s new and it’s exciting and every aspect of that person is fresh. There’s the part of the love that’s always there. This sort of unpeeling of each other and that was what first attracted me to Barack was that he was so different from me. You know, he had swerved his whole life. His background... And it didn’t seem to bother him? He was completely comfortable with it and then knowing in the context of his childhood and upbringing which was very different from mine. That was a curiosity. You know, we grew up with this solid stability of the four of us at the dinner table. My father had a job, my mother stayed at home. We were very traditional. He didn’t know his father, his mother travelled and she was getting her PhD and she lived in other countries and exposed him to travel and so swerving was all he knew and I knew stability so I think that sort of....that contradiction that we found in ourselves was the first part of that love.

The opposite attracting.

Yeah, absolutely. And then I respected his choices, so it wasn’t just his life it was the choices he was making with it. The fact that he was a lawyer but he cared very much about the community. That he had taken time off to be a community organiser which is something you just don’t find. Young people who were taking time out to figure out how to help others in their own communities, that was attractive to me. The way he treated his mother, the way he treated the women in his life, the way he treated those that were of a lesser standing than him. So when we worked together in the law firm I fell in love with the fact that he was kind to everyone. So there’s that bit of it. So yes, the relationship does grow and change and so now we’ve built this life together and we’ve had all these journeys together and we’ve had all these hardships and we’ve raised two beautiful children and there’s the love that comes when you see the man that you love care for your children. That’s a whole different layer of love and nothing can replace those memories. That’s more important to me than what he accomplished as President of the United States, or anything that he’s done on paper. The fact that he is a good father to my daughters is a powerful aphrodisiac. So yes, it’s difficult to put it into a few words because it’s a lifetime of learning, and growing, and falling and recovering, together.

Well you’ve done it so well at putting it into words ’cause if I was asked the same question I think the English person in me would have really struggled with that. So you’ve really done well and it’s…

Well that was the assignment of the book, it’s like I had to be as open as possible.

And I also want young married couples to be open about what love is and what does that feel like. I don’t think we talk about that enough. So I think there are young people out there figuring out ’Well is this lust feeling that I have, is this good? Does it last forever? What happens when it goes away? Does that mean it’s broken?’ And when you’re like us, and you’re a couple that’s viewed as a role model to others I feel like it’s a responsibility to tell the whole story so that people know that beautiful marriages have challenges and there are ups and downs and that doesn’t mean that it’s broken it means you have to work at it. But no one tells young people that marriage is work. We talk about the love, we talk about the wedding, we talk about the good times but we don’t talk about how you sustain it year after year after year.

Again it’s very lucky that we both had parents that stayed together.

Absolutely, and we see that.

And my parents have been very open with my brother and I about the fact that, it is tough.

And they’ve been open with us and we’d just met them. So your parents are examples of a couple who is very clear and honest about who they are and what it took for them to be as strong as they are now. I feel like that’s a gift we’re supposed to give others.

Yeah. And it’s definitely a love that’s got you both through tough times. Especially the struggles getting pregnant and I’ve experienced miscarriages, I’ve been through IVF as well. Why did you feel you needed to share that bit of your life story which was very very personal?

For the same reason. We don’t talk about those things and when I was in that position I wished I had more people who would tell me that it would be be okay. That this happens to more people than we know and it wasn’t until I experienced it and then slowly started talking about it and then you meet so many women who are like ’that was my journey’ and I didn’t even realise how common miscarriages were and that’s something, you’d sort of think that OB-GYN would just sit down and tell us that at the outset. This is how it works.

You spend your whole life trying not to get pregnant…

Exactly. And the no one tells you that it’s not just a magical thing that happens. So I think... my parents taught me more information is better, giving young people the truth helps them in the long run, so I felt like I had to share my truth and it wasn’t a difficult thing for me to share. Anybody who meets me I would have the same conversation. So I couldn’t see not sharing with the world what I would share with anyone who I was trying to help.

Yeah I felt the same when I was going through the experience that it took me ten months, a year to openly say ‘yes I’m trying for a baby and it’s not happening.’ I wish I’d done it earlier but once I’d opened that floodgate I was like, I’m so thankful that I have now got it off my own chest and also helping others to understand that it does happen to people and there can be happy endings as well.

And there are many many happy endings.

I’d love to touch on your support systems. Throughout ‘Becoming’ you list amazing female mentors and leaders who have advised and supported you. You also admit you actively sought out these strong women. What would you say to young women and to young men about the importance of seeking out strong mentors and what did they mean to you?

Oh, my goodness... you don’t do anything alone and I think a lot of young people think they look at people like us and think ’you just magically appeared, you became and there you are,’ and and it’s like no, I always looked ahead of me, at the women primarily who were doing the things that I wanted to do. I talk a lot about Valerie Jarrett, for example, who has worked in our administration but I met her very early on before Barack and I even got married and she for me was one of the first examples of a strong professional woman, who was a single parent, who was doing a phenomenal job as a mother and was just a boss at work. And watching her balance that and not losing herself in either role I’d talk about how I’d sit in a meeting with her and she’d be in the midst of business leaders sitting around the table the mayor on the phone and her secretary would call and say her daughter had just got home from school and wanted to talk and she turned herself off in a second because she said ‘I will always make time for my daughter.’ So I saw how important it was that even in the height of your career putting your kids first was important. And that helped me think about how I wanted the White House experience to feel for my daughters. That’s why in so many instances we would stop our day no matter what was going on, and give that time to the kids because we wanted them to feel like they were at the centre of everything even when their mom and dad were some of the most powerful people in the world. So I wouldn’t have known that example was possible had I not looked ahead at the women who were my mentors.

And I love the story in the book where you pick up three month old Sasha and go to a job interview and you take her with you and you say to the interviewer, ’I’m a family woman, if you want me you need to have my family too and I need to be able to have flexible working.’ That was way ahead of it’s time.

Well that was an act of complete frustration and desperation because I also talk about how I had tried it so may different ways. I had tried the part time situation when I was at the university and I first had Malia and I realised that part time work for professional women was it was an unequal trade off because I found that all I got was a part time salary. but I was still doing the same amount of work and still needed the same amount of babysitting so I was like, well that’s a rip off for me so I tried that, then I was at the stage of trying - I was just so completely frustrated I had lost one of my best babysitters and I talk about the drama that happens when a working mother or mother of any kind loses their help and it’s almost worse than being upset at your husband it’s like ‘you, I don’t need the babysitter, I need her.’ But at that point I was just ready to give up because I was tired of trying to make the balance work. So what gave me the courage to walk into the President of the hospital’s office with my child was that I didn’t want the job and I was just going out of a favour so I felt like I had nothing to lose and that also taught me that it’s a shame I had to be pushed to the corner for me to to really ask for what I needed. Because I think a lot of women, we’re afraid to just put our cards on the table and say, ’This is what I’m worth, this is what I need to make this happen. I can do this. These are my top three things.’ I would have never had the courage to do it and I think many women sit on their talents and their gifts because they’re afraid to make that ask sometimes we’re too polite in the professional world and many women don’t have the luxury or the leverage to make the kind of demands that I did because I had the option of staying home because my husband brought in enough income, it would be tough, but it wouldn’t have been impossible and I absolutely realise that I was lucky to be able to walk in that office and make those demands.

And it’s so brilliant that you did. I truly believe that flexible working is the only way we’re going to get full equality in a workplace.

Absolutely.

Men being flexible with their work and women as well. And so it’s so important and you were ahead of the curve.

Professionals are doing that already. We just don’t call it flex. People just don’t get the credit that they need. People are juggling and managing to keep things afloat all the time so we just haven’t labelled it properly. It’s happening and people aren’t getting the credit for doing it, but if you work and have kids you’re doing something flexible in there to make that happen we just need to label it.

You’re a mum of two children juggling a full time career and your husband decides to run for President of the United States. And you admit that you struggle with politics as a career choice for anyone. So he then came and asked you whether you gave him the family seal of approval to do it but you admitted ‘Barack was a black man in America after all, I didn’t really think he could win.’ And how wrong you were.

I was so wrong.

Going back to that night, if you could, would your answer to the question have been any different?

No, it wouldn’t have. Because I believe that I needed to give him the opportunity to pursue his passions and I also talk about the fact that I would have felt guilty by selfishly not letting the country have access to somebody I thought would be a phenomenal President even though I didn’t think he could run. So I had to take off my wife hat and put on my citizen hat so I think the answer would still have been yes.

So the big day arrives, this is the front page of the Times at the inauguration. Can you remember what was going through your head at that time?

It was freezing cold first of all. And I was thinking are the kids warm? Did I dress them well enough because they were standing off to the sides, and they’re still whenever your kids are around for me, I’m still very much in mommy mode. What you do when you have two young kids at a big event where the international spotlight is on them? I’m thinking, are they cold? Are they paying attention?

Are they smiling at the right moments?

But then there are moments where I had to take it in and look out at the massive crowd that was there and the energy and the hope, the fact that millions and millions of people stood out in the freezing cold to see him take the oath of office and it was, it was powerful.

Image of Holly and Michelle Obama

It was a monumental day in history. It was huge. My dream and the core message of my first book, Weconomy, is that one day all businesses will be purposeful, that they will all be forces for good in the world. And I was heartened to learn that when it came to your initiative as First Lady, such as ‘Let’s Move’, the child nutrition bill, and encouraging business to employ veterans you appeal to that very sense of purpose. What role do you think businesses should play in society?

I think that corporations are citizens of the world in the same way individuals are. I know that that’s not necessarily how the free market works but that’s how businesses of old used to work. There was a time when a business was a part of the community, the owners lived in the community and employed workers. They knew the people there, so when they made decisions it was hard to look beyond the fact that your decisions impacted your neighbours, and your family and your friends. I wish that businesses still had that sense of fiduciary responsibility to the broader society and I think we need more leaders who think that way as well. But we are in a time when you have to tie purpose to the bottom line which is one of the things I always try to do so with health and nutrition, for example, my argument to food manufacturers was get ahead of the curve because people are being educated about their health and they’re going to make different decisions as consumers and so it’s incumbent upon you to look at the quality of your products and and how you market them so that you meet the demands of the people who are buying them. And then we tried to focus on the customer and tell them, you have power in this. That what you buy is what they’ll make and if you buy junk they’ll make junk so it wasn’t just the advocacy, but we tried to put ourselves in the positions of the business owners. You can’t tell a person making a big juicy high calorie burger to stop making it if that’s what people are buying it’s not a responsible or logical thing to expect. But if people now are buying healthier options that burger maker is going to make the switch because they want the customer. So we would think in those terms as we started to develop our initiatives.

I was moved by your desire to open up the White House to many many more people including military families, injured servicemen and women and you regularly invited school children to come from all over the country to work with you on your newly installed vegetable garden. You use a beautiful quote about your father Fraser, right at the beginning of the book: "Time as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to other people."  I absolutely love that. Was that what drove you, as First Lady to push through a more diverse and inclusive to push through a more diverse and inclusive White House?

That and just my experiences as a kid and with kids growing up. Kids can only dream of what they know and I grew up with so many kids who didn’t have the advantages I had even though we were a working class family. I grew up in neighbourhoods where a kid could live five minutes from a museum and never think they could go into it because they didn’t think it was for them. I know that that’s how kids think and the White House is just another big museum that feels like an other place. So I thought about all those kids who needed to walk in those doors and feel like all that wonderful stuff that they saw on T.V.  that we do, the military greetings and the state visits and the dinner and the music performances, I wanted as many kids as possible to feel like they belonged in those chairs too and the only way to do that was to open it up and invite them in. I wanted kids running all over the South Lawn, I wanted kids to talk about how they regularly came and helped build that garden and have a sense of pride in the house that is theirs. But you can’t send that message if kids don’t see themselves in those hallways so I wanted every event to be connected to kids in some way so that whatever was sent out into the world kids would see themselves in that house.

And then those kids will go back and tell their friends, who’ll tell their friends.

And maybe they go to the museum down their street or think about the City Hall in their own community as a place that they should go and explore.

So we did a social media competition where we got lots of people to send in the questions they wanted to ask you and we’ve got a winner from one called Natasha on Instagram. How do you manage to teach your children the same resilience that you’ve shown through your life when they have many privileges that you did not have growing up? And I was really interested in this one for my own children as well.

That’s a very good question. There are many different approaches that we try to use normalising their experience, setting the same set of expectations for our children that our parents had for us. Contributing around the house not taking your advantages for granted. It’s the conversations about advantage as well, pushing them to face their own fears and that’s the hardest part as a parent because that means you have to let your kids go and do things that are a little frightening for you, like sending them off away on a trip, I mean Malia for her gap year spent three months in the Amazon camping. I didn’t want her to do that, but I thought what what an important lesson in resilience for her just physically to know that she could endure something that hard and be away from home in a different country, learning a different language, so I had to have the courage to let her do that even though I desperately just wanted her to be close to home. So some of what we have to do as parents is let go of our fears and let them fail a little bit and be there for them when they fall because if we’re always saving them if we’re always helicoptering around they never fall, and they never learn how to get back up and that’s a hard thing to watch your kids do is fail.

I know, it’s something my dad always said to me was the importance of failure. I was a bit like you at school, I found it quite I worked hard ‘cause I knew how to pass the exams so I never really experienced that failure bit and passed my driving test when I rang him up to say ‘Dad I’ve passed my driving test’, he was like ‘Oh.’ I was like, ‘why are you saying oh,’ and he was like ’I really wanted you to fail because it’s so important to fail at something’.

And it’s also who they’re surrounded with because maybe the failure isn’t theirs but if they’re put in circumstances where they see hardship and they whether it’s in their communities, or through volunteerism exposing them to all the different challenges that other people face even if it isn’t their challenge so service was a huge part of it having them in schools where some kind of mandatory community service was a part of the curriculum has always been important to me. So there are many ways to do it it depends on your circumstances but kids will model what they see at home and the values that are promoted at home so whether they have a lot or a little they still know what their parents believe and what they expect, just as you know, which is why you focus on businesses with purpose. That had nothing to do with the fact that you grew up in hardship but you grew up with parents who expected you to give back. And that stuck with you. And I can only hope that Malia and Sasha will be as giving and as generous as you are.

Thank you very much. Another question lots of people asked was would you ever run for President of the United States but all I’m going to say to all those people is it is answered in the book!

Very clearly.

So go out and buy the book and read it and you’ll get your answer ’cause that was probably the question that was asked the most. One of my biggest takeaways is your quote, ‘Work with purpose, parent with care.’ And I really think that is a motto to life your life by, so thank you so much for that and also thank you very much for the interview today. It’s been really lovely seeing you again.

Thank you.

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