Turns out British Vogue famously has a back page Q&A feature that is equal parts informative and whimsical, with a special guest each month. My first thought was that it needed to be someone kind, inspirational, motivating, funny, with gravitas and as much depth as levity. My second thought: it needed to be Michelle Obama.
So, over a casual lunch of chicken tacos and my ever-burgeoning bump, I asked Michelle if she would help me with this secret project.
It wasn’t a huge ask, so to speak, because the back page of Vogue comprises a few simple questions to garner a few simple answers – tidbits that would leave you, the reader, feeling all of the aforementioned sensations of this analogous culinary experience. She graciously said yes (because she’s Michelle, she’s gracious), and then very promptly sent answers (because she’s Michelle, she’s prompt).
What was sent back to me, however, left me somewhat speechless. A few “simple questions” (which she could have answered with a sentence or two) were returned to me as a thoughtful, reflective and beautifully curated narrative – a gentle reminder not of how but of why she has become such a globally respected public figure.
Whatever your background, it’s easy to feel connected to Mrs Obama. There’s something magical about the way in which she draws you in with her endearingly frank, down-to-earth personality. When I heard her speak at London’s Royal Festival Hall last December, I found that I could personally relate to what she was sharing – and that the young British woman sitting a few seats away from me, laughing heartily and nodding in agreement, must have felt the same way.
I share all this with you as a disclaimer of sorts: had I known Michelle would be so generous in making this a comprehensive interview my questions would have been lengthier, more probing, more engaging. I would have called her and included the banter on these pages – the laughs and sighs and ping-pong of dialogue as I chimed in. But to re-engineer that now would rob Michelle’s words of their authenticity, which, for me, is at the crux of what makes this piece special.
That authenticity came out of her innate goodwill to support another woman, to give more than what’s asked for, to be generous, to be kind – all of these attributes make her the ultimate force for change. To my former First Lady, and now friend, Michelle – thank you.
The Duchess of Sussex: You sent me the kindest message on Mother’s Day this year. What has motherhood taught you?
Michelle Obama: Being a mother has been a masterclass in letting go. Try as we might, there’s only so much we can control. And, boy, have I tried – especially at first. As mothers, we just don’t want anything or anyone to hurt our babies. But life has other plans. Bruised knees, bumpy roads and broken hearts are part of the deal. What’s both humbled and heartened me is seeing the resiliency of my daughters. In some ways, Malia and Sasha couldn’t be more different. One speaks freely and often, one opens up on her own terms. One shares her innermost feelings, the other is content to let you figure it out. Neither approach is better or worse, because they’ve both grown into smart, compassionate and independent young women, fully capable of paving their own paths.
Motherhood has taught me that, most of the time, my job is to give them the space to explore and develop into the people they want to be. Not who I want them to be or who I wish I was at that age, but who they are, deep inside. Motherhood has also taught me that my job is not to bulldoze a path for them in an effort to eliminate all possible adversity. But instead, I need to be a safe and consistent place for them to land when they inevitably fail; and to show them, again and again, how to get up on their own.
What advice do you give your daughters?
Don’t just check the boxes you think you’re supposed to check, like I did when I was their age. I tell them that I hope they’ll keep trying on new experiences until they find what feels right. And what felt right yesterday might not necessarily feel right today. That’s OK – it’s good, even. When I was in college, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer because it sounded like a job for good, respectable people. It took me a few years to listen to my intuition and find a path that fit better for who I was, inside and out.
Becoming who we are is an ongoing process, and thank God – because where’s the fun in waking up one day and deciding there’s nowhere left to go? That’s something I wish I’d recognised a little earlier. As a younger woman, I spent too much time worrying that I wasn’t achieving enough, or I was straying too far from what I thought was the prescribed path. What I hope my daughters will realise a little earlier is that there is no prescribed path, that it’s OK to swerve, and that the confidence they need to recognise that will come with time.
How would that advice be different if you were offering it to sons? Or would it be the same?
It would be exactly the same. My parents, particularly my father, taught my brother and me at an early age to treat boys and girls exactly the same. When I was still in elementary school, my dad bought my brother a pair of boxing gloves. But when he came home from the store, he was carrying not one, but two pairs of gloves. He wasn’t going to teach his son to punch without making sure his daughter could throw a left hook, too. Now, I was a little younger and a little smaller than my brother, but I kept up with him. I could dodge a jab just like he could, and I could hit just as hard as him, too. My father saw that. I think he wanted to make sure that my brother saw that as well.
What inspired you to start the Girls Opportunity Alliance [a programme of the Obama Foundation that seeks to empower adolescent girls through education], and what is your goal?
Today, nearly 98 million adolescent girls around the world are not in school. That’s a tragedy – for the girls, of course, but also for all of us. Think of everything we’re missing out on. We know that when we educate girls, when we truly invest in their potential, there is no limit to the good it can do. Girls who attend school have healthier families, they earn higher wages, and the world gets to experience the full expression of their gifts. I formed the Girls Opportunity Alliance because I’ve seen the power of education in my own life. And I believe that every little girl, no matter her circumstances, deserves the opportunity to learn, grow and act on her knowledge. So, we’re connecting grass-roots leaders already working on the ground in countries all over the world, helping them to learn from each other and get the resources, support and platform they need to lift up girls in communities that can use a boost. And we are grateful to all the people around the world who have supported this programme and are interested in taking action to help.
If you were sitting down with your 15-year-old self, what do you think she would tell you, seeing who you have become today?
I love this question. I had a lot of fun when I was 15, but when it came right down to it, teenage-me was pretty by the book – straight As, through-the-roof standards for herself. So I imagine that she’d be proud of how far I’ve come – but she wouldn’t let me off the hook, either. I feel like she’d give me one of those silent nods of recognition, you know? She’d remind me there are still too many girls on the South Side of Chicago who are being shushed, cast aside or told they’re dreaming too big. She’d tell me to keep fighting for them. If I’m being honest, she’d probably smile about how cute my husband is, too.
And now to shift gears for a moment, and end with a wild-card question… What is the most beautiful sound that you’ve ever heard?
When Malia and Sasha were newborns, Barack and I could lose hours just watching them sleep. We loved to listen to the little sounds they’d make – especially the way they cooed when they were deep into dreaming. Don’t get me wrong, early parenthood is exhausting. I’m sure you know a thing or two about that these days. But there is something so magical about having a baby in the house. Time expands and contracts; each moment holds its own little eternity. I’m so excited for you and Harry to experience that, Meghan. Savour it all.