I spent the beginning of last week at the White House, taking part in a small round table discussion with First Lady Michelle Obama. The focus was supposed to be on fitness, health, and her "Let's Move!" initiative, but as we went around the table in the Old Family Dining room, introducing ourselves, the conversation quickly turned to the thing we all had in common: juggling work and life.
The eight other journalists and I asked questions about non-political, personal topics: How she's trying to make the White House feel like home to her two daughters, how to stay motivated and focused while living in the public eye, how to handle stress, kids and screen time, and more.
"Like any mother, I am just hoping that I don't mess them up," Mrs. Obama said of her daughters, Malia (age 13) and Sasha (age 10). "Even when times are tough, in the end you are as happy as your least happy child."
Given my perpetual search for work-life balance, is it any wonder that I asked the first lady how she manages to find her own? Here's what she told me:
Lylah: You had such a demanding career before you came here, and now it seems you’re busier than ever, and I’m wondering how you find your own balance?
Mrs. Obama: You know, it was that practice of busy before—working, creating that balance. So I, fortunately, came with self-preservation tools. And I had developed those long ago—sort of realizing that I have to put myself higher on my priority list to stay sane. And that was way before. It was probably because my husband has been in politics for quite some time, I mean, we’ve always been a busy couple juggling a lot.
When Barack was a state senator, he lived in Springfield during the week and he would come home on the weekends, driving back and forth. Then he was a U.S. senator. Then he was in D.C. So huge chunks of our lives we’ve been commuting and balancing pretty challenging, demanding careers. So we find that, now, we are all together under one roof—with lots of additional stress, but we have way more help and support than we could have ever imagined.
But what I learned early was that I have to be healthy. I have to exercise. I have to eat right in order for me to be able to perform at my maximum capacity for my family. And 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—she spent her days at our games and at the PTA, and cooking and doing everything. And the thought of her spending a dime on herself was just like, oh my goodness, why would I want to do that?
And my brother and I appreciated that. Because of that sacrifice, we are who we are. But now I find myself pushing her to take risks and to do things for herself that she’s not even used to. She has the time; she’s just not programmed. And I don't want that for my girls. I want them to be young women who understand that you can be educated, you can be smart, you can be pretty, you can have fun, you can sweat, you can run—and you have to do all of that to manage in this world. So I have to be that role model for them.
And here, I set the same boundaries that I had when I was working or when we were campaigning. I’m usually up three days a week, and they pack it in. So for those three days I’m like, what is next? (Laughter.) And by the end of the day I’m just sort of knocked out. But that means the next day I’m waking up with the kids; I can do parent-teacher conferences; I can go to the tennis game. I’m always home by 4:00 p.m. —done, we usually make sure the days are done on on-days so that I’m home by the time the girls come home. That was something that I couldn't—I couldn't do that before.
So I value the flexibility—probably more so—of living here because I didn't have that. I had my mother around, but there is always somebody here who can create that safety net, which is why I find myself being an advocate for women who don't have it. I know how blessed I am, and I know how rare it is to live in an institution that can provide you with that kind of support. I believe every mother needs a personal assistant. (Laughter.) And a chef, and—what else do we need?
Lylah: A clone. A clone would be good.
Mrs. Obama: And a driver.
Mrs. Obama: You know? But we don't have it. So we have to make it work and make it work for each other. I still rely on my girlfriends a lot, too. I find that other mom who can take the girls for a weekend if I’m going to be away. I find that there are mothers here who can tell when I have a busy schedule and they’ll just sort of call up and see if the girls want to come over.
And trying to return that favor, too, because I don't want to be that mother that’s always got her kids over there. (Laughter.) It's always like, get them over for a sleepover. Let’s go down the list—(laughter)—there’s Molly’s mom then there’s—so we still find ourselves as fellow mothers, as parents, doing that. And that’s a huge—that has been a huge help here as well.
You can read about the rest of the discussion over at Yahoo! Shine: Michelle Obama on the things that matter most to moms. And stay tuned for The Roundup of the other topics I touched on last week!