Michelle Obama Shares Her Secret to Getting Through Her Time as First Lady

"I was in such a tight bubble, where I had to be perfect and I couldn't necessarily be my full self."
michelle obama in new york
Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

On Saturday night, Michelle Obama made her first stop in New York City for her Becoming book tour. The discussion at Brooklyn's Barclays Center was moderated by Obama's close friend and poet Elizabeth Alexander, who affectionately described the former First Lady as her "sister-friend." The pair spoke candidly about Obama's years in the White House, maintaining friendships, and how exercise played a role in both. "Health for me has to be based around community," Obama said to the room of over 5,000 attendees, an audience that included mothers, daughters, sisters, sororities, and groups of friends. She talked about the complexity of work-life balance, specifically after having kids. In a moment of frankness, Obama said, “That whole ‘so you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to 'lean in,' because that shit doesn’t work all the time," a subtle jab to the term coined by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.


Obama's source of balance came through fitness, which became the catalyst for her main pillar of work as First Lady through her Let's Move! public health campaign. She shared that after having her daughters, exercise became a way of self-care and bonding with friends. "I need some girlfriends around me; I need somebody talkin' to me," she said about her personal workout sessions, while images of her hiking and doing yoga with her friends flashed on the large screen in the background.

"I relied on my girlfriends to get me through one of the hardest eight years of my life. Exercise and love and spiritual connection and complaining and cursin'—all of that—and drinking wine and being able to do that [helped me] let go."

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Obama also talked about the racist criticism she endured during her husband's campaign years and two terms in office—that, coupled with restrictions of living a public life, she says, weighed heavily on her. In moments of anger, confusion, and despair, she revealed that her "girls" provided comfort. "When I was in such a tight bubble, where I had to be perfect and I couldn't necessarily be my full self," Obama began, "having that [time] with my girlfriends meant the world to me." Adding, "It is the only reason why I'm breathing. I couldn't have gotten through raising my kids with a husband traveling without my girls."