It came as no surprise to any of us at The Root when former First Lady Michelle Obama decisively took the top spot on this year’s Root 100 list. Between the triumphant release of her second book, The Light We Carry, and her proactive efforts before the midterm elections to persuade all of us to exercise our right to vote, Mrs. Obama’s influence and impact in 2022 have been a master class in how to leverage your platform for good.
The Root recently connected with our Forever FLOTUS to talk about the year she’s had, what life has really been like after leaving the White House, and the surprising way she blows off steam when stressed.
The Root: Your new book is titled “The Light We Carry.” What advice do you have for young professional women who are worried about having to dim their light in their industries and their personal relationships?
Michelle Obama: As women, we’re often made to feel that we have to be a certain way or play a certain character to fit into professional settings or even romantic relationships. We cram ourselves into a mold of how we think our boss or our partner wants us to behave. In the moment, it might feel like the right choice. We get praise. We’re not rocking the boat. We feel like we’re succeeding. But in the long run, we’re not doing ourselves any favors when we dim our own light and hide who we are. We’re not doing our company or organization any favors either—workplaces benefit when everyone feels free to offer their unique perspective. It leads to better decisions, better products, better morale. And of course, in relationships, hiding who you are isn’t going to help anybody find the right partner. If you can’t be yourself with someone, you’re building a foundation that could crumble at any moment.
So what I’d say to younger women is this: Be yourself. Unconditionally. Even when it’s hard—especially when it’s hard. Silencing yourself doesn’t just rob you of your own voice, it robs the world of your voice, too. Allowing your light to shine isn’t usually the easy path, but it’s the right path—for you and for everyone around you.
TR: What does courage look like in these days and times when we have been through so much?
MO: Courage is one of those things that can take on so many different forms. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the frontline workers in the early days of the pandemic who worked tirelessly to keep our country going—and are still doing so today with far less fanfare, I might add. Other times, courage looks like something smaller. Folks are spending so much time alone right now, so it might be an act of courage just to pick up the phone and call an acquaintance or go to an event with the hopes of making a new friend.
All of us have gone through so much adversity these past couple of years—the act of keeping the faith has become courageous. And we should be proud of the ways so many of us practice it every day: The young girl forging her own path at college, the kid who takes two buses and a train to school, the single mom who works the graveyard shift to put food on her table. There’s so much courage around us—sometimes we just have to look at things in a new way to see it.
TR: Where does your wisdom come from? Who continues to inspire you?
MO: It’s funny because it’s hard to see myself as a wise person. I’ve still got a lot to learn. But right or wrong, I understand that a lot of people do look to me for advice. And I can’t help but feel that when they do, it’s the wisdom of my mom and dad shining through. My parents, Marian and Fraser Robinson, made me who I am today—every ounce of grace and patience and poise that people see in me is because of them and the way they raised me.
And to your second question, it’s actually the same answer. My mom continues to inspire me every day. The way she carries herself in the world, the way she handles the uncertainty that comes her way, the funny little sayings that hold so much truth and power—I feel so lucky to have her in my corner after all these years.
TR: What is your reaction to the young Black women who reject the “strong and resilient” Black woman identity and desire space to be soft and fragile instead? Can you be both?
MO: I love this question. And for me, the answer isn’t just that we can be both, it’s that we all already are. Each of us contains so many different layers and perspectives. We go through all the seasons throughout our lives—or even in a single day. And I think being human is this idea that we can move across the full spectrum of our emotions—we can be fragile and strong without it compromising our strength or resilience in any way.
Like courage, there are so many different kinds of strength, and there are so many different ways to exercise it. Some folks want to grab a bullhorn and lead the charge, others want to stand back, keep their heads down, and simply do good work or raise good kids or take care of their parents and loved ones. Neither is better, and neither is worse. There’s no one right way to be a Black woman, and we have to make room for each other so that every facet of our Blackness can shine through.
TR: You and President Obama made a conscious choice to enter public life, but your daughters did not. What advice do you give them to help them stay grounded and not succumb to the pressures of the spotlight?
MO: Honestly, this is one of the things that kept me up at night once we got to “yes” on a presidential run. I still remember looking at Sasha peering out of a big SUV on her first day of school in D.C., surrounded by Secret Service and a whole lot of guns. I mean, how can you not be worried when that’s the life you put your kids into?
What we encourage them to do is to be themselves—explore their own interests, make friends they relate to and feel connected to, and never put themselves into a box. I’m grateful that our girls have found ways to express their individuality and make sense of their unusual circumstances. Despite being in the spotlight, they’ve let their passions and interests lead the way, and I couldn’t be more proud.
TR: You have remained unapologetically Black while being one of the country’s most popular First Ladies. Does that surprise you? Have you ever felt you had to compromise/hold back because of your role?
MO: There’s so much pressure and expectation that comes with the role of First Lady. And I remember thinking, I’m not Mary Todd Lincoln. I’m not Eleanor Roosevelt or Jackie Kennedy. I’m just a girl from the South Side of Chicago, who is here by sheer luck. So there were days where I felt like I would be swept away by it. I think I tried as hard as I could to let myself shine through, being fully aware I was in a role where I had the weight of history and the eyes of the world on me.
These days, I feel more free than I did during those years. And when I look back, sure, there are ways that I decided to be more cautious or restrained because of my role. I wasn’t just representing myself, I was representing the United States. In the end, I feel proud of the choices I made—and the example I tried to set.
TR: Many people look at your marriage to President Obama as “relationship goals.” What is the secret to your success?
MO: Oh, I know that some of the photos out there make our relationship look really easy—but that’s just not true. It’s not true of any relationship. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are or how much you think you know about the other person, being in a marriage is meant to be hard. You’re two distinct people with different stories who are trying to share one life together. It’s OK for that to be hard! I remember those moments of frustration with Barack, especially when our girls entered the picture, and wondering how—or if—we were actually going to be able to pull it off. But here’s our secret: Barack and I are not two halves of the same, magical whole. We are two separate people who are committed to the idea of being together. It sounds simple, but it’s really not. But when things get tough, we turn to each other to get through it. We lean on each other. We challenge each other and listen to one another. That commitment—that sense of true partnership—is what has made the difference.
TR: What cheers you up when things get too hard?
MO: People are always surprised when I say this, but my answer is—knitting. Knitting always cheers me up. It’s an activity that I picked up from the pandemic that really allowed me to see my life in a different way. For a long time, I had thought that our brains were in charge and the rest of our bodies followed suit. Knitting taught me that our fingers can lead the way and clear a path for our minds to calm down a bit. So when things get hard, I tend to pull out my knitting needles and start making a blanket or a scarf, even a sweater. It helps my stress and anxiety start to ease, and by the end of it, I remember that even in difficult moments, humans have the capacity to make, create, and build something meaningful.