If behind every great man there’s an even greater woman, what sort of superlative should be reserved for Michelle Obama?
Well, the former first lady might implore you to turn it down a notch, for starters.
In her cross-country Becoming, book tour, Obama has made it clear that she and her husband of 26 years, former President Barack Obama, are at the end of the day only a couple of humans doing the best they can—which has probably come as a shock to the millions who’ve put them on a pedestal, not just individually but as a unit, the end-all and be-all of what marriage should look like.
Or at least as the best darn couple to ever live in the White House.
They may still deserve that title, but Michelle—who in Becoming has shared more personal details than ever before since she’s been in public life—has effectively and purposely punctured the myth behind the Man and the Woman who made history as the United States’ first African-American president and first lady, and had no choice but to figure out how to shoulder an unprecedented amount of expectation in the glare of the world’s most demanding spotlight.
“I know too many young couples who struggle and think somehow, there’s something wrong with them,” Obama told Good Morning America‘s Robin Roberts. “I want them to know that Michelle and Barack Obama—who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other—we work on our marriage and we get help with our marriage when we need it.”
Her written recollections span the duration of her life, from girlhood and law school to what it was like in 2017 to leave the keys to the castle in the hands of Donald and Melania Trump(who, Michelle says, has not called her for advice, though the line remains open). But it’s the intimate look at her family life that has proved particularly relatable for so many
Among the most personal revelations: After Michelle suffered a miscarriage, which she describes in the book as a “lonely, painful, and demoralizing experience” for her, the Obamas proceeded with IVF to help conceive both of their daughters, Malia Obama, now 20, and Sasha Obama, 17. And the Obamas have been to counseling—because Michelle was hoping the therapist could “fix” her husband.
“What I learned about myself,” Obama concluded, “was that it’s not my partner’s job to make me happy. We have to make each other happy. There’s a part of me that was waiting for him to do for me, and I didn’t need him to do it, I needed it done. I was having arguments not about it getting done but about him doing it.”
Harvard Law School student Barack Obama—or Barry, as some friends called him—started work as a summer associate at the Chicago firm Sidley & Austin. He was 27. Upon arrival, he was told to check in with 25-year-old Michelle Robinson, Harvard Law class of ’88.
And by multiple accounts, including his own, he was instantly smitten.
“I had never taken the train downtown before. It was raining that day,” Barack Obama recalled their first meeting in a video message shown during the Oprah chat. “I wasn’t fully equipped with an umbrella. The bottom line is, when I walk into Michelle’s office, not only am I late, I’m also kind of damp. So it’s not clear whether I made the best impression.”
Michelle had been tasked with mentoring the new hire—”the luckiest break of my life,” then Sen. Barack Obama recalled in a 2007 piece for O Magazine. She, however, had assumed—judging by his unusual name and from all the hype she’d heard—that he would be “strange and overly intellectual.”
“I remember being struck by how tall and beautiful she was,” he said in O. “She, I have since learned, was pleasantly surprised to see that my nose and ears weren’t quite as enormous as they looked in the photo I’d submitted for the firm directory.”
“He sounded too good to be true,” Michelle says in David Mendell’s 2009 biography Obama: From Promise to Power. “I had dated a lot of brothers who had this kind of reputation coming in, so I figured he was one of those smooth brothers who could talk straight and impress people. So we had lunch, and he had this bad sport jacket and a cigarette dangling from his mouth and I thought, ‘Oh, here you go. Here’s this good-looking, smooth-talking guy. I’ve been down this road before.’
“Later I was just shocked to find out that he really could communicate with people and he had some depth to him. He turned out to be an elite individual with strong moral values.”
But that was the first lady talking by then.
Michelle Robinson had told her mother, Marian Robinson, that she was going to focus on her career and put dating on the back burner. Moreover, she was concerned that the only two black associates at the firm dating each other would look “pretty tacky,” she told Mendell. (There were other black lawyers at the firm, including a partner, Sidley Austin partner Newton Minow told the Washington Post Magazine‘s Liz Mundy for her 2008 book Michelle: A Biography, but he could see how Michelle might have thought otherwise.)
She even tried to set Barack up with a friend, but he wasn’t interested.
“She was kind enough to take me to a few parties, and never once commented on my mismatched and decidedly unstylish wardrobe,” he wrote. “I asked her out. She refused. I kept asking. She kept refusing,” saying it was inappropriate.
Finally, she recalled, she agreed to go for ice cream. There’s a plaque now commemorating that momentous outing at the Baskin-Robbins at Dorchester and East 53rd Street. It reads, quoting Barack in O: On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”
But really, there could be plaques all over the city.
In 1991, Obama proposed over a fancy dinner at Gordon in Chicago. The box with the ring arrived with dessert. “‘That kind of shuts you up, doesn’t it?'” Michelle has remembered him saying.
They got married on Oct. 3, 1992, at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Malia was born in 1998 and Sasha in 2001.
Becoming parents was one of the life changes that prompted a trip to counseling.
“Marriage counseling for us was one of those ways where we learned how to talk out our differences,” Michelle Obama told Robin Roberts last week. “I know too many young couples who struggle and think that somehow there’s something wrong with them. And I want them to know that Michelle and Barack Obama, who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other, we work on our marriage. And we get help with our marriage when we need it.”