Michelle Obama and the Roots of Reinvention

How the First Lady learned to dream big.

By Geraldine Brooks
Photograph: Photo by: Matthew Rolston

When Malia was born, Obama went part-time in the university job and learned what so many women have: "It’s like, oh, so you take half a salary and you do the same amount of work. They don’t take anything off your plate." She recalls those years as one big fiesta of guilt. "I was always guilty, 100 percent of the time," she says. "‘Am I doing my job to the fullest?’ ‘Am I being the kind of mother I want to be to the fullest?’" The sheer logistics were daunting: looking for a part-time sitter when most wanted full-time work, then finding someone good who didn’t drive, which left Obama spending lunch hour doing pickups and drop-offs. She is keenly aware that she was better off than are many women with no flexibility or negotiating power who cannot afford a sitter of any kind.

But the pressure precipitated a painful period in the Obama marriage. Barack, a state legislator by then, was away in the state capital, Springfield, three days a week. He was also teaching a class in constitutional law. "Tired and stressed, we had little time for conversation, much less romance," he writes in The Audacity of Hope. "My wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained…I found myself subjected to endless negotiations about every detail of managing the house, long lists of things that I needed to do or had forgotten to do, and a generally sour attitude." It was only much later, he writes, that he was able to see that "no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners," when the kids arrived, "it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments."

A New Job

Finally, while on maternity leave with Sasha, Obama decided to quit and take a financial hit, even though neither she nor Barack had paid off their college loans. "I’d made the decision. Then I got a call from the president of the U of C Medical Center — a new president." He wanted somebody to do community outreach for the hospital. At first, Michelle declined to meet with him. But "people said, you really have to talk to this guy, he’s great. So I’m thinking, I’ll do this as a courtesy, demand a whole bunch of stuff he’s not going to give me, he’ll say no, and we’ll be done."

To make her point, she went to the interview with 2-month-old Sasha in her arms. "I had on a breastfeeding top. I strolled in: ‘Hi! This is me! New baby!...’" She launched into her deal-breaking list of demands: high salary, decent budget, an absolute right to structure her own hours. "And I said, I can’t be in your office all afternoon in meetings. Also, I can’t be your diversity — a nice person who could ‘represent.’" The hospital would have to deliver the resources she needed.

To her astonishment, he said yes to everything, "so I built this whole new arm of the hospital." Among the changes she pioneered: the hospital now spends some of its budget buying goods and services from local suppliers, and considers racial health disparities in shaping research projects. "It all happened quickly," Obama says. "When you go from nothing to something, that’s fun." Her boss kept to his agreement about the job; she found that the flexibility made her more productive.

Now on leave from the hospital and a reported salary of more than $300,000, Michelle has a new role: potential first lady. Her staff of three women works out of the campaign’s national headquarters, in a glass office building near the Chicago Art Institute. On the day I visit, the senator, in shirt-sleeves, is there, sitting in a meeting, his back to the room, his already familiar silhouette — slender frame and improbably round head — like an inverted exclamation point.

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