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Michelle Obama's book is also a guide for people to follow when things get tough


Former First Lady Michelle Obama is feeling somewhat vulnerable because vulnerability, she says, has been a necessary part of the process to open up on relationships, not just with her husband, former President Barack Obama, but relationships of all kinds. And that vulnerability is one of the themes of her latest book, "The Light We Carry: Overcoming In Uncertain Times." She talked about it with our colleague, Juana Summers, co-host of All Things Considered, who joins me now to share more about their conversation. Hi, Juana.


FADEL: All right. So you talked to Michelle Obama about relationships and political action. How would you characterize the book?

SUMMERS: OK. So if you remember her first book, "Becoming," which came out back in 2018, that was this really intimate memoir where she peels back all these layers and gives people a real glimpse inside her life.

FADEL: Yeah.

SUMMERS: And this book is partially a memoir, but it's not strictly that. She told me that she wanted to create almost a roadmap for people to follow when times get really hard, some guideposts to check in with themselves. She also told me that when she was writing this book, she was constantly checking in with herself about, as you pointed out...

FADEL: Yeah.

SUMMERS: ...How vulnerable she was being. Was she sharing too much? How would people receive the things she was revealing and whether her stories even matter? Her big hope through her storytelling was to leave people with tangible tools that could apply to their lives and their relationships.

FADEL: Yeah.

MICHELLE OBAMA: We've been locked away from one another. And we're feeling disconnected. And we need to get back together and uncover ourselves with each other and figure out, how do we adapt in inevitably uncertain world?

SUMMERS: One of the things that I loved that was a through line that ran throughout this book is the revolving relationships between parents and children, and particularly mothers and daughters. And you wrote a lot about your relationship with your mom, who we all know played a pivotal role with living with your family during your years in the White House. I'm curious. What has that been like for you as your relationship has evolved into being both adults, to now having adult children? What does that look like for you?

OBAMA: I think it's a beautiful journey. Something I admired about my mother is that, you know, she had a clear philosophy about parenting, which is unusual for somebody of her generation. She always talked about - she said, I'm not raising children, I'm raising adults. And so I always had an interestingly open and honest conversation with my parents. They encouraged us to talk at an early age, to find our voices. She made sure we felt heard. She made sure that she took our concerns and issues seriously. We were never treated as kids should be seen and not heard.

So when you have that foundation, you know, your relationship is always, I feel, at least with my mother - and I've tried to do that with my daughters - it's been on a steady course of growth. But you still have to be ready for your kids to evolve. You know, who they are at 4 and 7 is not what - and what they need from you is very different from what they need from you as teenagers and then again as young women. But if you've laid a foundation of trust and honesty, every stage, I've found, is wonderful. Now that they're young women, you know - and now I'm less of a day-to-day manager and more of an adviser - there's a freedom to enjoy them as individuals, to watch them grow. And I think that's been the case for me and my mom as well.

SUMMERS: With your girls, though, has that been comfortable for you, the idea of stepping back from that manager role and letting them be the people who make you and your husband, as you say, weak martinis when you come and visit their apartment?

OBAMA: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: I couldn't stop laughing when I read that.

OBAMA: You know what? That - it is a hard thing to do to let your kids be. You know, in this era of helicopter parenting, you know, where I think parents are very, maybe, overly involved in their kids' lives - I was raised to be handed my competence early, you know? My mother raised her - as I write in the book, she says her job is to put herself out of a job early. So she started at a very early age, requiring us to be independent. You know, as early as kindergarten, she gave us alarm clocks because she knew that we were capable of getting ourselves up. She wanted us to feel the power of our competence.

So from 5 years old, I was setting an alarm. Soon thereafter, I was walking to school by myself. And what that does for a kid, when your parent trusts you, it encourages you. It tells you that if my mom thinks I can do this, then I must be capable. And I've tried to instill that same kind of stand by the gate and watch your kids fly - be there for them when they come back. Let them know that you will be their advocate. But don't step in and try to live their lives for them. And so when I see my kids flourishing in that way, when I see them owning all their choices, and succeeding and failing on their own terms and growing from that process, it is one of the most satisfying experiences.

It is frightening. It is frightening to watch your children walk into a brick wall. But that's what growth is. And, you know - and too many parents try to stop that process. And as a parent, that's a hard thing to come to grips with, is your child grows up and is out there in that big, bad world - is that you can prepare and love them all that you can and you still don't have control. There are no guarantees that their life is going to work out. And something bad may happen. That is the hardest thing about parenting, is living with that truth. But the alternative is to stop them from growing. So I have to remind myself of that, you know, when I get the urge to step in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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