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Flashback to The Before: It was the end of 2019 and Michelle Obama had just wrapped up hush-hush filming of the yet-unannounced Netflix series Waffles + Mochi, a technicolor dream of happy puppets discovering the joys of healthy eating under the tutelage of "Mrs. O," who plays the neighborhood grocer.
"I'm basically being myself," the former first lady says. "The entire concept is fun … an adventure."
But within weeks, COVID-19 came to America and Obama, like the rest of the world, was on a whole other adventure. She shares her careening ride through the mess that was 2020 — Americans quarantining at home, schools closed, kids remote learning, racial injustice and demonstrations in the streets, the vitriol of the presidential campaign — in an extensive interview via Zoom for the new issue of PEOPLE.
"These have been challenging times. Many people have struggled: jobs lost, people going hungry," she says. "We've learned to count our blessings, the importance of health and family."
• For more on Michelle Obama's life now — what she's learned and what's next for her and her family — subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.
Miller Mobley/Netflix Michelle Obama
Courtesy Obama Robinson Family Archive From left: Malia, Barack and Michelle Obama in 2020
The Obama COVID Bubble
Former President Barack Obama, Mrs. Obama and their daughters Malia, 22, and Sasha, 19, isolated together — splitting time between the family's homes in Washington, D.C., and Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts — and shared the Wi-Fi. Malia, now a Harvard University senior, and Sasha, a University of Michigan sophomore, were sent home to attend classes online when the pandemic shut down college campuses.
"Our girls were supposed to have emptied out of my nest," Mrs. Obama explains. "I was sort of celebrating that they were out building their lives and allowing me the emotional space to let them go. Well, they're back!"
It's been better than she or her husband expected. "This time has allowed us to get some stolen moments back with our girls," Mrs. Obama says. "Those recaptured moments have meant the world to us and I think they've made our relationships with our children even stronger."
"There's something about witnessing your children become adults and developing a different relationship with them," she says. "They didn't come back into the house into the same set of rules, because I didn't want them to miss out on independence. They came back as young women and our conversations are more peer-oriented than they are mother-to-daughter."
Listening at the door as her daughters stream their online classes, Mrs. Obama has also gotten to see a side of her children she would otherwise never know.
"With everybody homeschooling, what's interesting for me is to listen in on some of their classes to hear how they interact with their professors. When your kids are off in college, you don't get to see that part of them," she says.
Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Michelle Obama on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.
While Sasha and Malia got into cooking ("they love the freedom of being in the kitchen, creating, experimenting," their mom reports), Mrs. Obama used the endless months at home to teach herself to knit. And now she's hooked.
"Knitting is a forever proposition You don't master knitting, because once you make a scarf, there's the blanket. And once you do the blanket, you've got to do the hat, the socks. … I could go on about knitting!" she says.
(Indeed, President Obama told PEOPLE in November that he already owned several bespoke hats by his wife: "She can crank those out.")
And then there's swimming.
"Over quarantine, I actually did teach myself how to be a better lap swimmer, because what I'm finding in my old age is that the high-impact stuff that I used to do, as I'm approaching 60, it just doesn't work. So I thought, well, swimming is one of those low-impact, good cardio things," Mrs. Obama says. "I worked myself up to almost a mile of swimming laps. Now, can I do that right this second? No. But this summer, I'm getting back into the pool."
Miller mobley/Netflix Michelle Obama
Chynna Clayton From left: Barack and Michelle Obama recording for her Spotify podcast
Mrs. Obama was also upfront about how the challenges of 2020 — not just the pandemic — affected her mental health. She described her feelings as "low-grade depression."
"That was during a time when a lot of hard stuff was going on," she explains. "We had the continued killing of Black men at the hands of police. Just seeing the video of George Floyd, experiencing that eight minutes. That's a lot to take on, not to mention being in the middle of a quarantine. Depression is understandable during these times. I needed to acknowledge what I was going through, because a lot of times we feel like we have to cover that part of ourselves up, that we always have to rise above and look as if we're not paddling hard underneath the water."
"This is what mental health is. You have highs and lows," she says. "What I have said to my daughters is that one of the things that is getting me through is that I'm old enough to know that things will get better."
Mrs. Obama has been vaccinated against COVID-19 ("I encourage everyone to get a vaccine as soon as they have an opportunity," she says) and sees things looking up in terms of the pandemic: "There is light at the end of the tunnel."
As for racial injustice and Donald Trump's defeat for reelection (a loss for which Mrs. Obama actively and passionately campaigned), she says, "We breathe for a moment, but there's still work to be done. That's why Barack and I are focused on developing the next generation of leaders through the Obama Foundation … so that each year we step further out of the spotlight and make room for them."
ADAM ROSE/NETFLIX Michelle Obama (center) on the set of Netflix's Waffles + Mochi
There is plenty that will be keeping Mrs. Obama in the spotlight for quite some time: a new voting-rights push; construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago's South Side; the Tuesday debut of Waffles + Mochi on Netflix; and the release earlier this month of a special young-reader edition of her memoir, Becoming.
Along with her new series, Mrs. Obama is working with the Partnership for a Healthier America on the "Pass the Love" campaign to help provide food for families regardless of location or economic status. (Go to WafflesAndMochi.org for more information, recipes and at-home activities.)
But she also envisions with relish a day when the spotlight moves on to a new generation of advocates, activists and changemakers.
"I've been telling my daughters I'm moving toward retirement right now, [selectively] picking projects and chasing summer," Mrs. Obama says. "Barack and I never want to experience winter again. We're building the foundation for somebody else to continue the work so we can retire and be with each other — and Barack can golf too much, and I can tease him about golfing too much because he's got nothing else to do."