Making new friends as a grown-up is hard—not to mention doing it while raising kids in the White House. In her new book, "The Light We Carry," former First Lady Michelle Obama describes how she learned to let her guard down, a little at a time.
In her new book, "The Light We Carry," Michelle Obama shares stories and strategies for dealing with uncertainty and change. In this excerpt, the former First Lady discusses a common problem—learning how to make friends as an adult—while adjusting to an unusual circumstance: living at the White House. Here's what she learned about opening up and letting her guard down.
From The Light We Carry:
I am fully convinced that you will get further in life when you’ve got at least a couple of solid friends around you, when you’re reliably and demonstratively invested in them and they in you. Moving into the White House, I carried a slight but nagging worry that my friendships might never be the same, that all the relationships important to our family were vulnerable to change thanks to the strange pomp and grandeur that now surrounded us.
One of my first encounters with my friend Denielle happened to be in the driveway of the White House, when she came to pick up her daughter Olivia from a playdate with Sasha. Our two daughters were in the slightly awkward early stages of a new friendship, getting to know each other at school and playing on the same rec-league basketball team. I had also spotted Denielle at a couple of school events I’d attended, taking note of the way she hung back in a crowd, and appreciating how little interest she seemed to have in meeting me. I was still trying to get used to the idea that as First Lady, I’d become an object of keen interest to others. My presence tended to change the dynamics in a room, not because of who I was but because of what I was. For this reason, I tended to find myself a little less interested in the people who made a beeline for me and more interested in those who hung back.
At this point, my social concerns were still mostly about our daughters anyway. I was thrilled that Sasha had wanted to invite Olivia and a couple of other girls over to spend a Saturday running around the residence and then watching a movie. I had passed much of the morning pretending to do other things while silently hovering on the periphery of their playdate, quietly overcome with emotion anytime a new peal of laughter erupted from Sasha’s room. After months of sweating the details of our transition to the White House, I felt a gush of relief. It was a sign of normalcy, a kind of watershed moment for our family: Friends were in the house.
Denielle, meanwhile, had been sweating her own details. She’d been given detailed drop-off and pickup instructions for the playdate via email from one of my aides. And she had been asked, as all visitors were, to submit her Social Security number and license plate information days in advance so the Secret Service could clear her entry onto the grounds. Just getting a child to our doorstep was a process. Denielle was trying to play it cool, like it was no big thing that her third grader had been invited to run around the president’s home on a Saturday. Years later, she told me that knowing she’d be driving the family car up the stately access road that rings the massive South Lawn of the White House, she had gone out and gotten it washed. She’d also gotten her hair done. And her nails. Never mind that the instructions had made clear she wouldn’t be setting foot outside the car.
I was still trying to adjust, still wrestling with how to build as much realness into our lives as possible, when at the end of the playdate, I decided to walk little Olivia downstairs so I could say hello to her mom. This was a breach of protocol, as a White House usher would normally escort visitors to and from the residence. But I had my own version of normal, which involved ending playdates by greeting a child’s parent and giving them a report on how things had gone.
Walking out into the sunlight with Olivia that day, I saw Denielle sitting inside her freshly washed, highly buffed car, trying to take in what was happening as a heavily armed Secret Service Counter Assault Team materialized from nowhere.
“Hey there!” I called, motioning for her to get out of the car. Denielle paused, eyeballing the guards clad in helmets and black battle dress—recalling the officers at the gate who had specifically and firmly instructed her to “remain in the vehicle at all times, ma’am”—and then very, very slowly opened the car door and got out.
As I remember it, the two of us chatted for just a few minutes that first day. But it took only that long for me to have a sense of what Denielle might be like as a friend. I started sitting next to her when I went to the girls’ basketball games, and soon after that, I asked her to come hang out with me the next time Olivia came over to play.
If I didn’t drop my fears and open myself to new friends and new people, it would impact my ability to engage in my children’s lives in a normal way.
I was aware that anything I said to a new person could be fed outward to others, any impression I made or casual comment I dropped, positive or negative, accurate or not, could become a story to tell. It was yet another thing I understood but didn’t love about this new existence. My private life had a certain currency. Was I a bad mother? A bratty, fit-pitching First Lady? Did I really love my husband? Did he really love me? There were people out there always eager for proof that we were somehow a sham. I knew we couldn’t afford a single stumble, an ounce of misinterpretation. It wasn’t exactly easy to lower my guard, not only with Denielle but with anyone new who came into my life during this time. But I also understood what would happen if I didn’t. I knew I’d end up feeling isolated, a little paranoid, and stuck in place with a limited view of the world outside my walls. If I didn’t drop my fears and open myself to new friends and new people, it would impact my ability to engage in my children’s lives in a normal way. Staying open to people felt to me like a vital part of my new job.
I don’t know at what point Denielle grew comfortable enough to quit getting her car washed and her hair done ahead of her visits. But it started to matter less what sort of impression was being made. Slowly, we shifted into realness, happy to sit on the couch with our shoes kicked off. Each time we got together, we dropped our guards a little bit more, finding the same unselfconscious rhythms our daughters had during the hours they spent playing with Polly Pockets or climbing trees on the South Lawn. Denielle and I laughed more easily, spoke more earnestly about our feelings. The risks diminished. I was safe with her, and she was safe with me. We were friends now, and would stay that way.
Excerpted from "The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times" by Michelle Obama. Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Obama. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
The Sit Down With Michelle Obama
Real Simple sat down with Michelle Obama to chat about everything from hidden talents to childhood crushes. Here's what she had to say.
Childhood celebrity crush:
Marlon Jackson of the Jackson 5. Not Michael. It was Marlon.
What's your hidden talent?
I can play the Charlie Brown theme song on the piano.
Alternative career choice:
Oh yes, I would sing. If I had a voice, I would sing for everyone all the time. I would be a singer. I would entertain. But because I have absolutely no talent or aptitude, that's...you know. So I wonder, when people who can't sing and they just won't sing at will—it's like, if I could sing, you'd ask me to sing, I'd sing for you right now. I would be singing all over the place.
What’s your worst fear?
My worst fear is scary movies. I still don’t like scary movies and cannot watch them.
A fear you’ve conquered:
I am over my fear of stuffed turtles.
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