Probably you know that Barack and Michelle Obama have two children: Sasha and Malia. And probably you also know that the two of them aren’t celebrities in the way their parents are. The former First Daughters don’t make headlines; they’re not even seen in public all that much. But why? It’s all because of their mother.
Being part of the First Family isn’t easy, and it’s even harder if you’re as young as the Obama kids were when their father became president. When Barack Obama was elected, Malia was ten years old and Sasha just seven. They would be growing up in the White House with the eyes of the entire world on them.
The history of First Children is a difficult one. Over the past century there’s been lots of indications that life as the President’s kid has some potential bad ramifications. Many of John Adams’ family, for example, became alcoholics. The unlucky son of Calvin Coolidge got septicemia and died after going barefoot on the grounds of the White House.
There’s a quote attributed to Franklin Roosevelt that goes, “One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a president. It’s a terrible life they lead.” History certainly seems to back this up. However, in the modern day the Obamas put a lot of effort into ensuring Malia and Sasha wouldn’t be part of the depressing statistics.
The parents did their utmost to ensure Malia and Sasha maintained some semblance of normality. First of all, they brought the girls’ grandmother, Michelle’s mother Marian Robinson, into the White House to live with them. Michelle told news magazine Newsweek in 2008, “The girls are going to need her as part of their sense of stability.”
That wasn’t all. Barack and Michelle allowed the girls to design their own rooms at the White House, and Barack continued to give the girls $1 of pocket money every week. But no matter how normal they tried to make things, there was no getting around the fact that the girls needed security following them wherever they went.
Michelle and Barack were faced with three different parenting problems all at once. They had to give the girls a normal childhood, and raise them to understand their privileges as First Children, and most importantly of all keep them safe. Luckily, they had the ability to rise to the challenge.
And the two Obama girls don’t resent their mother at all for the steps she took throughout their childhood. In 2020 both young women appeared on the documentary Becoming, promoting Michelle’s book of the same name. It was rare for them to speak on camera at all, so this was a big deal.
Sasha, then 18 years old and a freshman at the University of Michigan, said of her famous mom, “I’m excited for her to be proud of what she’s done because I think that’s the most important thing for a human to do is be proud of themselves.” Her older sister Malia had some similar thoughts.
Malia appeared backstage at Michelle’s book tour, and told her mom, “What this has demonstrated in a way just, damn, those eight years weren’t for nothing, you know? You see that huge crowd out there and that last kind of speech you gave… people are here because people really believe in love and in hope and hope in other people.”
Michelle and her daughters have clearly remained close over the years, which is lovely to see considering how many other First Families went the other way. Michelle’s documented some of the post-White House life on her official podcast, which is simply named The Michelle Obama Podcast.
One September 2020 episode saw Michelle invite her mother Marian and her brother Craig on to the show to discuss parenting. During that conversation, she remembered, “One of the things that I had to learn how to negotiate was creating these boundaries with my kids in the White House. I mean, you talk about being raised in a totally different world than I ever knew?”
Michelle herself had a completely normal upbringing in the South Side of Chicago. She came from a working-class family and both her parents instilled in her the importance of hard work and a good education. In fact, Michelle and her brother were both readers by the the time they were four. The family weren’t rich, but Michelle’s always spoken of her childhood with fondness.
Michelle promotes hard work among her own kids too. In 2020 she let her podcast audience know what was going on with her family during lockdown and turned out they were all busy. She said, “Schedule has been key and having a regular dinner time. And I’m finding that in quarantine, we look forward to that because, we in our house, what we all do is go off into our little workspaces.”
The Obamas had also found a way to bond during the difficult circumstances. Michelle said that at the end of a typical day in lockdown, “We sit down for dinner and talk some more. Afterward, the girls and Barack and another friend there, they’ve got a spades tournament. Barack has taught the girls spades, so now there’s this vicious competition.”
Of course, the situation wasn’t perfect. In 2020 Michelle appeared via video link on Conan O’Brien’s show and discussed how although the family had been “excited to be together,” the two girls were “itching” to return to college and their normal lives. They were 22 and 19 at this point: the exact ages when young adults are keen to strike out on their own.
The former First Lady told the talk show host that while the “early stages” had been good, “I think first our kids got a little sick of us, which was fine because we were pretty much sick of them.” There’s many parents all over America, all over the world in fact, who can relate wholeheartedly to that.
However, Michelle added that once the summer rolled around, “Then we could be outside a little bit more, and we came to the vineyard, where we still are, and so there’s more room to roam around, and that was good because it helped us break it up.” She concluded, while smiling, “We’ve managed.”
That’s not the only insight we’ve gotten recently into the world of the Obama kids. On November 11, 2020, Jenna Bush Hager posted some fascinating pictures of herself, Malia, and Sasha on Instagram. The daughter of George W. Bush remembered how 12 years ago she and her family had showed the Obama kids around the White House.
Hager remembered on Instagram, “Barbara and I taught the girls how to slide down the banister and all the secrets of the White House we loved as little girls – the best hiding spots, the movie theatre, and bowling alley.” The pictures she posted showed two cute, excited little kids barely aware of how much their lives would soon change.
But their lives very much did change. And it was none other than Hager whom Michelle chose to speak to about the regulations she had set down for her daughters. In 2018 the two women sat down for an interview on the Today show, and Michelle got in-depth about her family’s life in the White House.
Michelle told the former First Daughter, “I tried to make sure that [Malia and Sasha] weren’t out there to be crushed. But oh gosh, it’s the mama bear within us. We tried to set up boundaries within their exposure, which is why you would rarely see the girls outside public events. There were a set of things where we told the press the girls are going to be here; this is the time. But don’t go to their school.”
The whole situation was still very difficult, though. Michelle continued on in the interview, “But you want your kids to grow up normal and you want them to have these wonderful experiences privately, and you want them to be able to fail and stumble privately, like any other kids. And when they aren’t allowed to do that it’s unfair, and you feel guilty as they didn’t choose this life.”
And there were indeed situations where the two girls were slammed for very, very minor missteps. Back in December 2014 a Republican communications director called Elizabeth Lauten wrote a Facebook post in form of a letter to Sasha and Malia, saying, “I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play.”
Lauten also objected to the clothes worn by the teens, and said in her post that Malia and Sasha should “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.” The post caused a massive row, and Lauten ended up resigning from her post. But tellingly, the two girls themselves didn’t publicly comment on the story, even though it was about them.
And it seemed Michelle’s “mama bear” instinct will never go away. She told Hager that even though both girls were in college, she was determined to still spend as much time with them as possible. She said that her words to her daughters were, “No matter where you go, I’ll drop in whenever I need to see you. I’ll find you!”
Michelle’s 2018 book Becoming also lends some insight into how Michelle mothered her kids at the White House. She recollected how well the girls behaved on inauguration day, writing, “I marveled at how our daughters had managed themselves perfectly throughout the inauguration, never fidgeting, slouching, or forgetting to smile.”
But Michelle also remembered that once the cameras had left the family’s limo alone, she and Barack found their daughters had, “shucked off their hats and messed up each other’s hair and were thrashing around, engaged in a sisterly tickle fight. Tired out, finally, they sprawled across the seats and rode the rest of the way with their feet kicked up, blasting Beyoncé on the car stereo as if it were just any old day.”
Michelle also spoke about Malia’s first prom, an occasion that obviously required endless planning to ensure everyone’s safety and comfort. Michelle wrote, “Since moving to Washington at the age of ten, she’d never once ridden a bus or the Metro or been driven by someone who didn’t work for the Secret Service. For prom night, though, we were making an exception.”
It must have been a pretty weird night for Malia’s date. Michelle said, “Barack and I shook the young man’s hand, snapped a few pictures, and gave our daughter a hug before sending them on their way. We took what was perhaps unfair comfort in the knowledge that Malia’s security detail would basically ride the boy’s bumper all the way to the restaurant where they were going for dinner before the dance and would remain on quiet duty throughout the night.”
Above all, Michelle wrote in the memoir, “the girls’ sense of comfort and home was key.” And as the children grew older, “There was often music blasting from Malia’s room. Sasha and her friends had taken a shine to cable cooking shows and sometimes commandeered the residence kitchen to decorate cookies or whip up elaborate, multicourse meals for themselves.”
Yet despite the normalcy of scenes such as those, Michelle knew her daughters had to follow strict, constant rules to ensure their safety. She wrote about the girls attending school as First Daughters, going there in “their new form of school bus – a black SUV with smoked windows made of bulletproof glass.”
And there really were threats to the family, as Michelle would have been very much aware. Just the day after Barack Obama was elected, there was a big uptick in white supremacist activity. Throughout his first year in office, there were countless threats for the Secret Service to handle. It took a while for them to dwindle down.
And the Obama family are actually still entitled to protection, even though Barack Obama is no longer in office. Though officially the Secret Service doesn’t have to guard the children of past presidents once they turn 16, people have reportedly seen security agents with the girls once they started out at college.
Michelle spoke more about how her daughters live now during her 2020 podcast. For the episode with her mother and brother, the former First Lady remembered how she put her children “in a historic mansion with butlers and maids, and florists, and gardeners, and Secret Service, and then trying to make sure that they understood boundaries, understood responsibility.”
One thing Michelle determined from the outset was that her daughters must never be resentful of their position in life. Even when she herself was displeased that her husband’s time was taken up with his important job, she made sure not to make “a big deal out of it” or even accidentally signal to the kids that things weren’t normal.
Yet, Michelle said, “Even as Barack being the president of the United States, he worked his schedule around [the girls’] schedule. They weren’t waiting until 9 o’clock at night to eat because dad was running late. They never couldn’t not go somewhere or do something because of dad. I never wanted them to resent the presidency, or resent what their dad did.”
Michelle and Barack’s parenting all seems to have paid off. Malia and Sasha have never been involved in a major scandal or made headlines for the wrong reasons. On her podcast parenting episode Michelle said proudly, “Both Malia and Sasha have turned out to be wonderful young ladies, and very well adjusted, given what they had to deal with right at a very important developmental point in their lives.”
Marian, Michelle’s mother, agreed wholeheartedly. She’d after all had a front-row seat for everything, and she said on the podcast, “I think the girls did really well with what they had to deal with. They pretty much just went about their schoolwork as just a normal child, even though the Secret Service was standing outside their door.”
And Barack Obama has been heartwarmingly vocal about his pride in Malia and Sasha. He released his own memoir in November 2020: A Promised Land. In the book he wrote of his daughters, “Seeing them grow up into the intelligent, strong, and compassionate young women they’ve become has been the greatest joy of my life.” And that’s coming from someone who was president.