Oprah: Before you moved in, you said you wanted the girls to keep making their own beds and doing chores. Is the staff on board with that?
Michelle Obama: It took a second. At first they were like, "Are you sure?" But if these girls don't learn how to make a bed or clean a room, what are they going to do when they go to college? It can't be foreign to them to be part of a working household. So in the first few days, I gathered my East Wing team and the residence staff—the folks who clean the chandeliers, the people in the kitchen, everyone—and thanked them for helping us transition through the move. Then I talked about our vision for this house: that it would be filled with life, that we'd have people in and out, that the kids would roam around. I want the kids to be treated like children, not little princesses. I told everyone that they should make their beds, they should clean their plates, they should act respectfully—and that if anyone on the staff sees differently, they should come to me. So the girls help set the table, they help bring the food out, they work with the butler staff, and they're in the kitchen laughing and making their toast in the morning. And everyone has adjusted to the rules. Now I joke with the staff: "Don't spoil them—spoil Mom!"
Oprah: You can handle it!
Michelle Obama: I can handle it.
Oprah: There's a solidness about the girls—a groundedness—that speaks to the great work you've done as a mother. What are you most proud of in terms of raising them?
Michelle Obama: It's that: that they're so steady. And that they're kind—to each other, and to other children. It's important to me that they have empathy. I want them to be able to think, "Well, I could see how that person feels and why that would hurt." And to make decisions not just based on their own needs but on what's going on around them.
Oprah: How are they with each other?
Michelle Obama: There's genuine love and affection. I'm big on the idea that their sister is all each of them has. Even when they argue, I want them to act with respect. I say, "Do you know how painful it is for a mother to watch her two children, who she loves equally, arguing?" I say, "You don't see it much, but the one or two times you've seen Dad and me disagree, you started falling apart." And they get it.
Oprah: Are there fewer arguments between you and the president now that you don't have to fix things around the house?
Michelle Obama: Absolutely. That was kind of a growth point in our marriage that I've talked about before—the stress of needing help, and then finally realizing that the help doesn't necessarily have to come from your husband. It can come from anywhere.
Oprah: You seemed to grow together over the course of the campaign. The connection between the two of you seemed to intensify.
Michelle Obama: When you work on something really hard together and enjoy the successes and challenges with each other, and then get through it not just whole but stronger—you realize how blessed you are, how much love you have together. So, yes, I think we've grown. But not just me and Barack. It's the girls, too. And our whole extended family.
Oprah: And how have you managed to stay in touch with family and friends?
Michelle Obama: That's the thing about being the First Lady: You try to catch your friends up on what's happening in your life, and they're like, "We know—we read it in the paper."
Oprah: "We saw it in the Tribune."
Michelle Obama: So we get to see friends—we've been back to Chicago—but I think people will wind up coming here to visit us because...
Oprah: It's hard to travel when you're First Lady.
Michelle Obama: It is. You know, you asked me when it hit me that all this was really happening. I'll tell you when it hit me. There was a moment before our first visit to the White House, when we came to meet the Bushes. I had flown in early to visit a school, and then I went back to the airport so Barack and I could ride to the White House together. As we drove up, my Secret Service agent said, "There's the president-elect's motorcade." And there were like 20 cars! There was everything in that motorcade except the caboose! Now I tease Barack: "You've got the horse and carriage, the dogsled, the airplane, the bike..."
Oprah: And the kids know he's home when they hear his helicopter landing.
Michelle Obama: Once someone on my staff e-mailed to tell me that the president was on his way. But you could already hear the helicopter, so it was like, well, no kidding.
Oprah: "Dad's home!"
Michelle Obama: The girls don't move. I'm like, "You want to see Daddy landing in the helicopter?" "No, that's okay. We already saw it."
Next: Redecorating—Obama style