The daughter of Marian and Fraser Robinson grew up in an apartment rented from her mother's aunt, the top floor of a brick bungalow in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Marian was a stay-at-home mom until Michelle, the younger of two children, was in high school. Fraser, who died in 1991, a year and a half before Michelle married Barack, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 30 but managed to get to his job at a city water filtration plant every day. "He got up, he went to work, he was never late, he never complained, and he was always, always focused on his family," Michelle says. "If he was disappointed in you, it was the worst thing that could happen in your life," says her older brother, Craig.
The Robinson kids were good students; both skipped the second grade. ("If you aren't challenged, you don't make any progress," Marian says.) They were also athletic, as their father had been before MS; indeed, Fraser's disability seems to have encouraged extra motion in his children. Michelle competed with her brother in running and boxing, softball and swimming, checkers and cards. But she shied away from organized sports, and bristled at the assumption that she would follow Craig onto the basketball court. "Tall women"—she's 5'11"— "can do other things," she says. "I wasn't going to be typecast that way." Instead, she stayed busy with student government, singing in the choir, and organizing talent shows and school plays. She did, however, follow Craig to Princeton.
In her day, Marian had dropped out of college, not interested in being a teacher as her family thought she should. (She wanted to be a secretary and eventually became one, retiring this summer.) Fraser didn't finish college, either; he went to work so his family could send his younger brother to school. And so while the Robinson children were raised with the standard belief that they could do whatever they put their minds to, the exhortation came with a twist: You should do what you want to, not what the world might expect. Which is what they did. Craig left Wall Street after 13 years to coach basketball and is now head coach of the men's team at Brown University. Michelle gave up a job at a prestigious law firm to work in public service.
"My husband and I taught them not to take whatever people say as gospel, even us," says Marian. "Boy, did they run that into the ground."
The belief in marching to your own beat may explain why, in the past, Michelle has been, as her husband tells me, "a reluctant participant" in politics. "I generally have shielded her from most of my campaigns," Barack says. Her disinclination was born of a deep dislike of politics per se, and deeper worries about how campaigns and elected office might affect the couple's two young daughters.