In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama recalls how unhappy Michelle was when he decided to run for Congress in 2000—a race he would go on to lose. "My wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained," he writes. "'You only think about yourself,' she would tell me. 'I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone.'"
It seems logical to assume that if things were that bad in their marriage before, a presidential run would make them exponentially worse. But Michelle says that's not so. "There was an important period of growth in our marriage," she tells me, as matter-of-factly as if she were discussing her morning commute. "He was in the state senate, we had small kids, and it was hard. I was struggling with figuring out how I was going to make it work for me." It was during this period that Michelle started going to the gym before dawn. "This was the epiphany," she says. "I am sitting there with a new baby, angry, tired, and out of shape. The baby is up for that 4 o'clock feeding. And my husband is lying there, sleeping." That's when it struck her that if she weren't there, he would eventually have to wake up. It worked. "I would get home from the gym, and the girls would be up and fed. That was something I had to do for me."
But even as she was getting out of her own way, making room for her husband to step up, she was realizing that it wasn't his job to make everything perfect. "The big thing I figured out," she says, "was that I was pushing to make Barack be something I wanted him to be for me. I believed that if only he were around more often, everything would be better. So I was depending on him to make me happy. Except it didn't have anything to do with him. I needed support. I didn't necessarily need it from Barack."
She gets the support from her own version of those grandmothers of Siaya, the girlfriends, the neighbors, the other moms at school. Above all, she gets it from her own mother, who still lives in the house where Michelle grew up, just 15 minutes from the Obamas' Hyde Park home. (When someone told Marian that, if the family ends up in the White House, she should move there with them, her response was a firm no-thank-you: "That, I can do without. When you move in, you just hear a little bit too much." But presumably the White House is big enough? "It's never big enough for that.")