The President and First Lady Discuss Their Early Years of Juggling Career and Family in Parade

The President and First Lady's years of living relatively normal lives are one of the many things that connect them with so many Americans. They Ivy League grads don't come from money, and in a recent interview with Parade magazine, POTUS recalls the difficult years when he and his wife's student loans totaled more than their mortgage. Mrs. Obama also recounts the difficulties of being a working mom.

Here's an excerpt:
One of your initiative’s priorities is fair pay—and equal pay for women. Mrs. Obama, when you were working in law, did you think you were being paid less than your male coworkers?

MO: You know, I didn’t really think about it. Because—and I think this is one of the challenges women face—we don’t think about salary enough. When I got hired in my firm, I was grateful. There wasn’t even a thought of negotiating at all. I thought I was there to do a good job.

Now I realize that that’s one of the challenges that we have as women: We don’t negotiate for ourselves. We don’t negotiate hard. And I realized that again later on when I had Malia, my first child. After a while, I asked for part-time work [at the University of Chicago]. And I did the same job, part time. Essentially, I just got paid less. That was the first time I realized I would never again work part time, because that’s not a good deal for women.

As you, Mr. President, write in The Audacity of Hope, there were “strains” in your marriage during that period.

PO: Look, we had Malia, and then three years later we have Sasha. At that point, our student loans are still more than our mortgage. Michelle’s working full time. I have three jobs. There are stretches where I’ll be away for three days at a time. If the babysitter can’t make it, Michelle’s the one who’s got to scramble and figure it out.

Courtesy of Obama for America
"What is best in me, I owe to her," the president (above, with his mother, Ann Dunham, in an undated photo) wrote of his single mom in Dreams From My Father. (Courtesy of Obama for America)
Because she’s the mom or because she’s there?

PO: Because she’s the mom, but also because she’s there. If Malia or Sasha got sick, it was Michelle who would come home. There were times where we couldn’t always afford to provide things that would be helpful to Michelle to make time for herself. So, for example, I’d go work out. Michelle wouldn’t, because she felt, “I’m already away from the kids. If I take time for myself, then somehow maybe I’m not being a good mom.”

So there were arguments based on this.

PO: Look, parenting is the greatest joy in life, but it also creates a strain. And we were lucky. We knew families who, at the same time as they were going through this, were also dealing with an ailing parent.

Talk about that. Part of the Working Family initiative is also about making sure people have access to paid family leave, whether to care for a child or a sick parent. Why is it important to have that time?

PO: Michelle and I were lucky because, as professionals, you generally have some flexibility built into the job. But what it made me think about was people who were on the clock. If you’re an hourly worker in most companies, and you say, “I’ve got to take three days off,” you may lose your job. At minimum, you’re losing income you can’t afford to lose. Michelle had an ailing dad when we were first dating; he had multiple sclerosis. She remembers the toll that took on the family.

MO: I took my last job [before my husband entered the White House] because of my boss’s reaction to my family situation. I didn’t have a babysitter, so I took Sasha right in there with me in her crib and her rocker. I was still nursing, so I was wearing my nursing shirt. I told my boss, “This is what I have: two small kids. My husband is running for the U.S. Senate. I will not work part time. I need flexibility. I need a good salary. I need to be able to afford babysitting. And if you can do all that, and you’re willing to be flexible with me because I will get the job done, I can work hard on a flexible schedule.” I was very clear. And he said yes to everything.

You should be the agent for every woman out there.

MO: That’s how I advise young women: Negotiate hard and know your worth.
Despite the difficulties she faced, Mrs. Obama was in a privileged position. Many women, particularly in the age of the dismantling of unions,  do not possess the bargaining power to make similar demands. But those who can should take heed to Mrs. Obama's words. Know your worth.

Read the full interview here.

Photo Credit: Miller Mobley for Parade

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or