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Perspective: Love her or hate her, Michelle Obama is speaking truth on marriage

Obama said her marriage was miserable when her kids were young, but she stuck it out

SHARE Perspective: Love her or hate her, Michelle Obama is speaking truth on marriage
Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama in the East Room of the White House, Sept. 7, 2022.

Former President Barack Obama holds hands with former first lady Michelle Obama as they leave the stage after she spoke during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Washington. The Obamas unveiled their official White House portraits during the ceremony.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Theirs has been one of the most enviable marriages in American politics. While many of their critics have myriad complaints and gripes with Barack Obama’s tenure as president, his role as a husband and father was largely applauded by even his staunchest political adversaries. And Michelle Obama remains one of the most popular figures in America, long after her husband left office. Which is what makes Obama’s recent negative statements about an unhappy time in their marriage that much more surprising. 

Right before the New Year, the New York Post reported on comments the former first lady made during a roundtable conversation on RevoltTV about a rough patch in her marriage to the former president while their two daughters were small. The former first lady explained, “We don’t talk about how much work is required and how hard it is even when you are madly in love with the person, even when everything works out right.” She went on, “People think I’m being catty by saying this: It’s like, there were 10 years where I couldn’t stand my husband. And guess when it happened? When those kids were little.”

Was it, in fact, “catty” to say these things publicly about her husband and marriage?

Hardly. Obama is speaking truths that few, especially on the left, dare utter. 

This is not an age where resilience in marriage is promoted; where dedication and commitment are applauded. Young people are too often awash in messaging about “self-care” and speaking their truth; in short, doing what’s best for them and only them in that moment.

Had Obama taken that advice, she’d probably be divorced instead of happily celebrating her 30th anniversary. She explained of the 10-year rough patch in her marriage, “People give up … ‘five years; I can’t take it.’” How did she do it? She explained it’s important to respect and know “your person.” Telling women to continue to work to respect their spouse, even during a period of conflict and stress, is positively countercultural. 

That wasn’t the end of Obama’s truth bombs. She further explained about marriage, which could also apply to parenting, “And guess what? Marriage isn’t 50/50, ever, ever. There are times I’m 70, he’s 30. There are times he’s 60, 40, but guess what: 10 years — we’ve been married 30. I would take 10 bad years over 30 — it’s just how you look at it.” 

If you look at the biology of parenthood, this is of course the case. The responsibilities of men and women are decidedly different and imbalanced, especially when it comes to bringing life into the world. Men have a quick and enjoyable contribution to the creation of new life before women are left with the hard work of gestation and childbirth. Traditionally, women are tasked with breastfeeding a newborn all day and all night while recovering from childbirth, a physically demanding process for which there isn’t an equivalent for men. It’s simply not fair. Nor was it ever meant to be. Life isn’t fair. In the modern era we’ve tried to deny that and circumvent reality, but as Obama rightly points out, it is an unavoidable fact. 

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President Barack Obama kisses first lady Michelle Obama as they wait for President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump at the White House, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

In 2020, Gallup reported on the distribution of household chores in American households. The polling company explained, “Although women comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce, they still fulfill a larger share of household responsibilities. Married or partnered heterosexual couples in the U.S. continue to divide household chores along largely traditional lines, with the woman in the relationship shouldering primary responsibility for doing the laundry (58%), cleaning the house (51%) and preparing meals (51%). At the same time, men continue to take the lead in keeping the car in good condition (69%) and doing yardwork (59%).” 

There are any number of articles in major publications like NPRTime Magazine and The Atlantic eager to offer advice on how to make the situation “more equal and fair.” But Obama speaks the truth: it will never be “fair.” Men and women have different strengths and weaknesses, and those are reflected in the way household tasks are assigned and carried out. 

In the workplace, the distribution of danger isn’t “fair,” either. Of the top 20 most dangerous jobs in American society, the vast majority are proximately carried out by men. 

Traditional gender roles are traditional for a reason, it turns out.

Only some of Obama’s comments made headlines, but they focused on the disclosure that a dream couple had indeed not always been dreamy behind closed doors. But her statements on marriage and how she made hers work despite hardships were the real bombshells. These are truths that an entire generation has gone without hearing but desperately needs to know.