Michelle Obama did a candid Q&A with Gayle King at Essence Festival in New Orleans this weekend. She spoke openly about what it was like for her daughters Malia and Sasha to go through typical childhood experiences—sleepovers, first kisses—while stuck with Secret Service agents watching them. She also touched on being an empty-nester now and why women need to prioritise taking care of themselves more. “I think for us as women, many of us, we have a hard time putting ourselves on our own priority list, let alone at the top of it,” she said. “And that’s what happens when it comes to our health as women. We are so busy giving and doing for others that we almost feel guilty to take that time out for ourselves.”
Here, highlights from her talk.
On her and Barack Obama’s relationship since becoming empty nesters (both Sasha and Malia are at college now):
[We’re] rediscovering each other. This is the beauty of finding a partner you really love and respect—because after all the highs and lows, the ups and downs we’ve been through, we have each other, which makes the journey worth it.
On keeping their daughters grounded:
Our focus was to make sure they did what they needed to do, and that meant pretend like all the craziness around them wasn’t happening. For eight years we were like, “Yup, your dad’s president. That doesn’t have anything to do with you. Take your butt to school. Yes, you have security, just ignore them, they’re not here for you….Your goal is to go to school, come back, get some decent grades. Don’t act up. Don’t embarrass us.”
On what it was like for Malia and Sasha to have their first kisses and sleepovers as the President’s daughters:
My kids had armed guards with them at all times. Imagine trying to have your first kiss [around] a bunch of men [with guns] and ear pieces. Imagine having Malia and Sasha come to your house for a sleepover. This is the call: “Okay, we’re gonna need your social security number, we’re gonna need your date of birth. There will be men coming to sweep your house. If you have guns and drugs, just tell them. Because they’re going to find them anyway. Don’t lie. They’re not gonna take ’em, they just need to know where they are. And by the way, there will be a man with a gun sitting on the front porch all night. Let him come in and use the bathroom, it would just be nice.” I mean, I’m surprised my kids have any friends, you know?
On the importance of women prioritizing their health:
We have to own our health. It’s one of these things that no one can take from you. No matter what your race, your socioeconomic background, your educational level, we all have the ability to own our health. But so many of us don’t know how, we don’t have the resources, we don’t have grocery stores in our communities, we don’t have access.
…A lot of mothers will understand this, because I found myself looking around after I had my kids, and I didn’t have time for me, but my husband was at the gym like every day. And I was like, well, how are you going to the gym? He was like, “I make time for the gym.” I was like, what? You know? And this was right when we started going to counselling, y’all, so this was one of our issues, you know? But I found myself getting mad at him because he was doing what he needed to do for him. And I think for us as women, many of us, we have a hard time putting ourselves on our own priority list, let alone at the top of it.
And that’s what happens when it comes to our health as women. We are so busy giving and doing for others that we almost feel guilty to take that time out for ourselves.
…We have to have a different set of conversations to un-train us. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. …If we don’t have our act together as women, as mothers, as grandmothers, we aren’t going to be able to get our kids on track.
We have to start having some conversations, number one, about why is it so hard for us as women to put ourselves first. I mean, we’re living in a world where we as women, we are so devalued, we have trained ourselves to think we don’t deserve it, that we don’t even deserve to take care of ourselves.
And we have to search our minds and our histories and our backgrounds to find out where that hurt comes from…
We have to figure out what has gone on in us and our own communities, what is the conversation we are having with ourselves, with our own daughters.
And the fathers and the men out there, you all play an important role, because let me tell you, my father and my brother had the greatest impact on my self-esteem, because I grew up in a household with men who loved me and respected me very early on, who told me how beautiful I was, who treated me as an equal.
So, even at an early age, because I had a father and a brother and the men in my life who didn’t hurt me, who took care of me, the bar for what I expected for myself was set by the men in my life.
And too many of us as women, we’re walking around hurt and covered in scars, and that affects how we take care of ourselves and then what message we send to our kids.
This article first appeared on ELLE.