In her best-selling memoir Becoming, the former first lady, 56, is candid about the difficulties she and her husband faced over the years. Though their commitment to each other has remained steadfast since they married in October 1992, their lives got more complicated as they struggled to get pregnant, and after they had their two daughters Malia and Sasha.
Mrs. Obama revealed she suffered a miscarriage and was only able to conceive the girls through in vitro fertilization (IVF). After their daughters were born, the couple had to balance her high-powered law career with her husband’s burgeoning career as a politician and the stress of being new parents.
And in her new Netflix documentary Becoming, the mother of two reflects on their early years as a couple. “He was very different, and he was different from me, and he challenged me in different ways. I knew he was a tsunami coming after me, and if I didn’t get my act together, I would be swept up,” she says. “I didn’t want to just be an appendage to his dreams. So that forced me to work and think, and make decisions like leaving law.”
Recalling a transitional period in their relationship, Mrs. Obama also some of the concessions she made on behalf of their growing family.
“My relationship with Barack was all about our partnership. If I was going to have an equal voice with this very opinionated man, I had to get myself up. I had to set myself off to a place where I was confident that I was going to be his equal,” she says.
“The thing that really changed it was the birth of our children. That really made it harder. Something had to give and it was my aspirations and dreams. I made that concession, not because he said, ‘You have to quit your job.’ It felt like, ‘I can’t do all of this. So I have to tone down my aspirations. I have to dial it back,’ ” she adds.
In the Netflix documentary, Mrs. Obama is also open about her and her husband’s marriage counseling, a topic she also addressed in her memoir and book tour.
Speaking to moderator Gayle King, Mrs. Obama admits she initially thought counseling would “fix” the former president.
“Counseling helped me to look at, ‘How do I take control of my own happiness within our marriage?’ But it’s hard, it’s hard. It is hard blending two lives together,” she explains, later adding, “And in my view, I took Barack to marital counseling so that they would fix him. And then he started looking over at me. I was like, ‘Why are you talking to me?’ I am perfect. He is the problem.”
With the help of marriage counseling, Mrs. Obama reminded herself not to forget to also prioritize her happiness. “One of the things I learned that helped me, and I think helped our marriage was that my happiness is not dependent on him making me happy. And sometimes I felt that that was one of the rubs,” she says.
“My resentment for him was that Barack was prioritizing himself, in a way. We had babies; he was at the gym. I was like, ‘How do you find time to work out?’ I was like, ‘So let me stop being mad at him for going to the gym and let me get to the gym,’ you know?” she tells King and the audience.
Mrs. Obama told PEOPLE in November 2018 that she wanted to open up about the topic to remind readers that nobody’s relationship is perfect. “Because we’re role models, it’s important for us to be honest and say, if you’re in a marriage and there are times you want to leave, that’s normal — because I felt that way,” she said.
During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in December 2018, she also told late-night host Jimmy Fallon that all marriages require work. “There are a lot of young people who look at me and Barack … and they think, ‘Oh, I want those #relationshipgoals.’ But I want young people to know that marriage is work. Even the best marriages require work,” she said.
“I don’t want young people to quit the minute they have a hardship. Because I always say, ‘Look, if you’re married for 50 years, and 10 of them are horrible, you’re doing really good.’ Anybody would take those odds,” she shared.
The Netflix documentary also highlights several particularly sweet moments between the couple.
Raving about his wife’s sold-out book tour, the former president jokes at one point, “It’s fun listening to her tell these stories. Some of which, you know, part of me is like, ‘No. Hold on a second. That’s not exactly how it happened.’ “
And as the pair depart from Washington D.C.’s Capital One Arena hand-in-hand, Mrs. Obama asks, “Did it feel like a show that you would want to see?” to which her husband sweetly replies: “Yeah. You’re just a good storyteller.”