Michelle Obama: It's Up To Us As Mothers To Give Girls The Support That Keeps Their Flame Lit

Image: Lawrence Jackson

In honor of Mother’s Day this year, Michelle Obama shares memories of her mom, Marian Robinson, and women who shaped the extraordinary life of the girl from Chicago’s South Side who would grow up to be America’s First Lady. In a special personal essay, excerpted here, for the new issue of PEOPLE, Obama reflects on what she learned about parenting from her own mother:

My mother is a woman who chooses her words carefully. She’ll sometimes speak in clipped sentences, her wisdom packed into short bursts and punctuated with an infectious smile or a wry laugh. It’s a style that makes her a favorite of everyone she meets — a sweet, witty companion who doesn’t need the limelight.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen how her manner in conversation also reflects her approach to parenting. Because when it came to raising her kids, my mom knew that her voice was less important than allowing me to use my own.

That meant she listened a lot more than she lectured. Growing up, she was willing to endure endless questioning from me — Why did we have to eat eggs for breakfast? Why do people need jobs? Why are the houses bigger in other neighborhoods? She didn’t chide me if I scrapped with some of the neighbor kids or challenged my ornery grandfather when I thought he was being a little too ornery. She listened intently to the lunchtime conversations I had with my schoolmates over bologna sandwiches, and nodded patiently along to tales of my contentious piano lessons with my great aunt Robbie.

In today’s world, it’s easy to hear all that and think that Marian Robinson was bordering on negligent, that she was letting the kids rule the roost. But the reality was far from that. She and my father, Fraser, were wholly invested in their children, pouring a deep and durable foundation of goodness and honesty, of right and wrong, into my brother and me. After that, they simply let us be ourselves.

… I see now how important that kind of freedom is for all children, particularly for girls with flames of their own — flames the world might try to dim. … It’s up to us, as mothers and mother-figures, to give the girls in our lives the kind of support that keeps their flame lit and lifts up their voices — not necessarily with our own words, but by letting them find the words themselves.

For Mrs. Obama’s complete personal essay on motherhood, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.