In an episode of their shared podcast, Renegades: Born in the USA, Barack Obama spoke with Bruce Springsteen about his early days of parenthood and what having children has taught him. According to the former president — who met his wife, Michelle Obama, when they were in law school — having children was always a part of their long-term plan.
"We had this nice stretch of about three years where she was doing her thing in her career and I was doing mine," he told Bruce. "Then we started trying to have kids. Took a while. Michelle had a couple miscarriages and we had to kind of work at it. When Malia was finally born, we were more than ready to be parents, right? 'Cause there had been this six-year stretch in which probably for about half of it, we had been trying, so there was no surprise to it."
He reflected on the time he first laid eyes on his oldest daughter, Malia, when she was born in 1998. "I had no doubt the minute I saw that little creature with those big eyes looking up at me, I said, 'My goodness. I will do anything for you.'"
Of course, Barack felt the very same magic when Sasha was born three years later. "The love of being a father was not something I had to work on," he said. "It was physical, it was emotional, spiritual, you know. The attachment to my children I felt entirely and completely. I thought to myself: 'OK. If the baseline is unconditional love, I've got that.'"
"The love of being a father was not something I had to work on."
Barack shared that he was more than happy to take the night shift when his kiddos were babies, alternating between feeding them, changing them, and talking to them. "This is one place where I do think the idea of what it means to be a man changed in a real way," he said. "By the time I had Malia, it wasn't just that I was completely absorbed and fascinated and in love with this bundle of joy, and this woman who had gone through everything to give me this joy. There was, I think, a sense that, 'Oh, dads should want to spend time with their kids and should want to burp 'em and change diapers.'"
Barack shared that, because he and Michelle welcomed both of their daughters within three years, juggling fatherhood with his career was incredibly difficult at times, especially once he began his run for president.
"We have kids, and within the span of two or three years, I am suddenly being catapulted — I mean, look, Sasha was, when I ran for the US Senate, Sasha [was] only 3 years old," he said. "When I'm sworn in as a US senator, Sasha is 4 and Malia is 8. Something like that. Three years later, I'm president of the United States, and in the interim, for a year and a half I've been on the road. Not for three-week spans, but for big chunks of time."
He continued, noting how incredibly supportive Michelle was of his ambitions: "The first six months of me running for president, I was miserable because I was missing that family bad. And we got through that only by virtue of Michelle's heroic ability to manage everything back home and the incredible gift of my daughters loving their daddy anyway."
"Michelle figured out much earlier than I did that kids are like plants."
Oddly enough, he had more time for his girls once he was sworn into office. "What I didn't anticipate was the fact that I get to spend much more time with my kids once I'm president," he said. "Because now, I'm living above the store. I have a 30-second commute. And so I just set up a rule: I'm having dinner with my crew at 6:30 every night unless I'm traveling. But my travel schedule [was] very different [then] because people [came] to see you."
But it wasn't just dinner, Barack made sure he spent quality time with his girls after the meal. "I'm gonna be sitting there and I'm gonna be entirely absorbed with stories about the annoying boys and the weird teacher and the drama in the cafeteria, reading Harry Potter and tucking them in and listening to whatever music they're now listening to," he said.
Being able to spend time with his family was incredibly meaningful to Barack, as it helped him navigate the stress of his job. "That actually was my lifeline," he shared. "In an occupation in which I'm dealing daily with mayhem, chaos, crises, death, destruction, natural disasters, right? And so I always say that the degree to which Michelle and those girls sacrificed and lifted me up kept me going, prevented me from either getting cynical or despairing, reminded me why I was doing what I was doing, and spurred me on."
Toward the end of the conversation, Bruce asked what being a father has taught him. "Michelle figured out much earlier than I did that kids are like plants," Barack said. "They need sun, soil, water, but some of 'em are oaks, and some of 'em are pines, and some of 'em are willows, and some are bamboo."
He shared that, like plants, kids need love and care to truly thrive. "Those seeds of who they are and the pace and ways in which they're gonna unfold are just uniquely theirs. I think I had a notion with Malia and Sasha, there was sort of a way of doing things — and what Michelle figured out earlier than I did, but I also ended up learning, was each one is just magical in their own ways. A branch is gonna sprout when it's gonna sprout. A flower's gonna pop when it's gonna pop. You just roll with that unfolding, that unfurling of who they are, being comfortable just discovering them as opposed to feeling as if it's a project."
Ultimately, Michelle and Barack set out to instill positive values in their daughters from the beginning. Things like, "We're not going to give you a hard time about making a mistake, but we will give you a hard time if you're lying about making a mistake, or if you mistreated somebody," he explained.