Why didn’t the Obamas’ marriage start out smoothly? Why did Barack take a second, solo honeymoon just weeks after he married Michelle?
Michelle Obama always dreamed about getting married, but Barack, who came from a family with loose ties, didn’t care much about marriage. The two came from very different upbringings and that caused them to clash over their ideals.
Keep reading about Michelle Obama’s marriage to Barack
Barack and Michelle Disagree Over Marriage
Michelle always dreamed of falling in love and marrying. But Barack, while not directly opposed to marriage, felt more ambivalent about it. Barack’s mother had married twice and divorced twice, so Barack didn’t see marriage as particularly beneficial. In contrast, Michelle’s parents had been together for their entire adult lives. In 30 years, they had rarely spent even one night apart.
Also, Barack had his hands full: He was about to graduate from Harvard, take the Illinois bar exam, and interview for jobs.
Michelle felt concerned that Barack didn’t share her eagerness to wed, but she hoped that when he returned to Chicago after graduation, they would live together permanently and he would decide to marry her.
The Obamas’ Engagement
In a flashback, Michelle relates how Barack proposed to her: On July 31, 1991, the couple went out for a celebration dinner after Barack took the state bar exam. Michelle knew exactly how hard the exam was—she took it twice because she failed the first time—and she worried that Barack had not studied hard enough for it. But he was as relaxed and confident as always.
During dinner, Barack broached the subject of marriage. He told her he didn’t see the point of getting married since they already knew they loved each other. Michelle got angry. She couldn’t believe he was bringing up this uncomfortable subject on a happy evening at one of their favorite restaurants.
While the couple debated the merits of marriage, a waiter delivered a dessert plate and placed it in front of Michelle. On it lay a small velvet box holding an engagement ring. Michelle was suitably surprised—and she knew that Barack had tricked her so she wouldn’t suspect this moment was coming.
Barack dropped to one knee and asked her to honor him by marrying him. She said yes, and the entire restaurant erupted with applause.
In October 1992, Michelle and Barack got married at Trinity Church in Chicago in front of 300 friends and family members. Their wedding song was Stevie Wonder’s “You and I.”
After a honeymoon in Northern California, Michelle and Barack were faced with good news and bad news. The good news: Their favored candidate Bill Clinton won the 1992 Presidential election, defeating the incumbent George H. W. Bush after an unprecedented turnout.
For Barack, it was an encouraging sign of progress: Clinton’s win demonstrated to politicians that African-American votes mattered. Right up until the honeymoon, he had been working for a nonpartisan organization called Project VOTE! that helped to register 110,000 new voters. In Chicago alone, more than half a million Black voters had gone to the polls.
A Solo Honeymoon
The bad news came from Barack’s publishing agent. Because Barack had failed to meet his writing deadline, the publisher canceled the book he was writing, and Barack had to repay a $40,000 advance. Michelle wasn’t terribly surprised, knowing that Barack always committed to more projects than he could possibly accomplish.
Barack was confident that another publisher would buy his book, so he proposed to Michelle that he go into isolation to finish the manuscript. Michelle wasn’t happy that just six weeks after their wedding, Barack would take extended time away from her. She found herself thinking it was unfair that he was going on his own solo “honeymoon.”
She finally agreed, realizing this might be the only way he would get the book done. Barack retreated to a rented cabin in Bali and returned home five weeks later with a finished manuscript. In a few months, his agent sold it to another publisher. Dreams from My Father was published a few years later.
Being gregarious and family-oriented, Michelle found Barack’s need for solitude hard to accept. She had to remind herself that she had married an unusual man, an “outside-the-box thinker.” Even though the couple had been together many years, now that they were married, they had new identities to negotiate.
Looking back at her newlywed self, Michelle realizes she had to learn to adapt to the needs of her partner as well as her own needs. Michelle had to constantly remind herself that she came from a family whose parents lived like the families depicted on 1960s and 1970s television: Dad worked while Mom stayed home and cared for the kids. (Barack would sometimes kid Michelle that her family was like the Black version of Leave It to Beaver, except poorer.) Barack’s childhood and family were vastly different, so of course there would be clashes.
———End of Preview———
Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" at Shortform.
Here's what you'll find in our full Becoming summary:
- How Michelle Obama went from the South Side of Chicago to the White House
- Why much of her success came from her being determined from a young age
- How Michelle Obama continues to push herself and discover new opportunities